Dir. Sonke Wortmann. Germany, 2003. 117mins.
Covering similar grounds to Fassbinder's celebrated The Marriage Of Maria Braun but in a vastly different fashion, Sonke Wortmann's new film goes back to portray a moment in history that has been for many analysts, the milestone marking the beginning of Germany's post-World War Two economic miracle, namely July 4, 1954, when Germany surprisingly won the World Cup in Bern. Combining two stories, that of a German prisoner returning from the Russian camps after 11 years to a country he does not recognise any more and a family that hardly recognises him, with the saga of the German national team in Switzerland, Wortmann's picture was enthusiastically received at its Locarno's Piazza Grande festive screening.
The film's central character is an 11 year-old boy, Matthias (Klamroth), living in a small mining town near Essen. He is completely engrossed in the world of football, is a mascot to a local star, Helmuth Rahn (Gopel), faithfully follows every single game of the home team and regards each one of their frequent defeats as a personal tragedy.
Since Matthias' father, Richard (Lohmeyer, who happens to be Klamroth's father in real life), was captured on the Eastern front in 1943 and sent to the prison camp in Siberia, Matthias' mother (Gastdorf) has kept the family, which includes an older brother (Lang) and sister (Wolter), together, all of lending a hand at the family bar. A broken man, and one of the last batch of prisoners released by the Russians, Richard comes home and attempts to go back to his old job in the mine but fails. He then tries to assert his authority on the household, but when he fails resorts to the kind of excessive, old-fashioned German-style discipline which his children passionately resent. It is only through his former love for soccer that he finally wins over his younger son, and only thanks to the Bern miracle that the family is reunited again.
At the same time, Wortmann follows Germany's rise to the position of a major power in world soccer through Rahn's career in the national team. An undisciplined maverick whose conduct almost doomed to the bench, he is brought into the game by the crafty old manager of the team, Sepp Herberger (Franke) only late in the stages of the championship, but once on the field, he immediately displays his talent as a natural scorer. To underline public opinion at the time, Wortmann also has a newly wed sports journalist (Gregorowicz) and his young bride (Wackernagel), who accompanies her husband to Bern and learns to love the game despite her worst intentions.
As he used to play soccer himself in the minor leagues and switched careers after an injury, Wortmann, with a dozen years of film-making behind him, including the monster success of Maybe, Maybe Not, is just the kind of person to direct such a film. And indeed, he has everything exactly in the right place. The script underlines all the relevant moments of the period, whether it is the change in the economic condition of the country, the new face of journalism, the first stages of youth rebellion against the Nazi past of their parents, the bureaucratic stranglehold of the administration or the dilemma of prisoners who have been going through hell for years and come back to realize the world has managed to go on perfectly well without them. Not to mention of course the various little stories, gossips and key phrases, which by now have become too tired to mention, in the world of soccer.
In interviews Wortmann has pinpointed the event as one of the two most significant since the Second World War, the other being the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, while Good Bye Lenin! covered earlier this year the political stresses during a time of change in Germany place in East Germany, The Miracle Of Bern pushes outright politics into the background, focusing instead on personal stories and the soccer miracle.
Wortmann has all the right stage scenery at his disposal and post production outfit Das Werk has made every possible effort to create, digitally, the effects he was required to. But if there is such a thing as too much, it applies to this picture. The sets, be it of the mining town, of the young journalist's flat or the Bern stadium (recreated, for the original has been torn down since), look like painstakingly created décors, to be admired on their own merits rather than a reproduction of reality. The colours are replicas of colour movies in the fifties, distinctly and clearly doctored images - the postcard images of Switzerland and the digitally inserted crowds in the stadium are perfect examples.
The acting also has some of the same qualities. Precise, accurate, self-conscious and demonstrative, just enough to remind you these are actors, not real people. No wonder, it is the children, most particularly Klamroth, who come out best.
* An edited version of this review, with additional industry data and information, can be found in the Aug 29 issue of Screen International
Prod co: Little Shark Entertainment, Senator Film Produktion
Int'l sales: Bavaria Films
Ger dist: Senator
Prods: Tom Spiess, Sonke Wortmann, Hanno Huth
Scr: Sonke Wortmann, Rochus Hahn
Cinematography: Tom Fahrmann
Ed: Ueli Christen
Prod des: Uli Hanisch
Costumes: Ursula Welter
Sound: Arno Wilms
Main cast: Louis Klamroth, Peter Lohmeyer, Lucas Gregorowicz, Katharina Wackernagel, Johanna Gastdorf, Mirko Lang, Birthe Wolter, Peter Franke, Sascha Gopel, Knut Hartwig, Holger Dexne, Martin Bretschneider