Emil and the Detectives (1964)

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Emil and the Detectives is apparently a German novel that has had multiple film adaptations over the years. One of those adaptations (the 1964 one, to be precise) was actually made by Disney themselves! Is the Disney film any good or is it better left forgotten? Read on to find out!

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

The film opens with an animated credits sequence

Complete with a pronunciation guide!

and then takes us to the German town of Neustadt where a young boy, Emil, played by Bryan Russell, is being sent on a bus by his mother to visit his grandmother in Berlin. Unbeknownst to him, a mole-like “skrink” (a slang word for “thief” used in the movie) is watching him. The skrink, Grundeis, played by Heinz Schubert, notices that Emil’s mother has given Emil 400 Marks to deliver to his grandmother.

Your money ain’t safe in Germany…it kinda rhymes.

(By the way, this entire sequence is being narrated by a narrator with a Dragnet/film noir-type voice and features probably one of my favorite film scores I’ve heard in a long time. It has a peppy sort of German bent to it.)

Grundeis then boards the bus with the intention of picking Emil’s pocket sometime along the journey. As the bus rolls along, Grundeis sits himself down next to Emil and starts to nonchalantly dangle a pocketwatch in front of Emil’s eyes. The hypnotic motions put Emil into a slumber and Grundeis uses this opportunity to steal Emil’s money. He quickly alights from the bus, but Emil wakes up just in time to notice that his money is missing. Seeing that his seatmate has alighted, he too alights and runs after the skrink.

He follows Grundeis to a restaurant and peers in from the outside. Being new to Berlin, Emil’s approached by an older boy, Gustav, played by Roger Mobley. Gustav is a kid who wears multiple hats and tries to get Emil to enlist his employment agency or tour guide services.

“So you wear multiple hats?”
“Not really. Would I wear this one if I did? Ha! Good one, right?”

Emil however isn’t in the mood to make new friends and tells a nearby traffic cop about his stolen money. The traffic cop says that since Emil doesn’t have any actual proof that Grundeis stole his money, there’s nothing he can do. The traffic cop suggests that Emil go to the nearby police station and report his stolen money there.

Gustav overhears this conversation and tells Emil about one more service he runs: a private detective agency. Apparently Gustav along with a few other associates are private detectives who have successfully handled cases such as finding a lady’s missing cat one day.

“Spared no expense on graphic design, I see.”

Gustav wants Emil to let him and his associates handle Emil’s case. Emil finally gives in and tells Gustav the whole story about his stolen money and how he doesn’t want to go see his grandmother without the 400 Marks.

As this is going on, Grundeis is still at the restaurant apparently to meet two more “skrinks”.

Skrink 1 and Skrink 2! I wonder if they can find a moss-covered three-handled family grudunza?

They are the typical, impatient, gangster-type, Muller, played by Peter Ehrlich, and the boss of the trio, the Baron, played by Walter Slezak. It seems that the Baron has hired Grundeis for some important job and leaves a note at the restaurant for Grundeis to meet him and Muller at some hotel later that evening.

As Grundeis leaves the restaurant, he tears up the note and throws the pieces of paper behind him as he walks. Emil and Gustav notice this and try to collect the pieces of paper, but lose Grundeis in the end.

Gustav then takes Emil to his “secret headquarters” to meet the other detectives. The “secret headquarters” happens to be the home of one of the detectives and the “detectives” are 4-5 other boys of the same age range. They range from working-class twins to a high-class erudite known as the Professor.

Pinkerton, they are not!

Gustav explains the case to the others and shows them the torn up note pieces that he collected. The note mentions the time of the hotel rendezvous, but the piece that mentions which hotel it is is missing. 

Gustav has one of the boys draw a picture of Grundeis based on Emil’s description of him so that all the detectives know who they’re looking for. Then, Gustav and some of the other boys go exploring nearby hotels to see if they can spot Grundeis. Finally, Gustav sends one of the boys to Emil’s grandmother’s house with a handwritten note from Emil saying how he’s busy and will be there as soon as he can.

That note is intercepted by Emil’s older cousin, Pony, played by Cindy Cassell, who’s staying over at their grandmother’s house. She writes a column for her school’s newspaper and smells a story here. She secretly follows the boy who delivered the note to see where he’s heading.

“You can’t see me. You can’t see me.”

Later that night, the detectives discover the hotel that Grundeis is at and see that he’s having a meeting with the Baron and Muller. After the meeting is over, Grundeis heads to an abandoned ruin nearby. The detectives follow him and tell a local cop what’s going on. But when the cop goes to the ruin, there is no trace of Grundeis, who seems to have just vanished. The cop is convinced that the boys played a trick on him and tell them to go home for the night.

After the cop leaves, Gustav sends the other boys home and decides to stay at the ruin with Emil overnight. Their plan is to keep their eyes out for Grundeis or the other two gangsters who many show up again. By this time, Pony has caught up with Emil and the detectives and knows the full story of what happened. Gustav sends her home as well to make up an excuse to her parents and grandmother about why Emil hasn’t show up yet. But, Gustav tells her and the other detectives to come back in the morning to continue the investigation.

