Filmkinder: Children in German Films

By Eleanor Halsall

Gerhard Lamprecht’s 1931 film Emil und die Detektive/Emil and the Detectives, is one of the most famous German children’s films. Adapted by Billy Wilder from the eponymous book by Erich Kästner, the film was greeted with enthusiasm in Germany where it was described as a ‘knockout’ by the LichtbildbühneEmil’s narrative was always likely to strike a chord and warm the heart: children coalesce as a group to defeat an adult swindler and retrieve the money stolen from a young boy – Emil – that was originally intended for his grandmother. Reviewing a screening attended by a ‘significant minority of children’, Georg Herzberg described the growing excitement as children in the audience wriggled with trepidation and whooped for joy, lost in vicarious pleasure as they watched their peers mete out justice on the screen (Film-Kurier, 3 December 1931). Emil’s narrative endures, having been remade more than eight times for cinema and television, including in Britain (1935 and 1952) and the US (1964).

Source: Filmportal

Child actors will always be in demand and clearly Lamprecht’s film, and indeed many others, could not have been made without them. Herzberg’s description of the young audience’s reaction is a reminder that making films with children demands skills and considerations that do not typically pertain to adults. Unrestrained wriggling and loud expressions of emotions tend not to sit well within the controlled conditions of a sound film studio; whilst thrusting an immature child into the limelight might be psychologically damaging.

How did German studios manage their child actors? Which laws and regulations were in force to protect them? Who looked after their education? How were they chosen and what happened once the film was finished? 

Before 1925 there were no prohibitions in Germany on children working in film; after that date, however, regulations began to be enforced (Dienstag, 38). One of the restrictions introduced in 1925 barred the use of children under three unless there was a compelling scientific or artistic reason. Dr Meyer-Brodnitz, a doctor and industrial hygienist, listed two arguments behind this decision (Meyer-Brodnitz, 45). The first concerned the negative effects of ultra-violet studio lighting on a young child because their eyes lack protective pigment; and, he argued, a very young child would instinctively be drawn to look at a light source. The second reason concerned the potential psychological damage to a child (of any age) in being able to cope with the ‘general irritation and tensions that are necessarily connected with filming’. But Meyer-Brodnitz was also worried that older children might see something they should not, leaving them to ‘carry the psychological wounds received there as so-called complexes for the rest of his or her life’. Given that the majority of German films carried a Jugendverbot, a certification restricting them to 16 or over, this was a fairly common concern.

In 1928, a further overhaul of the laws pertaining to children determined as an area of risk: ‘a new type of child labour … which, although hitherto little noticed, is particularly harmful to children because of its nature… is film work’ (Berliner Tageblatt, 8 August 1928). Comparing regulations in America and other European countries, the article stated that ‘Germany is more lenient. Children between the ages of three and fourteen can be granted permission to film by the police authority, provided that the existing regulations (securing the studio against draughts, keeping to a certain number of hours, etc.) are complied with’. Considering some of the dangers of working in film studios, ‘guarding against draughts’ might seem a relatively harmless risk to cite, until one remembers that the article appeared at a time when films were often made in glass houses. Following the transition to sound film production, the almost hermetically sealed studios became warmer; and by 1955, film studios were described as ‘hot and dusty’ places where children might have to wait for hours until they were required (Zglinicki, 65). 

Some directors had their own methods for protecting the children they worked with. One article reported that Gerhard Lamprecht’s strategy was, as far as possible, to prevent the children in his films from watching the productions they had acted in (Hör Zu, 24-25). Lamprecht hoped that this way they might maintain their innocence and not be tempted to brag about their roles. Two of the children who worked in Lamprecht’s 1954 film Der Engel mit dem Flammenschwert/The Angel with the flaming Sword allegedly complained to him about this ban, but as the film was certified for over 16 anyway, there was little more they could say!

Films with child actors were popular and accounts frequently appeared in the German-language press, with a particular fascination about those who achieved both fame and wealth, such as Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan. Many European publications typically looked across the Atlantic to find out how Hollywood studios managed their child actors; and Mein Film reported that Hollywood’s 2,500 or so child actors were educated in schools run within the major film studios, with teachers provided by the state of California (Mein Film, Nr. 263, 1931). 

