Emil and the Detectives – A compendium of boy heroes IV

emil (1)

Happy Hibernauts! Welcome to the latest blog in the series that discusses the boy heroes who helped fashion Sebastian, star of Beyond the Gloaming (Phanstasm Books, 2014). Today, is the turn of Emil, the German boy who ventures into the big city and has his money stolen en route in Emil and the Detectives (Erich Kästner, 1929). Written in the final carefree days of the Weimar Republic before the Great Depression and the rise to power of the National Socialist Party, the book has a vibrant, devil-may-care attitude, it’s anti-authoritarian air apparent from the word go when Emil defaces a statue within a few pages. Not only did I find it riotous fun, I identified greatly with Emil, the lonely child who goes to Berlin and meets a gang of young urchins with whom he colludes, but never integrates. Even when accepted, he is forced to withdraw and return to his own small world; how it smacked of my own condition. And while the adventure can hardly be said to change the boys he encounters – if anything, it looked like the sort of high jinks the gang dreamed up daily – it alters Emil profoundly; it is his initiation into adolescence and marks his loss of innocence. He goes back to larking around with his mates at home, but a different Emil returns.


Reading the book coincided with one of the high points of my life. I was at a Saint Patrick’s Day bash at the Irish Centre in Sheffield and chosen to pick the winning raffle ticket from the tombola. The prize, the biggest box of chocolates I had ever seen. As luck would have it, from the hundreds of scrunched up tickets, I plucked out my own. The number was called out, and  for a moment I dare not say anything. A confused muttering swept the room as people rifled through stubs and shook their heads, and it wasn’t until the compere had made several crackly announcements that I plucked up the courage to squeak something his way. As the truth dawned on him, he bellowed into the microphone, his ruddy hands raising me aloft as hundreds of ecstatic Celts waved and cheered, hollering and whooping and raising a toast. So when I read of Emil winning a thousand Reichmarks (soon to be worth pfennigs) for capturing a notorious villain and returning home to a hero’s welcome, I identified with him the more. Of course, whenever I read books back then I would put myself into a character and a part of the character into me. They didn’t have to be boys, they could quite easily be girls, they didn’t even have to be human, I was equally at home incorporating a teddy or an elf or a talking kettle into my sense of self.


As with Tintin, I have been able to re-kindle my love of Emil through my children; Sebastian and Violette got the book for Xmas. They also received a copy of the 1931 German film scripted by the wonderful Billy Wilder and the equally fabulous Emeric Pressburger. It’s an early talkie with more than a nod to the silent era and features awesome expressionist angles and lighting, and glorious shots of Weimar Berlin in all its decadence, as well as capturing the bucolic idyll of village country life, ruthlessly ripped from German culture a few summers later. The film rattles along at breakneck pace, exuding tremendous energy and tension, my personal highlight being the nightmarish dream sequence when Emil is drugged by the villain in the bowler hat. It had Sebastian covering his face! The BFI package comes complete with doppelgänger English version (1935), identically shot, scene for scene, and equally thrilling. While I couldn’t find a clip of the original, here’s a snippet of the English film:

And wouldn’t you just know it, a new version recently opened at the National Theatre, London, to rave reviews (http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/emil-and-the-detectives). Then again, it’s a timeless classic.

If you haven’t already twigged, Sebastian and the Hibernauts sounds awfully like Emil and the Detectives as a title, and I was certainly aware of that when it came to choosing the overarching name for the series. There was, however, an even greater influence on the title. Not only did I read a lot as a child, I watched TV voraciously and was hooked on Dr Who, Robinson Crusoe, The Flashing Blade, Tintin, Tales From Europe and many, many more. One film in particular fired my imagination and began my lifelong love of fantasy and adventure, and it was that film the series pays homage to: Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The stop-motion magic by the marvellous Ray Harryhausen (who died last year, a month short of his 94th birthday) completely enthralled me, I had never seen anything like it, the pinnacle of course being the clash with the skeletons. I watched it over and over again, though I had to wait for the following Easter to come round before I could. Lucky Hibernauts, you get to see it right here, right now:

For those Whovian Hibernauts, Patrick Troughton appears in the film, and for those Avengerian Hibernauts, Honor Blackman. Well, that’s all for this blog. The next in the series will conclude my consideration of literary boy heroes, while the sixth and final blog will focus on boy heroes of the small and silver screens. Before I go, I beg a boon, honorary Hibernauts. Tell me, who is your favourite boy hero?


2 responses to “Emil and the Detectives – A compendium of boy heroes IV

  1. Nice enjoyable reminiscence there, old man! Looking forward to getting my hard back copy of S&TH signed by the author!

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