The Flying Classroom
The story covers the last few days of term before Christmas for the students of Johann-Sigismund Gymnasium The main characters are Martin, the first student of the class, Jonathan, an orphan who was adopted by a captain, Matz, Uli and Sebastian, students from the Tertia (Year 8). There is a bitter struggle between the students at the Gymnasium and another school, the Realschule. The so-called "Realists" steal their schoolbooks containing their dictations, which the teacher's son (another classmate) was to carry home to his father. The son was also captured by the 'Realschuler'. This results in a brawl between two champions of each side - Matz and one Wawerka - and a hard-fought snow-ball fight, both of which the six friends win, although they end up being reported by a student from the Prima (Year 13) for being late back to school. As a "punishment" they are docked one afternoon's leave, which they are invited to spend with their amiable house teacher Justus at his office (coffee and cake included) where he tells them a story about his own youth and his struggle with inaccessible prefects from Prima.
Other parts of the plot include: the friends playing a drama called the Flying Classroom written by Johnny, their friendship with the "Nonsmoker" (a former doctor who lives in an scrapped non-smoker railway compartment and works as a pub piano player) and the Nonsmoker's own friendship with Justus (who are reunited by the boys). Uli, the smallest boy who is often called a coward, decides at this time to attempt something which will remove his reputation as a coward. His best friend, Matz, has in the past encouraged him, until he sees Uli about to jump off a gym ladder using an umbrella as a parachute. Uli crashes and falls unconscious. Justus and the Nonsmoker (who upon this reenters his medical profession as school doctor) allay their fears that he is dead, but he has a broken leg (however on the Canadian version Uli breaks an arm instead).
Jonathan Trotz, or Johnny - a half-American boy cast away by his parents. He loves poetry and writing, and dreams of being a great writer one day. He wants to marry a kind-hearted woman and have children - children that he won't cast away.
Martin Thaler - a poor but bright student. His parents cannot afford to have him travel home this Christmas and it troubles him very much. Martin has a very strong sense of justice and will come out fighting with his friends although it means risking his scholarship.
Matthias Selbmann, or Matz - not very clever, but strong. He wants to be a professional boxer. The other children rely on him to smash their opponents. Matz is somewhat overprotective towards his best friend, Uli.
Uli von Simmern - the blonde, small, underrated rich boy, best friend of Matz. He always tries to do his best during fighting - but usually ends up hiding in fear. Uli decides to perform an act of bravado to make the others stop poking fun at him.
Sebastian Frank - the cynical one of the five. He spends his time reading 'smart books', such as ones dealing with genetics or (Schopenhauerian) philosophy. Although he hangs out a lot with Jonathan and the other guys, he actually has no real friends and is a lonely figure, putting up a cold mask to cover his own weaknesses.
Theodor Laban - called Der Schöne Theo (Handsome Theo). He is Martin's prefect, busy trying to make himself look good in the eyes of the teachers.
Dr Johann Bökh, nicknamed Justus - the children's favourite teacher. He was a student of the Johann-Sigismund School and knows well how hard life in the school can be. That's why he returned to the school - to ensure that children don't have to suffer, like he did.
Dr. Robert Uthofft, nicknamed Nonsmoker - an old friend of Justus. He was a medical doctor. When he lost his wife and child, he disappeared, and later took residence in a trailer situated next to his old school. His nickname does not relate to his not smoking (he does, very much so) but to his living in an old railway carriage, which still bears a sign that reads "Nonsmoker" (hence the name).
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The novel has been filmed several times, the earliest one (1954) directed by Kurt Hoffmann. In 1973 it was made as Das fliegende Klassenzimmer directed by Werner Jacobs. The newest one (2003) was directed by Tomy Wigand. The story and characters are altered to suit the present time. In Wigand's film, Sebastian Frank is fused with Rudi Kreuzkamm to produce 'Sebastian Kreuzkamm', a red-haired nerd, and the plot is liberally reinterpreted to include subjects as girls or divorce.
2003 film cast
The principal cast are:
- Hauke Diekamp as Jonathan Trotz
- Frederick Lau as Matthias Selbmann
- Francois Goeske as Sebastian Kreuzkamm
- Hans-Broich Wuttke as Uli von Simmern
- Philipp Peters-Arnolds as Martin Thaler, a boy facing the dilemma of soon-to-divorce parents
- Nicky Kantor as Der Schöne Theo
- Sebastian Koch as Nichtraucher
- Piet Klocke as Professor Kreuzkamm, the principal, Sebastian's father
- Ulrich Noethen as Justus
Background, the sequel and trivia
This was the last Kästner book published before the rise of the Nazis to power. Though Nazis are not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the book, the situation of economic crisis and mass unemployment which made many German voters turn to Hitler is very evident in the book's background.
A short sequel, in which the characters visit the Winter Olympics of 1936 (held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria) was already written under the Nazi regime and was published only many years later, having less success than the original: Zwei Schüler sind verschwunden in Das Schwein beim Friseur (The Pig at the Barbershop). In it, Kästner let his characters have a friendly encounter with visiting English boys, culminating in winning their British Gold Medal, at a time when their soon meeting each other as enemy soldiers on the battlefield was already a very real possibility.
- Kästner, Erich (1933). Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer (1st ed.). Germany.
- Kästner, Erich; Walter Trier (Illustrator), Cyrus Brooks (Translator) (October 1967). The Flying Classroom (English ed.). Puffin Books. ISBN 0-14-030311-1.