“The Keeper” is a stately, sturdy to the edge of stolid film biography of Bert Trautmann, legendary and beloved goalie for Manchester City soccer from the late ’40s into the 1960s.
It’s what he did before that career that makes his story different. Trautmann was a German paratrooper interned in Britain as a POW, recruited to put on the boots for a local British club before the war was over. And although the film goes to some pains to address the former Hitler Youth member and Iron Cross-awarded military volunteer past, showing attacks of conscience and regret, I can’t say the Nazi-washing feels complete.
You could certainly understand the mass protests when he came on to play goal for Man City in 1949, something director Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s film takes pains to show.
David Kross (“The Reader,” “War Horse”) is Trautmann, captured in early 1945 and sent to a camp in Lancashire. A comrade assures him “We have Nazi discipline in this camp,” a threat designed to keep the prisoners committed to the cause.
As Sgt. Smythe (Harry Melling) would just as soon dig “a mass grave for you bastards,” maintaining that hate for the enemy shouldn’t be difficult.
But gruff grocer Jack (John Henshaw) spies the Aryan blond in goal for a camp team, and thinks he could help St. Helen’s A.C. avoid the dreaded “relegation,” being kicked down to a lower level of British football.
“Play football. Keep your gob shut. Stumm (mute).”
And Jack’s got a daughter Trautmann’s noticed, the fiery redhead Margaret, played by Freya Mavor.
That looks like an offer “Bert” can’t turn down. But he won’t hide the fact that he’s a “Jerry” from his teammates, won’t let Jack bully him into thinking “I’m doing YOU a favor.” And he’s not likely to get anywhere with Margaret. If onl;y he could hear her tirade to her Dad at his little stunt.
“He’s a bloody NAZI. He raised his arm and yelled ‘Heil Hitler” like the rest.”
As Bert bargains his way into off-camp work at Jack’s grocery, Margaret makes the case for not forgiving and forgetting in no uncertain terms.
“You lot” she fumes, killed friends and family and “robbed us of our youth.”
She’ll come round. “Fraternizing with the enemy” or not, if you’ve ever seen a screen romance, you know the stations of the genre cross.
There are any number of points “The Keeper” could dropped the curtain, but this script takes Trautmann well into his professional career, diving into the controversy he stirred up, the firestorm he dealt with in the press.
It takes pains to show Trautmann’s attacks of conscience, the flashbacks that answer the ugly questions of “what you did (or didn’t do) in the war.”
The best scenes aren’t those flashbacks, but the Sgt’s determination to show a concentration camp made by the victorious allies to “re-educate” the “Good Germans” who survived the war, in Germany and in POW camps, and in the way the news the war had ended is broken to the defeated.
The soccer is the usual half-speed variety you see in the movies, and the love story, no matter how slowly the filmmakers think they’re taking it, feels abrupt — more pre-ordained than organic.
And frankly, setting up the Nazi in the camp dynamic and not doing more with Bert’s “fraternization with the English” is a cheat.
But the spot-on period detail and the performances carry this off. Henshaw gives the supporting cast — mostly British TV veterans — heft and heart, and Kross and Mavor have enough chemistry to let it work.
This isn’t an A-picture, either behind the camera or in front of it. It plays like a competent TV film, lacking the polish or “names” of a “Downton Abbey,” but good enough to work.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: David Kross, Freya Mavor, John Henshaw, Harry Melling, Dervla Kirwan, Chloe Harris and Gary Lewis.
Credits: Directed by Marcus H. Rosenmüller, script by Marcus H. Rosenmüller, Nicholas J. Schofield. A Menemsha release.
Running time: 1:58