By ALAN SMASON
There is a minor, but pivotal moment in Marcus H. Rosenmüeller’s film “The Keeper” where a rabbi makes a major and dramatic declaration. Based on the real life story of Bert (Bernd) Trautmann, the film recounts how Rabbi Alexander Altmann, a noted, former German-Jewish scholar who had fled the Nazis, advocates his fellow Manchester citizens accept Trautmann, a former decorated Nazi soldier, as the goalkeeper for their soccer team.
Make no mistake about it. This was a momentous decision by Altmann, who was born the son of the Chief Rabbi of Tier, and who was the leading scholar in the world on the work and thought of Moses Mendelssohn. The rabbi, a noted Jewish mysticism figure, had lost both of his parents and several other relatives to the Nazis.
His plea for acceptance of Trautmann in the film comes during a period of public scrutiny of Trautmann by the press, who had discovered he was a recipient of the Iron Cross and a former paratrooper for the Luftwaffe. In actuality, there were many more disturbing facts about Trautmann than the film reveals. He was a member of the junior Hitler Youth, the Jungvolk. He had not been drafted, but eagerly enlisted early in the war. He received a total of five medals for bravery while fighting on the Eastern Front.
Captured in early 1945 and sent to spend the rest of the remaining war in a British prisoner of war camp, the real life Bert (Bernd) Trautmann was classified as a Nazi by the authorities.
Kross’s performance as Trautmann captures the dichotomy of this flawed man, who seeks redemption from his checkered past. Although he maintains he “had no choice,” when the truth comes rushing out, even Mavor’s character must question her decision to support him. As Margaret, Mavor makes the emotional journey from a Nazi hater to a loving wife.
Rosenmüeller originally titled the film “Trautmann,” to honor the man, who went on to become one of the greatest British soccer stars of the post-World War II era. Its newer and more provocative title relates to the love story between David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor, who plays his wife, Margaret Friar.
The on-screen chemistry between the subdued Kross and the fiery and spirited Mavor is palpable. There is a fondness that slowly builds between them until the searing heat of their mutual love becomes inescapable.
Early in the film, it is established that Margaret enjoys dancing. When Bert and Margaret first begin to interact, she expresses outward antipathy and disdain towards the German. “Margaret, I’m not some kind of monster,” he protests.
“Well, there is some folk might say different,” she blurts, as she turns away.
She stops in her tracks, though, when she hears him reply “Hating me is an easy way.”
Facing him again, she both questions and accuses him. “An easy way? What are you talking about? You think you can just come here and play football and all is forgotten and forgiven?”
Her father, Jack Friar, who has discovered him (played with finesse by the veteran British actor of big and small screen John Henshaw), can easily forgive him for wartime atrocities committed by the Germans. He needs a talented goalkeeper for his team and he is hellbent to enlist Trautmann. But his daughter cannot forgive, at least not easily.
Her youth was taken away from her, she explains to the prisoner of war. While she and her friends should have been dancing, they were forced to take refuge in bomb shelters while the Luftwaffe pummeled the area.
“I’d rather have danced with you than stood on the battlefield,” he replies in earnest. “But I didn’t have a choice.”
Thus, the wall between them as former enemies begins to erode and a bridge between them as a man and a woman begins to be built. A bit later in the film the two have another exchange about his love of soccer and hers of dancing.
Mavor’s priceless expression in explaining how her character of Margaret finds nirvana as she embraces her terpsichorean release is not unlike what we hear from a young Billy Elliott.
Margaret finds nirvana as she embraces her terpsichorean release is not unlike what we hear from a young Billy Elliott.
“Well, dancing is easy,” Margaret answers. “It’s like…I’m floating. When you get it just right, there is no gravity.”
Kross as Trautmann agrees. “It is the moment. There is no before and no afterwards,” he replies. “When I am playing football, it is only the moment.”
“So, it’s the same as dancing,” she smiles in realization.
“Yes,” he answers and suggests that football is in its extreme, a form of dancing.
“No it’s not,” she retorts. “It’s bloody barbaric.”
“Football is a wonderful dance,” Trautmann replies and goes on to prove it at the very next match.
Later, when Margaret is startled to find that her husband may have been more than compliant with the Nazis, she is challenged to support him, but their love carries them through that and other tragedies which will unfold.
The love story is central to Rosenmüeller’s film, which he also wrote with fellow screenwriter Nicholas J. Schofield, but the film may also be one of the best on the sport of soccer. While one should have a rudimentary understanding of soccer in order to appreciate the movie, its concurrent themes of teamwork and rising above adversity are especially critical to the film. Unlike the most notable American soccer film, 1981’s “Escape to Victory” that starred Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, Sylvester Stallone and soccer wonder Pelé, this film is deeply rooted in historical fact.
For his efforts, Trautmann was named the Football Writers Association’s (FWA) Footballer of the Year in 1956 and the first foreigner to receive that title.In a way the change in the title to “The Keeper” is also a reference to the British people, who, despite his past, also chose to value Trautmann for his daring feats as a professional soccer player. Trautmann was instrumental in the legendary Football Association (FA) Cup win in 1956 for Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in front of 100,000 fans. As Rosenmüeller depicts in the film, despite a potentially-fatal severe injury late in the game, Trautmann continued to play with a broken neck, making several critical saves and thus preserving the team’s 3-1 victory.
In fact, truth is stranger than fiction. Trautmann died in Spain in 2013, but Rosenmüeller actually met with him and talked with him as background for the screenplay. Trautmann retired from soccer in 1964 and returned to Germany for a short time following the death of his first wife in 1980. “He stayed in England for a very time,” the German director noted. “He told me there were two nations in heart. It was the English and the German.”
Thus, “The Keeper” is more than a simple film about soccer or a celebrated soccer player. “It’s a big sports story, but there is a deeper story (here),” Rosenmüeller continued. “It’s about reconciliation. It’s about forgiveness and it’s a big love story. I hope all three of these stories together make a good film.”
“The Keeper,” directed by Marcus H. Rosenmüeller and written by him and Nicholas Schofield, stars David Kross, Freya Mavor and John Henshaw.