On a bus ride to Berlin, young Emil Tischbein (Bryan Russell) is robbed of four hundred marks by eccentric pickpocket Grundeis (Heinz Schubert). Lost in the big city, Emil finds a friend in Gustav Fleischman (Roger Mobley), an enterprising young lad who fancies himself a detective, who swears he can catch the crook and recover the money. For a small fee of course. Gustav and his gang of boy detectives are less than thrilled when Emil’s cousin, pushy girl reporter Pony Heimbold (Cindy Cassell) elbows her way into the adventure, but the kids quickly realise something bigger is going on than just the theft of four hundred marks. They discover Grundeis working alongside the Baron (Walter Slezak), a suave master criminal long thought dead, and his thuggish associate Muller (Peter Ehrlich) on a tunnel leading to an underground vault. Now all the detectives have to do is convince the police.
Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel is a German children’s classic twice filmed in its native land, in 1931 from a screenplay written by Billy Wilder and an uncredited Emeric Pressburger and in 1954, and once in the UK in 1954 before this Walt Disney production arrived on the scene. Another German adaptation reached the big screen in 2001, this time given a 21st century update in keeping with Kästner’s book which had drawn praise for being set in a contemporary and relatively rough-hewn Berlin, populated by faceted child heroes in place of obvious moralising.
The Disney movie retains many of these qualities. It’s a well-crafted children’s film full of engaging performances, amusing sight gags and most importantly, an involving story not too dissimilar from the Ealing Studios classic Hue and Cry (1947). Peter Tewksbury, who made numerous sitcoms and later a pair of underwhelming Elvis Presley vehicles (Stay Away, Joe (1968) and The Trouble With Girls (1969)), combines some Mack Sennett style slapstick comedy with oddball camera angles that lend an eccentric air of mystery, close to a parody of The Third Man (1949). The film also benefits from a nicely sardonic turns from veteran Walter Slezak as the aristocratic villain slumming it with lower class criminals. Also of note is Heinz Schubert, who later found sitcom fame as the German Alf Garnett. His deadpan buffoonery embodies every young child’s idea of how a slippery criminal behaves.
Filmed in West Berlin on streets still infested with post-war rubble, there is a welcome sense of danger, placing Emil in genuine peril. He is a child adrift in a city of uncaring adults with only kids to turn to. And what child detectives they are: accident-prone Herman (Robert Swann), sensible Professor (Brian Richardson), squabbling twins Hans and Rudolph (Ron Johnson), and Dienstag (David Petrychka) who mans their “secret headquarters” when not being interrupted by his gossipy older sister (Ann Noland). They’re still kids though and prone to lapses of judgement which leads to a well-scripted confrontation between Gustav, Pony and the Professor, when things get out of hand. The boys may be loathe to admit it, but the script gives Pony the same nose for mystery and tenacious streak they have. In fact the 2001 update promotes Pony to chief detective. A girl leading the detectives? What would Gustav say?