As the second World War neared its conclusion, German soldier Bert Trautmann was captured by British troops and transferred to a POW camp in Lancashire. Little could anyone have predicted that, five years later, he would be playing first division soccer for Manchester City, and making a name for himself as one of the greatest goalkeepers the world had ever seen.
It’s the kind of story that’s only believable because it happened, but even then, The Keeper feels a little too neat to be taken entirely at face value. Exchanging the darkness of Trautmann’s Nazi history for overt sentimentality, director Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s film tells a corny tale that dilutes its hero’s journey in order to deliver an enjoyable, but safe experience.
The Keeper blends war drama, romance, and sport across its two hour runtime, and its the former that dominates the film’s first half. Arriving at camp, Trautmann’s (David Kross, The Reader) Iron Cross makes him a target for the ire of Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling, Harry Potter), who charges him with latrine duties. However, despite his accolades, Trautmann proves a mild-mannered prisoner who keeps his distance from the more extreme Nazis in camp.
Trautmann’s break comes when a game of soccer he is playing with fellow POWs is seen by Jack Friar (John Henshaw, Early Doors), a local shop owner and manager of St Helens Town soccer club. Friar is intrigued by Trautmann’s skill and, overlooking his anger against Germans, recruits him for the team.
It’s understandable that Friar – a selfish man obsessed with soccer – would put the game before politics. That’s not the case for just about everyone else, however. The St Helens players are initially furious but, like so many of those who oppose Trautmann’s presence throughout The Keeper, it doesn’t take much to convince them to shut up. Later, when the town finds out, there’s talk of outrage, but none of it is seen on screen. Considering the conflict between the concepts of Trautmann the Nazi soldier and Trautmann the soccer player is the central topic of the film, it’s surprising how little people seem to care, at least during The Keeper‘s first half.
The focus is instead put on the relationship between Trautmann and Margaret (Freya Mavor, Skins), Friar’s daughter. Their romance is by the numbers, so while there’s good chemistry between the actors, they don’t have much to work with. The notable exception is a scene in which Margaret addresses the Manchester City stakeholders who meet in an attempt to purge Trautmann from the club after his hiring results in a backlash by the Jewish community. Margaret condemns the group for failing to separate the man from the Nazi ideology they despise so much, and Mavor does a fantastic job of capturing her passion and anger.
The Keeper proves best in the third act, which is imbued with an emotional intensity that the rest of the film sorely lacks. Here we see Trautmann playing the most important game of his career, and witness the trauma that follows in the months after. It works because the audience understands the struggle that Trautmann and those that have supported him have gone through for him to establish a happy and fruitful life in England, even if The Keeper doesn’t quite convey it authentically.
Considering the source material, that seems a missed opportunity. Omission and romanticism are common elements of any biopic, but some key decisions – such as the one to depict Trautmann as a kind, peace-loving man forced into war rather than the fundamental Nazi he actually was – do more harm than good. Acceptance and empathy came as hard to Trautmann as they did to the British citizens who hated what he once represented. He discovered the good in these people – especially the Jewish community – through his experience, and they, in turn, embraced him.
By playing it safe, by making Trautmann sympathetic from the outset and overtly romanticising every aspect of his life, Rosenmüller and his collaborators have delivered a film that lacks what could have made it great. There’s plenty to enjoy here – the acting is good across the board, the production design is strong, and the soccer matches are dynamic and engaging – but The Keeper never really proves to be anything more than watchable.
The Keeper releases in Australian cinemas on July 25th.