B&W, 1931, 69m.
Directed by Gerhard Lamprecht
Starring Rolf Wenkhaus, Käthe Haack, Fritz Rasp, Olga Engl, Hans Joachim Schaufuss BFI (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
Best known as a bestselling German children's book by Erich Kästner and a much-loved 1964 Walt Disney film, Emil and the Detectives has had a long and colorful life since its first publication in 1929, which essentially kick started the kid detective genre later found in favorites like Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. The first screen adaptation was actually made in Germany in 1931, with a screenplay involving Kästner and such future greats as Billy Wilder and (minus credit) Emeric Pressburger before he teamed up with Michael Powell.
One of the earliest German talkies (alongside Fritz Lang's M), the film charts the misadventures of Emil (Wenkhaus), a young boy from the small fictional village of Neustadt whose mother entrusts him with her monthly wages to deliver to his grandmother in Berlin. However, his train ride is disrupted by a mysterious stranger named Max Grundeis (Rasp) who knocks Emil out with a drugged piece of chocolate and swipes his money. Emil comes to just in time to follow the thief and join forces with a local German boy, Gustav (Schaufuss), who in turns rounds up a group of underage sleuths to find out what the crook is really planning.
A valuable snapshot of Berlin in its heyday between World Wars I and II, this is a lively and enjoyable little film with enough visual and verbal humor to entertain all ages (especially with all the prevalent Dachshunds). It's also a solid example of visual storytelling, with long passages passing without dialogue and instead building both humor and tension through tight cutting and framing. The scene with Emil hiding under a bed is a prime example, as are his jaunts across the city.
Despite its theatrical popularity courtesy of a release from Ufa, the German version of Emil and the Detectives has been ridiculously difficult to see, much less with English subtitles. Fortunately the BFI release fixes that with a transfer that's about as good as the elements will allow; there's the expected amount of age-related damage, but it's perfectly watchable and plenty of fun. The optional English subtitles are excellent.
Also included is a 1935 British production of the same story (oddly retitled to Emil and the Detective), directed by Milton Rosmer and clocking in ever shorter at just under an hour. It's a fascinating alternate version frequently duplicating the visuals of the previous film, and while yanking the story out of Germany results in a weird disconnect with the story (as Emil now has to travel to London instead), it's a great time capsule for fans of the novel. Oddly enough, the sound quality is much rougher; this was actually considered lost entirely for quite a while, and this is the only surviving film element.
The illustrated liner notes booklet contains an affectionate essay by writer and Children's Laureate Michael Rosen, a Caren Willig study of the "zeitgeist" of the film's naturalistic appeal, an uncredited vintage review from Cinema Quarterly, and a study of the remake by the BFI's Bryony Dixon.