Producers: Robert Marciniak and Chris Curling Director: Marcus H. Rosenmüller Screenplay: Marcus H. Rosenmüller, Nicholas J. Schofield, Robert Marciniak and Christian Lerch Cast: David Kross, Freya Mavor, John Henshaw, Harry Melling, Michael Socha, Julian Sands, Dave Johns, Barbara Young, Chloe Harris, Mikey Collins, Gary Lewis, Dervla Kirwan, Angus Barnett, Olivia-Rose Minnis , Butz Ulrich Buse, Tobias Masterson and Dennis Alizada Distributor: Menemsha Films
The tale of Bert Trautmann, a onetime soldier in the army of the Third Reich who became the star goalkeeper of Manchester City in 1949 and had a storied career with the team until 1964, is told in Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s biographical drama. It works as both a story of forgiveness and a rousing sports movie, but while uplifting in a fairly formulaic way, it’s also a decidedly airbrushed version of the historical reality.
Trautmann was a member of the Hitler Youth and a volunteer in the German war machine who had served in Eastern Europe, winning citations including the Iron Cross, before being transferred to the Western front in the waning days of combat and being taken captive and transported to the St. Helens POW camp in Lancashire. (He had, in fact, been captured twice before, but escaped both times to return to the ranks.)
Here, however, the dedication of his wartime service is played down, with the natural fierceness that will mark his football career pretty much excised from his earlier life. As played by David Kross, he’s a sweet-tempered fellow, and his later protestations to the Manchester press that he had no choice but to join the army are taken at face value. To be sure, he’s haunted by the recollection of an incident involving a Ukrainian peasant boy ( Dennis Alizada) and a soccer ball that had been taken from him by Trautmann’s commander—it’s shown periodically in flashbacks—but otherwise he’s depicted as the proverbial good German—which really whitewashes the truth.
But setting that aside—if you can—Trautmann (and his fellow German POWs) are shown being harshly treated by Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling),the commander of the Lancashire camp—we’ll find out the reason for his special animus later on. But he’s lucky in that his skill at soccer is noticed by expansive local shopkeeper Jack Friar (John Henshaw), who happens to be the coach of the St. Helens football team, which is not doing well at the moment and is likely to lose its funding. He persuades (really, bribes) bigwigs in the army to let Bert replace his inept goalkeeper Alf Myers (Mikey Collins), which disturbs Alf’s sweetheart Betsy Walters (Chloe Harris) and pretty much everyone else—until Trautmann proves so valuable in the field. The team starts winning, big-time.
Bert also helps out at Jack’s shop, which initially angers his feisty daughter Margaret (Freya Mavor), who’s also Betsy’s best friend. But of course in time she warms to his good nature, setting off a furious reaction from her husband-to-be Bill Twist (Michael Socha). Their rivalry continues through the season, when a surprise visit from Jack Thompson (Gary Lewis), the Man City manager, results in Trautmann being offered a tryout with the big team that turns out fantastically well. So does his private life: Margaret agrees to marry him.
The Manchester press and public quickly learn of his Nazi past, however, and Trautmann becomes a lightning rod for anti-German feeling. Only an intervention from a high-minded local rabbi, appropriately named Altmann (Butz Ulrich Buse) turns the tide of public opinion. Of course, his sensational play might have had something to do with it, too.
The latter portion of “The Keeper” falls into two parts, one professional and one personal, both containing joyous and tragic dimensions. On the career side, the film, juxtaposing archival footage with newly-shot recreations, shows the triumph of the Man City team thanks to Trautmann’s remarkable agility. It culminates with the 1956 FA Cup Final, in which he was seriously injured, but continued playing to preserve the club’s lead. It was later revealed that he’d suffered a broken neck. Nevertheless he returned triumphantly to Man City after recuperating—here Sergeant Smythe plays a role in his decision—and continued to play until 1964.
The other aspect of the third act focuses on his marriage to Margaret, with her acceptance of his wartime activities and defense of him before the public, and the birth of a son named John (Tobias Masterson). Here too tragedy intervenes, however. What the script remains silent about, in the captions that precede the final credits, is that they divorced in 1972and he went on to marry again twice. (There is also no mention of the daughter he had from a relationship that preceded his marriage to Margaret.) Simplification is always an element of docu-drama, of course, but in this case the portrait of an idyllic marriage is quite misleading.
If one is willing to overlook the sanitizing of the record, however, “The Keeper” works as the laudatory portrait of the man it aims to be, and also as a parable of forgiveness, both of oneself and of one’s former enemies. The performances are mostly fine, with Kross exuding quiet kindness and Mavor spunkiness, though some of the supporting turns—especially by Melling—go very far in the direction of nastiness. Henshaw provides the greatest measure of audience-pleasing energy as the soccer-mad, good old lad Friar.
Technically the film is first-rate, with lustrous cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and a precise production design by Johannes Sternagel, Doerthe Komnick and Michael Binzer. Editor Alexander Berner is deserving of special credit for melding the material—including the flashbacks and the archival football footage—so well, although the pacing can sometimes be a mite slow (probably a factor more of Rosenmüller’s direction than Berner’s cutting). Gerd Baumann can get a bit fraught and manipulative, but is generally effective.
“The Keeper” works on its own formulaic terms, but apart from the soccer-based material, one should take its portrayal of events with a spoonful not of sugar, but salt.