The Soccer Film For Love of the Game

Scene from “Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen” (Germany. A Summer’s Tale, 2006)
Scene from “Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen” (Germany. A Summer’s Tale, 2006) | Photo: © StudioCanal

The German soccer film has a long tradition, but roaring success was long not forthcoming. Only since Sönke Wortmann’s “Das Wunder von Bern” (The Miracle of Bern) have big and small films about the leather sphere established themselves in the mainstream, and also in the fan scene.

Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) and Der König der Mittelstürmer (The King of the Center Forwards) (both from 1927) were the first, very well-done attempts to cash in on the dramatic moments of the young sport – the cast, the solidarity, the victory and the defeat. But they succeeded in transferring the popularity of soccer to the big screen as little as did the Nazi Propaganda Ministry’s heroic saga Das große Spiel (The Big Game, 1941) or the post-war comedy Der Theodor im Fußballtor (Theodore of the Soccer Goal, 1950). But the 1950s singing film with the stiff Theo Lingen in the main role remained in memory for a couple of years only thanks to the eponymous hit song.

The spherical simply doesn’t fit into the square

The German team’s unexpected victory in the 1954 World Championship in Switzerland gave the nation a new self-confidence, but no new soccer films. The audience showed itself reserved, even when one of the world champions of 1972, Franz Beckenbauer, was hired as an actor on the spot. Libero (1973) enjoys today a certain cult status – but only because of its wretched quality. The national, and even more the international, success of the German soccer film was always very limited. Who wanted to see Germans win? This is still one way of explaining it; another questions whether the long-range game can be represented in film at all and whether film is a match for the game’s open-ended drama. The spherical simply doesn’t fit into the square.

New push: the World Cup of 2006 and “The Miracle of Bern”

The 2006 World Cup may be regarded as the turning point. Sönke Wortmann’s popular success The Miracle of Bern (2004), conceived with a view to the tournament in Germany, pointed the way. The legendary German World Cup team of 1954 was not the focus of the film. In the nostalgic garb of a period film, Wortmann embedded the events round the national team’s coach Sepp Herberger and his men in the complex story of a traumatized war veteran and his young son. Sentimental and comic elements are condensed into an explicitly “post-heroic” portrait of the German post-war society. Unquestioned mythologizing of the hero, such as we know it mainly from American sports films, hardly suits the German self-image.

Since then the soccer film has been considerably diversified. There is the successful kicker film series Die Wilden Kerle (The Wild Guys, since 2003) about a young people’s team and their soccer field, which focuses on anti-authoritarian rebellion, but also values such as fairness, integration and tolerance. In the comedy FC Venus (2006) men and women teams compete against each other. The subject of homosexuality and soccer was already taken up in 2004 in Guys and Balls (Männer wie wir). Most recently Der ganz große Traum (The Great Dream) showed how soccer and its rules were imported to imperial Germany by the teacher Konrad Koch.

Fan euphoria and new acceptance

The broad spectrum follows a long-term trend: the acceptance of the game across all segments of the population has, as in the rest of the world, become greater. The fan euphoria of 2006 was less the trigger as the expression of this development: on the occasion of the big soccer event of the World Cup, re-united Germany presented itself as a colorfully mixed, cosmopolitan and, above all, enthusiastic nation. The ugly reality of fan riots and other exaggerated identifications – still present in the hard dramas Nordkurve (North Curve, 1992) or the prole comedy Fußball ist unser Leben (Soccer Is Our Life, 1999) – were faded out. To be a football fan today, club loyalty and the ability to hold your drinks is as unnecessary as are expertise in the game, having a specific gender or possession of a German passport.

An only seemingly opposite trend to these “fun soccer” films is the increasing popularity of documentaries on the game. Again it was Sönke Wortmann, with his Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen (Germany. A Summer’s Tale), who made the start. The video recording of the joyous World Cup squad of 2006 even had more moviegoers than The Miracle of Bern. Such documentaries, often shot by amateurs, address above all an informed, mainly urban audience with an interest in backgrounds. They are an integral part of the annual Berlin International Soccer Film Festival 11mm. It presents reports on popular, but seldom appreciated, personalities such as the former FC Bavaria youth coach Hermann Gerland (Der Tiger in München [The Tiger in Munich], 2008), Muslim women soccer players in Berlin-Kreuzberg (Football Under Cover, 2008), and the enigmatic rise of the provincial soccer club FC Hoffenheim into the Bundesliga (Das Leben ist kein Heimspiel [Life Isn’t a Home Game], 2010). When the legendary ex-goalkeeper Sepp Maier presented his private video of the 1990 World Cup (We are the Champions, 2012), the house was sold out days in advance. Such an echo would have been unimaginable a few years before.

A good team: soccer film and fan culture

Whether nostalgic drama, humorous kicker comedy or affectionate amateur video, the German soccer film is now a permanent part of the growing and diverse fan culture. Cinematic high-points are as little to be expected as international success. But in addition to glossy studio productions, which are rather spurned by traditional fans, new and experimental formats can enrich the daily media hubbub around the leather sphere. The soccer film delivers what is more and more lost in official sports reporting: backgrounds, fascinating sidelights on the “greatest pastime in the world”, and the love of the game as such.

The following football films are shown at Goethe-Instituts around the world:

“Das Wunder von Bern” (The Miracle of Bern)
Director: Sönke Wortmann, colour, 117 minutes, 2003
An impressive snapshot of life in 1954: the unexpected victory at the football world cup in Bern is linked with tough everyday reality in the industrialised Ruhr region. A late returnee has to settle back into civilian life. All’s well that ends well. The Federal Republic is the World Cup winner, and peace is restored within the family.

“Der ganz große Traum” (The Great Dream)
Director: Sebastian Grobler, 35mm, colour, 113 minutes, 2011
“Der ganz große Traum” is based on the true story of Konrad Koch, teacher and football pioneer, and tells the story of how football began in Germany, and of a school class that gels to form a real team when the new teacher infects them with his football fever. The journey through time leads to an era in which discipline and order still prevailed, and football was dubbed the “English disease” in the media.

“Football under Cover”
Directors: Ayat Najafi, David Assmann, colour, 89 minutes, 2006–2008
Tehran, April 2006: the first official friendly match between the Iranian national women’s team and a regional girls’ team from Berlin is held, watched by more than 1000 cheering women. There’s uproar on the terraces, people sing and dance, the stadium is highly charged with girl power. Outside at the stadium gates: a few men who try to catch a glimpse through the fence. They are barred from entry today. A year of hard work preceded this event – but at the end, having overcome numerous obstacles, they do actually play. And these 90 minutes are more than just a game of football. This is where the desire for self-determination and justice is discharged, and one thing is clear: change is possible.