Filmkinder und Schule, Die schöne Frau, Nr. 9, 1930

Whether the number of children in German film studios was significantly lower, or whether Germans expected the children to catch up quickly on any educational gaps, formal school arrangements do not appear to have been made in German film studios during this period. Nevertheless, special arrangements for child actors were recorded for the filming of Träumerei/Reverie (1944, Braun) (BArch R 109-II/47), with Ufa appointing Paula Knüpfer as assistant director for children. Two other examples of Knüpfer’s involvement include Das grosse Spiel/The big game (1941) and Der dunkle Tag/The dark day (1942) (BArch R 109-I/2360); for each film Knüpfer was instructed to support a named child during auditions and filming without any reference to teaching; her pay was RM250 per film. 

Over the summer of 1944, correspondence between an Ufa production manager, Erich Holder and Dr Bauer at the Reichsfilmkammer (RKF, the National Socialist body responsible for overseeing the film industry), reveals the steps taken in preparation for the film Wie sagen wir es unseren Kindern?/How should we tell our children? (BArch R 109-II/52).  Because planned filming dates meant that the children would miss two months of school, Ufa asked the RFK for support in persuading reluctant parents and pedagogues who were resisting the children’s participation. One father in particular was ‘making difficulties … but the boy has a very special talent which is unique in itself and he is also particularly suitable in appearance for the role of Wölfchen’ (Ufa letter dated 12 July 1944). The RFK intervened, writing to the boy’s father: ‘After the most careful examination, the choice of the boy for the role of Wölfchen fell on your boy, who was particularly well liked in the Ministry and should absolutely take the role’ (15 July 1944). 

Elsewhere responses indicate that a degree of absence from school would be tolerated, either based on the child’s performance to date or the stability of the parental home; however one child was reported as ‘sitzengeblieben’ i.e. repeating the school year. Given the prevailing political circumstances at this late stage of the war, however, one might question the extent to which parents and teachers felt obliged to comply with the RFK.

Interviewed by Das Magazin in 1956, Hans Winter, who acted in a DEFA production, Alarm im Zirkus/Panic in the Circus (Klein, 1953), said: ‘During the filming we were accommodated in a home in Königsheide. We had school lessons there, but for me it was not enough to catch up in school later on and take my final exams’ (64). In this particular case, the former child actor had wanted to return to the film industry and regretted this hiatus in his education which left him without the qualifications to train as a stage painter. Although he admitted that filming had been fun and he enjoyed ‘the little bit of a buzz with the other kids’, something of that experience remained ineffable, forever out of reach.

The percentage of child actors who are given a major role has always been miniscule. More commonly, when children were needed for a film, they may simply have been used as extras, working at most a day or two a year. Planning documentation from the 1944 film Vier Treppen Rechts/Four Steps Right, shows that 15 children were needed to appear in two scenes described as ‘Hilde’s Kindergarten’ and ‘Roof terrace’. For their work they were each to be paid a day rate of RM10, hardly a fortune (BArch R 109-II/52, 0173): 

Children were also used for dubbing work: in addition to her own acting roles, Carmen Lahrmann became the German voice for Shirley Temple. 

When a director’s choice falls on Fritz, it is not because Fritz seems the most talented of many or has a pretty face, but because he is the boy the screenplay imagines

Das Magazin, 63

How were children chosen and what became of them once they outgrew their child stardom? Just as Hollywood became a metonym for the production of cinema, so the name of Shirley Temple became synonymous with child stardom. Producers needed child actors and parents dreamed of fame and wealth; or simply another income: ‘Economic hardship has given rise to the idea among some parents …to regard the child as an economic livelihood and to consider his or her artistic gifts and talents as the financial basis of the family’, wrote Mein Film in 1937 (Nr. 594: 14).  In the post war period, the demand for children in films grew significantly with ‘almost every post-war German film having a child’s role’ (Zglinicki, 65). At the same time, cautionary voices were raised against the unseemly rush to stardom which many claimed was harming the children themselves (Zglinicki; Das Magazin).