The next morning, the Baron and Muller arrive at the ruin and Gustav and Emil hide from them. They recognize the gangsters from the hotel meeting and when they too disappear in the ruin, Gustav and Emil split up to look for them. Emil ends up finding an entrance to some underground tunnels wherein the skrinks are hiding. He overhears them talking and discovers that they’re planning to rob the nearby bank from underground. Apparently, Grundeis is an expert tunneler so the Baron hired him to build tunnels from the ruin to the bank. Before Emil can go back up and tell Gustav however, the skrinks notice his presence and capture him.


Meanwhile above ground, the other boys and Pony have arrived and are looking for Emil with Gustav, but can’t seem to find him. The Professor convinces the others that they need to go report this to the police as it’s now become dangerous business. At first, the police don’t believe the kids’ story, but after the kids identify the three skrinks from some mug shots (and after some trickery on the part of Gustav), the police believe the kids’ story and head to the ruin.

By the time the police arrive at the ruin, the bank heist has already taken place and the Baron and Muller have run off with the money. They left Grundeis and Emil in the tunnels below and after an explosion, the tunnels flood with water. The police arrive in time though to save Grundeis and Emil from drowning and catch the Baron and Muller before they’ve given them the slip for good.

The film ends with the detectives praised as heroes and as the subject of multiple news stories. Emil’s mother has arrived in Berlin presumably after hearing about everything that has happened. Gustav offers his tour guide services to Emil and his mother to show them the sights of Berlin. And presumably, Emil gets his 400 Marks back!

“Now about my tour guide fees…”

And that was Emil and the Detectives! It’s a fun enough film: nothing to take too seriously, but nothing unenjoyable either. It’s not often you see family-friendly crime drama/gangster films, complete with angled shots. Most of the child actors gave good performances or at least tried their very best. Overall, it’s just an enjoyable watch!

So, the final score for this film is 30/35 = 85.71% (B) !

The next review will be posted on August 14, 2018.

9 thoughts on “Emil and the Detectives (1964)

  1. Yeah, Disney’s take on the book is…different.

    See, the book feels a little bit more, well, realistic, but also a little bit more over the top…in: what actually leads to the children following the criminals is more realistic – Emil just don’t want to turn up without the money, and he can’t go to the police initially partly because he feels like he himself is a criminal for having painted the nose of a statue red (well, children’s logic) but mostly because he keeps an eye on Grundeis and can’t leave until he runs into Gustav, who then offers help and from then onwards the children keep watching. Basically they are waiting for Grundeis to spend the money so that they can step in once he tries. There is no bank robbery (at least not directly…it later turns out that Grundeis is a bank robber, but only after he already got arrested), the focus is entirely on how the children organize, but also on how they squabble over who is supposed to do what (ie one child is forced to stay at home to play the “central” so to speak, because his parents are the only ones who have a telephone at home, and he eventually does so, despite missing all the fun…and at the end of the book, one of the adults said that he was the most heroic of them all, because he fulfilled this job, even though it side-lined him from the “action” so to speak.

    Anyway, there are more and more children involved in watching Grundeis to a point at which he is practically surrounded by children. That finally makes him so nervous that he tries to exchange the money in a bank, at which point Emil accuses him of having stolen the money….which he can proof because there are small holes in the bills (Emil had secured the money with a needle in his pocket to be sure that it won’t get stolen).

    Obviously this wasn’t enough “action” for Disney, but frankly, they are kind of missing the point of the book, which is above all about how to take on responsibility correctly – and about greed. Because if Grundeis hadn’t been so greedy and had stolen Emil’s money, he would have gotten away with the money from the robbery.

    The story is btw originally set pre WWII…it was kind of revolutionary back then, because it was one of the first children books which weren’t set in some magical word, but actually provided a pretty good description of Berlin around that time. Disney moved it into what was back the “current time”, but most of Erich Kästner’s books just don’t work if you do that.

    I mean, I don’t mind necessarily that they moved the bank robbery to something which happened in the movie, it is a movie after all, and I guess Disney didn’t want to pay for having the streets of Berlin full of children, but the movie is kind of missing the point about taking responsibility.

      1. Popular? Erich Kästner was one of the writers which were blacklisted under Hitler. He had to watch while the Nazis burned his own books. With the exception of Emil und die Detektive. The book ended up the index too eventually, but it escaped the big burning craze. Erich Kästner is one of the most important German writers of Children’s books…he also wrote the book on which “The Parent Trap” is (loosely) based. I can recommend every single one of his books, they are amazing.

        And the best adaptation? That is easy, when it comes to Erich Kästner you have to go early. The best take is the 1931 take, made in Germany, script by Billy Wilder (it was in fact this movie which launched his career as screen writer) an with involvement by Erich Kästner himself (which is, imho, the reason why those early adaptations are the best). You might be able to find it, the movie was fairly popular internationally when it hit the theatres.

    1. Most of the ruins are indeed real! The Location was nearby the former Railway station „Anhalter Bahnhof“, next to the Berlin Wall in the Königgrätzer street (today Stresemann street). It was the ruin of the „Völkerkundemuseum“, the Museum of ethnology, destroyed in world war 2.
      The recordings are mixt with studio shots and pictures from other locations in West-Berlin.

      1. One thing more: Gustavs outfit looks very traditionally Bavarian, especially the hat.
        Nobody in Berlin would look like this… ;))
        But it’s a very nice Movie, because of the filming locations in Berlin.

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