Kästner und der kleine Dienstag
(Erich Kästner and Little Tuesday
), directed by Wolfgang Murnberger: movie which gets around the biopic conundrum (i.e. if you film the entire life of a person, it usually comes across as a checklist of edited highlights, as worthy and dull or what not) the usual way, by choosing a limited time to cover, and one particular relationship to focus on. In this case, the time is 1929 - 1945, and the relationship is the one that develops between Erich Kästner (self and most of the German reading world would list him among their favourite writers any time; and not just the German reading world, abigail_n
once told me he was the only German author who chose to remain in Germany during the Third Reich who still got published in Israel post WWII and ever after) and Hans Löhr. Who is Hans Löhr? In 1929, he was an eight years old boy who read Emil and the Detectives
, wrote an enthusiastic fan letter to the author, then met him, ended up playing Little Tuesday in the movie version the UFA produced in 1931 (early sound movie, scripted by one Billie (sic, he didn't change the spelling until making it to the US) Wilder). Hans Löhr and Kästner remained in contact until Löhr died.
Now, had this relationship happened in any other era, it simply would have been a not quite father and son, mentor/protegé type of story, with the added factor of making one realise it couldn't happen today because an adult man befriending a child immediately invokes suspicion. But it started in the last years of the Weimar Republic, and then took place in the vilest dictatorship we had in this country. And the questions whether you can survive inside the system with your moral integrity, and what it does to you to grow up in such a system, are of course a big part of the story. Erich Kästner during the course of the film goes from young vibrant and successful Weimar Republic era writer, still more famous for his political sharp tongued poetry than anything else (though Emil and the Detectives
changes this radically), always ready with a witty come back, to the haunted grey figure at the end of the war who is completely silent in the last scene. The question "why don't you leave?" is asked repeatedly - until 1939, when leaving or not isn't an option any more - and Kästner has different answers: at first he doesn't believe Hitler will last, then he wants to be a witness from the inside (he made lots of notes, some of which survive, for a novel about the Third Reich which was to be his big justirfication for staying, something he said couldn't be written from the outside, but in the end he never wrote it), there's also his mother (Kästner was a proud self declared Mother's Boy whose "Letters to Muttchen" filled whole volumes), and lastly he also names fear and laziness. The movie leaves him this ambiguity, not settling on just one or the other. One of the most important supporting characters, Erich Ohse
, a cartoonist who illustrated Kästner's novels and poetry, like him remained in Germany (and was allowed to continue to work under a pseudonym, until he was denounced and arrested for expressing anti Nazi opinions, and committed suicide in his cell), once has a conversation with Kästner where he says, about both of them: "You can't say clean in a pigsty, Erich."
Kästner stays, sees his books burned in front of him - he was probably the only German author whose books were among those burned in 1933 who witnessed it -, isn't allowed to publish anymore officially (inofficiallly, he worked as a script doctor and in one famous case wrote an entire script under a pseudonym - the movie Münchhausen
, plus he also lived from the sales of his books outside of Germany). There is a visual running thread from the start of the movie, when an overcrowded café where Kästner often hangs out is bursting with people (signal to audience we're in Weimar Germany: not just the music but also same sex couples in the crowd), and through the movie we keep returning to the café with fewer and fewer people until it's just Kästner and the waiter. If this sounds all very depressing, I'm selling the energy of the movie short. Like I said, it focuses on the relationship between Kästner and Hans Löhr, which means a lot of comedy early on, as Kästner, like many a successful writer of children's books, isn't actually keen on or used to interacting with real children but otoh devoted fan Hans (his initial fan letter even comes with chocolate for his new favourite author!) is so incredibly endearing (and persistent) he gets around that.
The relationship also keeps shifting. At first Kästner is indulgent; directly after the Third Reich has started and Hans' best buddy, being half Jewish, finds himself derided by their teacher while Hans' sister joins the Jungvolk (she's still too young for the BDM at this point), Kästner tries to provide some moral counterpoints; still later, when Hans, who is played by two different actors by virtue of necessity in this movie (and may I say: very well cast, because the boy and young man who plays Hans as a teenager/very young adult really look like one could turn into the other, and both have excellent chemistry with Florian David Fitz who plays Kästner) has grown up some more, it's he who provides the moral challenges - didn't Kästner tell him through his books that standing by and doing nothing is as bad as joining the harm? (It's also, among many other things, a growing up, seeing your idol as a flawed human tale.) It's a getting estranged, finding each other again tale. And one which inevitably ends up in tragedy. As I saidin an earlier entry
, all but two of the children playing in the first movie version of Emil and the Detectives
died in World War II. Hans gets drafted. In the Q & A afterwards, the producers, asked about reality versus fiction, said they made some changes to the timeline, the most noticable being the point of Hans' death, which in reality already happened in 1942 but in the movie not until 1945 so it can coincide with the end of the war. The very last images of the movie are clips from the 1931 Emil and the Detectives
, so we see the real Hans Löhr, and then the image of all the children joyfully running overlaid with the lettering tha tall but two died in the war, which after spending the last one and a half hour with Hans is gut wrenching enough to make cry, and I knew it was coming.