The most suitable age for film work is between their sixth and twelfth year. After fourteen, their career as a ‘film child’ comes to an irrevocable end, regardless of how world-famous and popular they may have been.

Das Kino-Journal, October 1931

Occasionally, child stars went on to have lasting careers in the film industry; just as frequently, however, the child, having played the required role, is thrust back into anonymity, or chooses to retire from the scene. Traudl Stark, born in Vienna in 1930, was sometimes referred to as the ‘Shirley Temple of Austria’. Her intensive film career lasted six years for eleven films made between 1934 and 1940, during which she (and her parents) were often feted. See image below (source: Bei Prinzessin Sissy am Rosemhügel, Mein Film, Nr. 640, 1938).

Traudl Stark in Prinzessin Sissy

Stark’s career ended abruptly and she had no further involvement in the film industry; at 18 she married and moved to America. 

A handful of German child actors remained in the industry, achieving success as adults, among them two of the children from Lamprecht’s Emil: Hans Richter and Inge Landgut, both of whom had long film careers. Whether some of the others would have continued with their acting careers or not, will remain forever unknown: Hans Schaufuß, Hans Löhr and Rolf Wenkhaus all died during the early stages of the war, a far cry from the joy of Emil.  

References

Anon., Die Bekämpfung der Kinderarbeit, Berliner Tageblatt, 8 August 1928 (6).

Anon., In der Schule der Filmkinder, Das Kino-Journal, 17 October 1931, (5-6).

Anon., Sternchen ohne Allüren, Die Weltpresse, 17 Januar 1949 (6).

Anon., Deutschlands jüngster Filmstar, Heidelberger Anzeiger, 4 September 1936, Nr. 207 (6).

Anon., Mit zehn berühmt – und dann? Hör Zu, 1955, Nr. 3, (24-25).

Anon., Kongress der Kleinen, Kinematograph, Nr. 280, 3 December 1931.

Anon., Filmkarriere für aufgeweckte Kinder, Mein Film, Nr. 594, 1937. 

Anon., Was unsere Filmkinder sich zu Weihnachten wünschen, Scherl’s Magazin, 1930 (1262-1267).

Anon., Filmkinder kommen aus der Mode, Wiener Kurier, 17 March 1950.

BArch R 109-II/47, ‘Besetztungsliste: Träumerei.’

BArch R 109-II/52, ‘Komparserie zu Vier Treppen Rechts.’ 

BArch R 109-I/2360, ‘Angebotsschreiben Paula Knüpfer.’

Paul Dienstag, Der Arbeitsvertrag des Filmschauspielers und Filmregisseurs, Schriften des Instituts für Arbeitsrecht an der Universität Leipzig. Hft. 20. 1929.

Georg Herzberg, Emil und die Detektive, Film-Kurier, Nr. 283, 3 December 1931.

H. H., Lichtbild-Bühne, Nr. 289, 3 December 1931.

Sidney Johnson, Kinder filmen, Mein Film, 1932, Nr. 363, (9-10).

Dr Meyer-Brodnitz, Die Filmkinder im Arbeitsschutzgesetz. Arbeiterwohlfahrt, Volume 5, Issue 2, 15 January 1930 (44-46).  1930-02.pdf (fes.de) [accessed 11 February 2022]

Gertrud Müller, Filmkinder und Schule, Die schöne Frau, Nr. 9, 1930, (14,16).

Jane Catherine O’Connor, The cultural significance of the child star, thesis, 2006.

Jens Rübner, Filmkind unter der UfA-Raute, 2021.

Harry P. Schwittey, Kinderaugen sehen dich an…, Mein Film, Nr. 263, 1931 (10-11). 

Miriam Sello-Christian, Soll mein Kind zum Film? Das Magazin, March 1956, Volume 3 (62-65).

Gertrud Wiethake-Müller, Filmkinder, Das interessante Blatt, 17 April 1930, Nr. 10, (10).

Il ministro Goebbels, L’Italiano (Gazetta de Popolo delli Sera) 3 January 1940 In: BArch R 109-I/5008 (0830), 3 January 1940.

Zglinicki, F.von und Andrés, E. P. Wie komme ich zum Film? Film-Berufsführer, 1955 (65-68).

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