Emil Tischbein and his gang of child “detectives” have long been the heroes of many a child, ever since they were first penned by Erich Kästner eighty-five years ago, in Emil and the Detectives. Despite Walter Trier’s clean and cheery illustrations, their exploits—alone in an adult world—have always had a dark undercurrent. But never has that darkness been so pronounced as in a new stage adaptation in London by the National Theatre, adapted by Carl Miller and directed by Bijan Sheibani. It’s an engrossing and befitting new look for the work of the man who is, improbably, Israel’s favorite German author.
Though by and large a family-friendly outing, this Emil shares a marked grittiness with some of the National’s previous holiday offerings, most notably its hit 2007 adaptation of War Horse. Its Berlin is more Fritz Lang and Otto Dix than Walter Trier. Playing to full capacity in the 1100-seat Olivier theatre, the production’s giant sets conjure up a megalopolis that threatens to dwarf Emil and the several dozen children he recruits in his hunt for Mr. Snow, a crook who has stolen the 140 marks Emil’s mother gave him for his first solo sojourn into the city. Despite some liberties taken with Kästner’s original story and tone—his unique mix of gaiety and realism remains confined to the page—it is a good reminder of just how wonderful his books remain today.
The new British Emil is unique in another respect as well—it is a rare large-scale English-language Kästner adaptation. The legacy of World War II would seem to be one of the primary reasons that Kästner’s works never quite took off in Britain or the United States. (The exception to that rule is The Parent Trap, the 1961 Hayley Mills vehicle that in turn begat the 1998 Lindsay Lohan vehicle—but even it was so thoroughly Americanized that little of Kästner’s 1949 Lottie and Lisa was left intact.) A 1929 German children’s book, beloved as it may be, is simply difficult to take at face value.
And so this new adaptation does not ignore the monstrosity that German society was fast morphing into. Mr. Snow’s mustache and combover bring to mind another man whose presence has begun haunting the Weimar capital. One of Emil’s more bullish recruits grumbles about the foreigners swarming the city: “They take what’s ours. So we’ll take some back.” And the responsible adults in the play suggest the kids should be doing healthier things, like learning to fight, doing athletics in the park, or marching with a jugend group. Emil himself is even sneered at by a tram passenger who takes him for a Jew. As a long-time fan of Kästner, all this darkness highlighted the minor miracle of Kästner’s embrace by a fairly improbable readership: Israelis.
Kästner’s books had been steadily translated into Hebrew throughout the 1930s. But in post-1948 Israel—with the Holocaust still a fresh memory, debates raging over a reparations agreement with Germany, and an unofficial boycott of German goods the policy in most households—Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, The 35th of May, The Flying Classroom and many others became some of the most popular books in the country. They were read lovingly and without cynicism, and with only minor changes for the Israeli palate: Lottie and Lisa’s Munich—birthplace of the Nazi beast—became Zurich, and The Pig at the Barbershop became a billy-goat.
I asked Michael Dak, the preeminent Israeli Kästner expert responsible for the most recent round of Hebrew-language translations, how this came to be. “Kästner was hugely popular in Germany in the thirties, including with Jews. When some of them came to Palestine on the Fifth Aliyah, they brought his books with them, and began translating them. The books were relics of the childhood they had left behind in their previous lives,” he told me. “What’s more, his books instilled values that were conservative enough for the German olim, but still had a subversive streak that made them suitable for a sabra mentality. They were a bridge between those two worlds.” This was all possible because it was clear that Kästner himself was no Nazi. In 1933, he watched as his books went up in flames at the square by the State Opera in Berlin (Emil was his only book not to be banned). Kästner was then barred from writing by the regime. Some Nazis even entertained the suspicion that he had Jewish roots (his partner, Luiselotte, said that might explain his talent). The ostracism Kästner suffered under the Nazis made him kosher enough for Israel.
Kästner, who died in 1974 at the age of seventy-five, was aware of his Israeli popularity—Michael Dak, who at fifteen got Kästner’s signature on a Hebrew Emil at a Vienna bookshop, made sure of that—but never visited Israel. Yet his legacy, intimately intertwined with that of Berlin, the city that embraced him and then banned him, lives on in Germany, Israel and now in England where, as Emil’s detectives argue over the moral of the story, one presciently suggests: “never trust a man with a mustache.”