Now, this is a low budget movie. Which means no big sweeping spectacle shots: you get bombed Berlin via people sitting in a bomb shelter and later via Kästner watching the ruins of the house he used to live in, not via the whole city panorma. It also is low key in another fashion, and I suppose you could accuse it of pulling punches, though for me what they did worked, to wit: the fact that we don't see Hans as a soldier other than briefly ducking shots. (As opposed to shooting people.) The reason why I wouldn't agree that it was evading the fact that Hans, as a soldier of the Wehrmacht in the East, couldn't be other than a participant in a genocidal war is that earlier there's a conversation between Kästner and Hans where they talk about the rumors that there are atrocities in the East, and decide on a code sentence Hans is supposed to write to his mother if he finds this to be true. (Because obviously all mail is censored.) And the next time Kästner visits Mrs. Löhr, and she shows him Hans' letter, the sentence is there, underlined three times. Which in all its implication is mirrored on Kästner's face.
Also, the insidiousness of non stop hate propagadanda - a very contemporary topic, alas! - is addressed a lot by the movie; I already mentioned Hans' teacher (and believe me, what he says in class really was every day). One key sequence, for example: Kästner and Hans listen to the first Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling fight (the one Schmeling won) on the radio. To them, being Max Schmeling fans, this is a joyful occasion; he was already 30 and thought to be on the decline, not likely to win against the much younger Louis. The next morning, however, at school, the teacher recontextualizes the fight as Aryan superiority winning over a "negro", and the realisation that there is really no area untouched by hate propaganda now hits home all over again.
I've seen a lot of movies and tv shows include the book burning, but they usually get the books in question wrong (Christopher and his Kind
), or they leave it at the point of "this is barbarism having arrived", with the character witnessing the burning usually a concerned foreigner. The way this movie uses it is different, both because they get the books right (and Kästner's adult novel Fabian
isn't the first to be burned, either), because Kästner is actually there, and because of the conversation he has with the other Erich, Erich Ohse, later about it. One: he points it it wasn't SS men who threw the books into the fire, it were students. "Our hope for tomorrow." And secondly: "I was there, and I did nothing. I said nothing. This is how it's going to work. Some who act, and the rest of us standing by frozen."
Again: this doesn't just have historical relevance, and more's the pity.
On a more light hearted note: things that would be edited out if this was a US movie: Kästner's chain smoking (he's hardly without a cigarette in this movie, which is true to reality), and his casual sexuality (multiple relationships early on, including one with a married woman). BTW, of course Hans who informes him that "we are divorced" hopes Kästner will marry his mother early on, but Mrs. Löhr refresingly isn't interested (Kästner isn't, either), and is a rounded character who gets to make a lot of good points. (For example, early in the Third Reich, that it's all very well for Kästner to talk to her son about pacifism etc., but Kästner can leave Germany whenever he wants to, whereas they, being a working class family, can't afford it.
Accents: Hans' best friend Wolfi Stern speaks Berliner German like a pro (or a native, which him being a kid I suspect he is, though the teenage actor later also does it), as do most of the other kids. Otoh, Florian David Fitz is doesn't even attempt to have a go at the slight touch of Saxonian Kästner had, and his voice sounds different (he's a tenor, whereas Kästner was a bariton getting only deeper through the years), but he's so good in the part that you don't mind, and this isn't about impersonation anyway.
Allusions to Kästner's works: plenty, obviously: Emil and the Detectives
is a touchstone, but also Pünktchen and Anton
and Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer
. At one point, Kästner has the idea for Das doppelte Lottchen
somewhat prematurely and bounces it off Hans, but never mind. The script also found a way to include several of the poems, and put them to great use - Die andere Möglichkeit
and Kennst Du das Land, Wo Die Kanonen Blühen?
Movie-wise, two scenes of the 1931 Emil
are re-acted so the kid who plays Hans is in them, and like I said, we see the original clips later on at the very end of the film; there's also a clip of Münchhausen
, which Kästner watches in the cinema when British bombs arrive. Billy Wilder as a young man shows up only silently during the Emil
premiere celebration (you only know it's him if you've seen photographs of Wilder at that age), but he's referred to earlier as the script writer; the movie avoids Wilder and Kästner having had a typical scriptwriter of adaption versus novelist who has never been adapted before clash, since it hasn't got anything to do with the Kästner and Hans Löhr story. We see a lot of Erich Ohse's cartoons, both the Weimar era ones and the later "father and son" series he published under the pseudonym of e.o. plauen. And a great example of how the film uses the comic to set up the tragic: early on, when Emil
just got published, Kästner charms a bookseller into putting it in the frontal display of her store's window, replacing the Heinrich Mann (not Thomas!) novel which was there before. Twenty minutes into the movie later, that same Heinrich Mann novel precedes Kästner's in being thrown into the fire.
Where to watch: not at all yet. It's not been released. But the house was packed, and we gave it a tremendous applause. And I think I'll visit Kästner's grave here in Munich again soon.