Why Emil and the Detectives author Erich Kästner wouldn't bow to the Nazis

Boyd Tonkin looks back at the writer's life as Kästner's evergreen tale previews at the National this week

On 10 May 1933, Nazi activists burned piles of "decadent" books on the Opernplatz in Berlin. Many people know about that night of shame: a foretaste of future horrors. Not so many know that one of the most prominent victims was there to watch his work consigned to the flames - until a Nazi spotted him, and he made himself scarce.

The books of journalist, novelist and satirical poet Erich Kästner stoked the bonfire in full view of the insatiably curious eye-witness reporter who wrote them. Just behind Marx, but ahead of Freud, they were incinerated as a symbol of the supposed "moral degeneracy" of Germany's post-1918 Weimar Republic.

Kästner's writing would rise from the ashes of the Opernplatz. Four years earlier, in 1929, he had made his name with one of the best-loved children's novels of all time: Emil and the Detectives, his evergreen tale of a lost child in the big city who finds that "having friends to help him… makes all the difference". For me – as for many young readers in Britain – this was the first novel in translation that I loved. Now Emil is recruiting a whole new posse. Thanks to three rotating child casts, he and his benign swarm of junior sleuths will descend on the Olivier stage for the National Theatre's Christmas show.

An instant classic – comic, realistic and uplifting all at once – Emil quickly became a film at the Babelsberg Studios, its script co-written with Kästner by two future giants of the cinema: Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger. Regular re-makes and theatre adaptations followed; sometimes they shifted the location, or the period. But playwright Carl Miller, who has adapted the novel for the National, anchors his version firmly in the Weimar-era Berlin that inspired, intrigued and infuriated Kästner. "We weren't going to move it and we weren't going to update it," he says.

That bonfire on the Opernplatz ushered in the long catastrophe that now tinges every story set in pre-Third Reich Berlin with doom-laden hindsight. Miller says that "I think it would be wrong to see the show through that prism." Little Emil arrives in Berlin to find "an extraordinary creative and vibrant world but also a world of tensions". To Miller, "It's about celebrating that moment as well. I hope a part of what you get is what an amazing time it was."

Kästner himself made no small contribution to that culture of amazement. He was born into a poor family in Dresden in 1899. His 1957 memoir When I Was a Little Boy recalls with fondness that architectural gem where "history, art and nature intermingled". His father, formerly a saddler, worked in a luggage factory. His mother became a hairdresser – just like Emil's mum back in Neustadt. Before this book, parents –especially mothers – had been conspicuously absent from most classic children's literature.

Rehearsals for the new show at the National Theatre Rehearsals for the new show at the National Theatre
Emil and the Detectives plants not just an actual parent, but a working single mum at the heart of the story (Emil's plumber dad has died). When Emil loses the 140 marks Mrs Tischbein has given him to a bowler-hatted thief on the train as he travels to visit his aunt and cousin in Berlin, we already know how she scrimps and saves. Carl Miller comments that "the sense of what it means to make ends meet in the city is still very vivid". Kästner, always close to his own adored mum, tells his readers with finger-wagging sternness that "you shouldn't laugh at Emil for being rather a good boy to his mother".

The good boy did well at school and at university in Leipzig, earning a doctorate in literature. But he lost his job as a critic on a Leipzig paper after publishing an erotic poem. Like so many others, he set off in 1927 to seek his fortune in the boom-town of Berlin, which by the 1920s had more than four million people.

From Brecht's poems and Otto Dix's paintings to Alfred Döblin's landmark novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, the seething hubbub of the city – with its bright lights, giant stores, milling crowds, louche nightclubs and clanking trams – fills Weimer-era culture with visions of metropolitan frenzy. Kästner became identified with the movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit – New Sobriety – and its no-frills attentiveness to the shocks of urban life. From tram and bank to café and police station, Emil races through a hard-edged Neue Sachlichkeit Berlin.

Germans fretted about the soulless anonymity of the brash metropolis. Emil initially worries that "No one has time for other people's troubles in a city." Miller points out that Kästner's Berlin embodies a brick-and-asphalt reprise of the perilous, enchanted fairy-tale wood of the Brothers Grimm: "the city has become the forest". But, as his gang of little helpers gather, Emil finds out that this children's grapevine can not only catch the thief but wrap the city in a network of solidarity. For Miller, "What could be a daunting metropolis becomes more human because of the friends that he makes."

The poster for 1964's 'Emil and the Detectives' The poster for 1964's 'Emil and the Detectives'
Yet the skies would soon darken, for Berlin and for Kästner. By 1931, the Great Crash had struck Germany with catastrophic force. Unemployment rose to six million. In that year, Kästner published his finest adult novel, Fabian (translated as Going to the Dogs, his preferred original title). Its bitterly sardonic scenes of alienation, penury and listless sexual experiment depict a city in despair. The joyless eroticism and bone-deep disenchantment of Fabian did much to ignite those Nazi flames.

Kästner unhappily stayed put during the Third Reich. A classic "inner emigrant", he virtually stopped writing, endured hostile interrogations by the Gestapo and – when Goebbels found out that he had written the script for the 1943 colour epic Munchhausen under a pseudonym – was prohibited from all publication.

After the war, he wrote prolifically again, and found himself showered with honours as his non-dogmatic social democracy became the West German norm. He died in 1974. As Emil and his clever crew put right a flagrant injustice, the skies over busy Berlin still look blue. Miller says that when he talks to the actors about this period, "What they know is what's coming. One of the challenges is to take us back to an innocent world – not just the characters' childhood but a more innocent time in the continent."

'Emil and the Detectives', National Theatre: Olivier, London SE1 (020 7452 3000; nationaltheatre.org.uk) in rep to 18 March;

'Emil and the Detectives' is published by Vintage Classics, and 'Going to the Dogs' by New York Review Books

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?