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Pressburger and Kaestner

Emeric and Erich hiking in the Alps in 1931,
from Arrows of Desire by Ian Christie

PRESSBURGER AND KÄSTNER: life, work, and friendship.

BORN IMRE JÓZSEF PRESSBURGER in 1902, Pressburger became an exile before he even left home, as Hungary was divided following the 1914-18 war and he found himself in an enlarged Romania. He went on to study in Prague and Stuttgart, eventually moving to Berlin where he began working as a writer, publishing his first short story in 1928.

He became the more Germanic 'Emmerich' Pressburger on his first screen credit for the Ufa film studio, co-writing 'Abschied' (Robert Siodmak 1930). While working his second screenplay for Ufa, 'Das Ekel' (Franz Wenzler 1931, film now lost) he was joined by a new co-writer and friend Erich Kästner.

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden in 1899. He initially studied to become a teacher at the Lehrerseminar, but was repelled by the experience:

'Our character building was directed towards dubious objectives...In the Seminars [the State] was schooling blindly obedient, petty officials with pension rights. ...the Seminar was an educational barracks.' (1)

In 1917 he was conscripted into the army, where brutal training resulted in a heart condition:

'Did you ever have to bend your knees two hundred and fifty times holding a rifle Model 98 up in front of you? No? Well, you're lucky! After that a man never really gets his wind back properly for the rest of his natural life. Some of my comrades collapsed after only fifty knee-bendings. They were wiser than I.' (2)

After studying in Leipzig where he began writing poetry, he went on to work as a journalist. In 1928 he published his best known work, the children's novel 'Emil and the Detectives'.

Emil and the Detectives

'Emil and the Detectives' is available as a
German language DVD with no subtitles.

Ufa bought the rights to produce 'Emil and the Detectives', and as Kästner and Pressburger had worked together on Das Ekel' they were sent off together to work on 'Emil'. Kästner remembered:

'Emmerich Pressburger and I made my Emil into a sreenplay. With diligence and enthusiasm. A good screenplay. It had a single failing: in our zeal we delivered it too early! The director in chief, Liebmann was his name, could not, of course, remain indifferent to the fact. Something had to be done. He used the time which we had kindly donated to Ufa to have our screenplay reworked by another man. His name was Billy Wilder. He embellished the story and he vulgarised it. There was trouble. There was a fight. There were referees. There were compromises.' (3)

Emil and the Detectives

An energetic film with strong child characters, much of
'Emil' was shot on location in the streets of Berlin.

Pressburger and Kästner's next collaboration was for a young theatre director Ufa had hired, Max Ophüls. For his first film he had chosen a short poem by Kästner as his subject: 'I'd Rather Have Cod Liver Oil' (Max Ophüls 1931). Unfortunately no print survives of this comic fantasy of children swapping places with their parents.

The Ufa studio had been owned since 1927 by Alfred Hugenberg, president of the ultra-right Deutsch-Nationale Volkspartei. In 1932 Hugenberg's party was seeking an alliance with Hitler's National Socialists, and he began instituting anti-Semetic policies in his companies. Emmerich Pressburger was informed that Ufa would not renew his contract. Hoping the situation would improve, Pressburger continued working as a freelance in Berlin for various studios, including Ufa via independent producers.

Kästner was in Zürich in 1933 when Hitler came to power:

'Shortly before my train departed from Zürich, the express from Berlin came in on the next track. Dozens of acquaintances and colleagues got out. They had fled overnight. The Reichstag fire had been the signal they had not overlooked. When they recognized me and my intention, the warning chorus of friends was reinforced. But I went back to Berlin and occupied myself in the days and weeks to follow with trying to keep fellow thinkers from fleeing from our country. I implored them to stay. It was our duty and obligation, I said, to stand up against the regime in our way. The victory of the regime and the terrible consequences of such a victory, I said, were naturally not to be stopped, when the spiritual representatives of the opposition one and all took their leave. They did not listen to me. Should they have done so, they would in all probability all be dead now. Then they, they too, would have been on the lists of victims of fascism. Whenever I think of that, I grow hot and cold. Had I succeeded at the time to convince but one of them, who would then have been tortured and beaten to death? I would have been guilty... ' (4)

At the same time Emmerich Pressburger was arranging for his mother, who had been living near him in Berlin, to return to Hungary. But still he delayed leaving Germany himself. Only when a Nazi who knew Pressburger from Ufa warned him that it was almost too late did he leave for Paris. That was on the 1st of May 1933.

On the 10th of May 1933, largely because of his 1931 novel Fabian, Erich Kästner's books were burned by the Nazis:

' books were burned with dark festive splendor in Berlin, on the large square next to the Opera, by a certain Mr. Goebbels. He triumphantly called out the names of twenty-four German writers, who symbolically had to be eradicated for eternity. I was the only one of the twenty-four who had appeared in person to witness this theatrical insolence.' (5)

Kästner was to stay in Germany throughout the war. He was banned from publishing in Germany, and his books were ordered to be cleared from libraries, 'everything except Emil' was the order. For some years he managed to continue publishing in Switzerland, but shortly after the release of 'Münchausen' a complete ban was placed on his literary activities.

After he fled Berlin in 1933, Pressburger spent two years in Paris before travelling to London. In 1938 he renamed himself Emeric, and that same year a fellow countryman, composer Miklós Rózsa, introduced him to producer Alexander Korda, also Hungarian. Pressburger's first script for Korda was 'The Spy in Black,' (1939) directed by Michael Powell. It was the start of a long and fruitful partnership between writer and director.

At the war's end Emeric Pressburger tried to regain contact with his mother in Hungary, only to learn that the 20,000 strong Jewish population of her home town Miskolc had been deported to Auschwitz by the retreating Nazis in 1944. She had not survived.

Pressburger and Kaestner

Emeric Pressburger directing 'Twice Upon A Time' on location in Kitzbühel. Photo from Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter.

In January 1951, taking a family holiday, Pressburger returned to Kitzbühel, the Austrian resort where he and Erich Kästner had stayed twenty years earlier while writing the film adaptation of 'Emil and the Detectives.' While there he was invited to a screening of 'Das Doppelte Lottchen', based on the children's book by Kästner, and directed by Josef von Baky, the director of 'Münchausen.'

Pressburger greatly enjoyed the film, and the following year directed an English language version titled 'Twice Upon a Time' (released 1953) for Korda. It was Pressburger's first and only attempt at directing, however, and did not go well. There are no longer any prints of the film available for viewing. The story was remade successfully by Disney as 'The Parent Trap' (1961). The English translation of the novel is titled 'Lottie and Lisa'.


(1) R.W. Last, Erich Kästner, Modern German Authors New Series, Oswald Wolff 1974, p. 13-14.

(2) Erich Kästner, When I Was A Little Boy, Jonathan Cape 1959, p 59.

(3) Kevin Macdonald, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, Faber and Faber 1994, p74.

(4, 5) Harrie Verstappen's Erich Kästner page on his Looniverse website.

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