Public Transport in Erick Kästner’s Emil und die detektive: Reconciling Differences

By Adam Borch

Erich Kästner’s popular children’s novel Emil und die detektive (1929) begins with an introduction to some of the story’s most important characters and places, accompanied by Walter Trier’s original illustrations. One of these is “[a] rather important train compartment” (p.13) about which we’re told:

The train this coach belongs to travels to Berlin. And probably in this compartment, in the next chapters, strange things will happen. A compartment like this is a curious contrivance. Perfect strangers sit here, and in a couple of hours they are as friendly as if they had known each other for years. Sometimes that’s very nice and pleasant. But sometimes it isn’t. For who knows what sort of people they all are? (p.13)

It’s teasingly suggested that the compartment will be important for the story. And it is. There the protagonist, the schoolboy Emil Tischbein, is robbed of the 140 marks his mother has entrusted him with to bring to his grandmother in Berlin, forcing him to pursue the thief, Grundeis (or whatever his real name is), through the streets of the capital.

It is also suggested that public transportation (PT) and the experiences it entails are important in Emil and die detektive. This is true too. In fact, I think they are in many ways pivotal and here, as well as in a later post, I’ll discuss some of the roles PT is made to play in the novel.

Emil travels to Berlin from Neustadt, a fictional provincial town about four hours by train from the capital (p.36, 39). It is Emil’s first trip to Berlin and the contrast to his native town is important. Kästner uses PT as a way of conveying that difference.

When leaving for the train station in Neustadt at the start of chapter two, Emil’s mother says ”’If the horsecar comes we’ll ride to the station.'” (p.37). I think that for many readers this statement will work counterintuitively. Well, at least I understood it first to mean that they are in a hurry to reach the train station, but, in fact, it’s more the opposite:

And if a man lived at 12 Town Hall Street and he sat in the horsecar and wished to get out, he simply knocked on the glass. Then the driver went, ‘Whoa!’ and the traveler was home. The real stop was perhaps in front of Number 30 or 46. But that didn’t matter to the Neustadt Street Company. It had time. The horse had time. The driver had time. The Neustadt citizens had time. And if anyone happened to be in a special hurry he went on foot. . . . (p.38)

In Neustadt, PT isn’t used for fast travelling and in that respect the contrast to Berlin could hardly be starker. Later, when trailing Grundeis in Berlin, Emil enters a streetcar (line 177 to be precise) and, in a moment of brief respite, he is able to take in the new surroundings:

These autos! They rushed past the streetcar, honked and squaked, signaled for left turns and right, and swung around corners; other autos pushed right after them. What a jam! And so many people on the sidewalks! And from every side streetcars, delivery carts, double-decker buses! […] So that was Berlin. (p.65)

Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten (1930).

Similarly, unlike in Neustadt, PT stops are very important once he gets to Berlin. For example, chapter five is entitled “Emil Gets Off at the Wrong Station”; a statement that is right in one sense, but wrong in another. Emil gets off the train from Neustadt at Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, but the agreement is that he will meet his grandmother a few stop further on at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. But he jumps off early to pursue Grundeis, a decision that, retrospectively, proves to be right. Likewise, once outside Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten and aboard streetcar no. 177, it is imperative that he’s vigilant so as not to lose the thief (p.63-69, 74-75).

PT is thus one part of the urban landscape that sets Neustadt apart from Berlin, and Emil’s success depends on his ability to navigate under these new circumstances. That said, I think Kästner also uses the different PT systems in an attempt to strengthen his readers awareness of some of the spatial and temporal distances within the Weimar Republic. When Emil and his mother leave for the train station, the reader is addressed directly:

Perhaps Kästner imagined Neustadt’s horsecar to look something like this one from Bonn (1908).

Which one of you knows how a horsecar looks? […] Well – first of all, the horsecar is a crazy thing. It runs on rails like a streetcar, but there is just an old cab horse hitched to the front of it. For Emil and his friends the old cab horse was simply a disgrace, and they dreamed of electric cars with wires overhead and underneath, and five spotlights in the front, and three in the rear. Only the Mayor of Neustadt thought that the four-mile run could be made well enough with one living horsepower. Up to now there had been no talk of electricity, and the driver had nothing to do with steering wheels and levers. Instead he held the reins in his left hand and the whip in his right. Giddap! (p.37-38)

It would seem that Kästner imagined a young readership from larger urban areas for whom this sort of old-fashioned vehicle as well as provincial towns were unfamiliar. Although the horsecar suggests that the temporal distance between Neustadt and the capital is greater than the actual four-hours train journey – in fact, it reads more like a trip back in time – it explains in an amicable way the reasons for its continued existence while also saying that there is a younger, provincial generation who can see the value of more modern transport technologies.

Streetcar no.177 at stop on Joachimsthaler Strasse (later Hardenbergplatz) (1930).

In fact, it seems to me that the novel consistently attempts to reconcile people from different parts of the Weimar Republic. The audience is imagined to come from large urban areas and they’re asked to read a traditional story about an inexperienced provincial bumpkin travelling to the big city. But whereas such stories often saw the provincial visitors fall prey to urban lowlife, Emil proves himself capable of handling one of the traditionally most dangerous aspects of life in a big city, crime. He doesn’t do it alone, of course. He gets help from Gustav, the Professor and the other boys from the Wilhemdorf area, relying on their connections and knowledge of the city. But it is a collaboration throughout and Emil maintains his dignity.

In the backyard behind a cinema on Nollendorfplatz, with Grundeis safely installed at the nearby Hotel Kreid, Emil again has a bit of time to look closer at Berlin:

By this time it was dark. Electric ads flamed everywhere. The elevated thundered overhead. The subway rumbled underneath. Streetcars and motorbuses, private cars and motorcycles, made a crazy concert. Dance music came from the Woerz Café. The movie theater on Nollendorf Place began its last show. And many people crowded in. (p.104)

And he says to the Professor,

“Of course, Berlin is wonderful. You’d think you were sitting in a movie. But I’m not sure whether I’d want to live here always. In Neustadt we have an Upper Market and a Lower Market and a Station Square! And the playgrounds by the river and in Amsel Park. That is all. But still, Professor, I believe it is enough for me. Always such a holiday racket, always a hundred thousand streets and squares? I’d be lost all the time.” (p.105)

Emil’s aversion to what is of course the Professor’s home does not lead to hostilities, but rather to a sort of mutual recognition that their differences are perfectly surmountable:

“You get used to it,” answered the Professor. “Probably I couldn’t stand it in Neustadt, with its three squares and Amsel Park.”

“You get used to it,” said Emil, “but Berlin is a great sight. No doubt about it, Professor. Wonderful.”


Kästner, Erich. 1965 [1929]. Emil and the Detectives. May Massee (trans). New York: Scholastic. Available: www.archive.org.