Bernhard Trautmann was a Nazi. He grew up in the Hitler Youth movement, volunteered for combat duty as a paratrooper in the Wehrmacht, and until he was captured by Allied forces at the end of World War II, he was considered an outstanding soldier. During his three years on the eastern front against the Soviet army he received five military decorations, including the prestigious Iron Cross 1st Class for bravery in battle; he was also promoted to a rank equivalent to sergeant. In the new film “The Keeper,” these chapters in his biography are an important but forgotten part, due to an attempt to draw a heroic portrait of a German soccer player who became a British legend wearing the uniform of Manchester City.
The plot starts out immediately with the Allied capture of Trautmann (David Kross) and his arrival at a prisoner of war camp in Essex, England. Director Marcus H. Rosenmüller uses this period of incarceration to clarify two things: Trautmann stood out as a goalkeeper in the prisoners’ pickup soccer games – and no less important: There are good Germans in the PoW camp, and he is one of them.
Jack (John Henshaw), a shop owner who also manages an amateur soccer team in a town outside the city of Manchester, obtains a permit for the gifted goalkeeper to work outside the camp, so that he can save his team from being relegated to a lower division. Rosenmüller, who also helped write the screenplay of “The Keeper,” chose to devote most of the plot to this period in the protagonist’s his life: when Trautmann was working in Jack’s store, played on his team and became romantically involved with his daughter Margaret (Freya Mavor).
With a life story that could provide material for several films, or at least a miniseries, Rosenmüller seems to have decided to present a mixture of everything. He draws inspiration from both PoW stories and sports dramas, but emphasizes the romantic story. It’s impossible to miss the fact that an effort was made to create a film that will attract more than soccer fans. The romance takes the form of a low-key courtship that develops between “Bert” – the British nickname adopted by Trautmann – and Margaret, who finds it difficult at first to accept the presence of a German soldier in her surroundings. The fact that the protagonist is quiet for the most part is used by the filmmakers to describe a process – whereby anger turns to forgiveness – that is repeatedly experienced by those with whom he comes into contact.
You don’t have to read the biography of Trautmann himself to understand the twists of the plot here, especially when the narrative duplicates itself in his encounter with every character: Everyone suspects that he is an evil German, only to discover that he is a wonderful goalkeeper and a nice guy, in that order.
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The relationship with Margaret also echoes this pattern, but the director’s attempt to affect the viewer emotionally is only partially successful. In the last third of the film, in which Rosenmüller quickly skips through the famous way-stations in Trautmann’s career, as in a Wikipedia entry – it no longer works. And that’s a shame, because apparently the filmmakers seem to have missed the dramatic potential of his career in Manchester City, which was initially met by fierce protests by Jews and non-Jews alike.
While the supporting characters like Margaret and her father are convincing, the real missed opportunity actually involves the hero. The filmmakers efforts to focus on a liberal sentiment – with the conciliatory message of “We only make peace with our enemies” – fail not because of the message, but due to the superficial way in which it is treated.
“The Keeper” ostensibly addresses Trautmann’s past head-on, but only ostensibly. By the end of his life he had already become a national hero, who was also decorated by the British, but the script is too cautious in the way it deals with his past. There is an image repeated throughout the film of a Jewish boy – whose fate, like the rest of the film, is predictable – in an attempt to portray the German protagonist as more of a “bystander” than an active fighter in the Nazi forces. This visualized memory is designed to demonstrate the depth of Trautmann’s regret for acts he committed in his past, but it also enables the director to avoid dealing seriously with the theme at the heart of the film: For what exactly is he being forgiven?
The question of Trautmann’s mysterious past becomes a kind of magic act in the hands of the film’s creators, who are focusing attention on one thing in order to distract the viewer from what is important. And in fact, Trautmann is repeatedly asked to discuss his past, thereby creating the impression that the issue is at the forefront. But by the time one begins to really ponder this – the hero deflects a ball, makes some humane gesture, and captures hearts.
This narrative tactic works at the start but it wears off quickly, due to its intense and repetitive use throughout the film. By the end there are already other questions that are hard to sweep under the rug: To what extent could he have been forgiven if the flashbacks to the war had shown him with blood on his hands? The filmmakers preferred not to delve into this, and at the same time insist on demonstrating that they are doing so.
“The Keeper” offers a saccharine narrative for an unusual Cinderella story, in which the love of soccer (and a woman) overcomes the hatred of the enemy, in order to achieve reconciliation and serenity. But at the same time, it can be interpreted as a film that suggests that anyone can be forgiven, even a decorated Nazi, as long as he delivers a championship for your team.