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Thursday, 8 August 2019

Movie review: The Keeper, dir Marcus H Rosenmuller (2018)

This useful biopic would have been pretty out-there if it had been made a generation ago, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Instead we got the equally functional ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (dir Steven Spielberg, 1998). If ‘The Keeper’ had been made at that time, this review would have been very different.

The title of the movie has two meanings, the less technical of which is “something that you want to keep” and I think it is in the light of this reading that the thing can best be understood.

Hinging on the negative animus against Germans that existed in Britain after WWII, the film examines some aspects of the post-war settlement and benefits from very good performances by Freya Mavor as Margaret Friar, a young woman who married a German POW who became the goalkeeper for the Manchester City soccer team, and John Henshaw, who plays her father Jack.

The lead male character, Bert Trautmann, is played by a heavy-faced David Kross. Mavor’s agile features are a stark contrast to Kross’ usually impassive physiognomy and Henshaw’s dour-but-good-hearted paterfamilias is an effective foil for Kross’ earnest athlete, a man with simple aims and an understandably limited emotional vocabulary. Seen this way the casting for this movie has to be rated a success. The secondary characters are also effective although I found Rabbi Altmann (played by Butz Ulrich Buse) a bit thin.

This is a feel-good story and it doesn’t make many demands on the audience, hence the primitiveness of the part created for Buse, whose character might profitably have been given a bit more depth and some extended speaking lines. The filmic Trautmann is almost uniformly mild-mannered and dutiful and from what I have been able to glean from online sources some contrary things about the man’s life – his second and third marriages, his combative behaviour on-field, which resulted in a number of referee warnings – were omitted in the making of the film.

I wasn’t entirely happy furthermore with the line the movie takes on Trautmann’s complicity with Nazism. The line, “I was only doing my duty,” seems to be a commonplace apologia from Germans who lived at the time that I’m not sure the facts of the case entirely justify. Hitler was elected to office initially on the back of certain stated policies, so you can’t really turn around at the end of the war and say, “We didn’t know.”

But what I think is probably beside the point, although a point I want to make in the above is that the life of the goalkeeper has been sanitised for artistic (and, possibly, political) reasons. On the other hand, this film will mean a lot more to Brits than it does to some random Australian blogger. The match scenes, especially, meant little to me although I would pretend, when I was a boy growing up in Sydney, to take part with a friend of mine in mock FA Cup finals on local sports fields.

The speed at which time passes in the film is not uniform and this is for dramatic reasons. In order to make sense of Trautmann’s eventual success you need to see where he came from and so the early years are rendered in some detail, starting from the time when the soldier is captured in the woods in Germany. He is taken to a camp in England and is kept there when victory is declared by the Allies, but while living there he catches the eye of a grocer (Henshaw’s Jack Friar) who is involved with coaching a local soccer team.

In the end, Friar takes Trautmann into his household so that the young man can have a base while he continues playing for his team. While living in the house, Trautmann continues his wooing of Friar’s daughter Margaret and the two eventually marry. The next step is for Trautmann to be accepted by the Manchester community in his role as star goalkeeper, and in this circumstance he comes up against censure from a local rabbi who resents the team’s choice. Before the film ends other trials facing Bert and Margaret must be endured or overcome.

The film is uneven also in its emotional engagement with the audience. In the early parts you are fully engaged with Trautmann’s story as he goes from a position of disadvantage to one of security. This is a classical underdog narrative and it is easy to orchestrate cinematic material with this kind of dynamic in play. Once the keeper has reached the apex of his craft, however, it becomes more difficult to sustain the kind of tension that a movie needs to keep its audience engaged and happy. In these later parts, the movie’s tone noticeably flags and without a strong performance from Maven, it would have been very flat indeed.

This is a common problem with movies of this kind, where one character embodies ideas that have to carry so much baggage. How do you go about dramatizing such a life without resorting to cliché and without making every moment imponderably heavy? This is why fiction exists. In fact, history is one of the earliest types of creative endeavour but it was never the only one. Fiction allows you to cast off the rigid jacket of convention and explore the same kinds of ideas that nonfiction can convey but without the spanner of community expectation jamming the works.

One theme that is explored in this film is regret – communal regret for Germany and an equivalent, countervailing sense of grievance for the English – and this is dramatized for the audience through the use of a small Polish or Ukranian boy the young Trautmann comes across when he is a solider in the field. The boy is aged about seven or eight and he is one of a group of children that come face to face with a group of German soldiers. I won’t spoil the film by telling you what happens to the boy, but in order to give substance to the idea of atonement which the filmmakers make central to the meaning of the movie, the child appears in period costume, including a baggy cap, at key moments within the realm of Trautmann’s imagining. I wonder how British audiences feel about this film but, for me, this dramatic device was not wholly convincing. 

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