Last week I saw a film that has won prizes at several film festivals, including the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I took my father to see the drama The Keeper, about German soccer player Bert Trautmann, because I knew my dad was familiar with the film’s subject, a sportsmen hitherto obscure to most Americans, I think. By the time The Keeper’s end credits were rolling at my local theater, I was equally sure that audience members would be doing what my dad would have found unnecessary: googling Trautmann’s name.
Not that the film was short on bio. In a stirring first hour, the film casts Trautmann as a German soldier captured by British forces towards the end of World War II, and transferred to a POW camp in Lancashire, England, wherein he and his fellow prisoners are made to work menial jobs to repair local damage caused by Luftwaffe bombings. During a sandlot game of soccer (football in England) at the camp, a local tradesman who also manages the local team spots Trautmann playing goalkeeper and is impressed by the German’s skills. Soon this man is bargaining with camp officers, recruiting Trautmann as a ringer for his underperforming, relegation-threatened side. As a return favor, Trautmann works in the manager’s local shop, which spares the goalkeeper the indignity of the POW camp and also places him in the company of the manager’s pretty and spirited daughter, who later becomes Trautmann’s wife. After a series of strong performances, Trautmann is scouted by a major regional club, Manchester City, and a triumphant first act concludes with Trautmann signing a contract and winning the hand of his now former manager’s daughter.
Along the way, the story features residues of the German’s war experience. Among other things, he’s had to endure British soldiers who are vitriolic and bullying in their treatment of Trautmann and his comrades, and while showing newsreel of Nazi atrocities (the footage of liberated concentration camps like Belsen) seems fair and necessary, it stirs in Trautmann memories of events for which he feels guilty. One recurring flashback image or scene features a young Jewish boy whose football has been pilfered by a taunting German officer. In this memory, Trautmann comes to the rescue, man-handling the officer just as he is about to shoot the child. Later, imprisoned in England, his protestations of innocence are muted amid the hostility of the locals, but Trautmann’s patience and change of fortune changes the equation. After the war is ended, he refuses repatriation and a safe passage to his Bremen home, choosing instead to play football in England and wed his new sweetheart. But trouble explodes as he is introduced to the press as a new goalkeeper for Manchester City and local reporters grill him about his Nazi associations. Apparently, history records that his recruitment aroused a protest of nearly 20,000 people (according to—you guessed it—google), largely because it was discovered that Trautmann had previously been awarded the Nazi Iron Cross. In response, he haplessly repeats to reporters what had ultimately won the sympathy of his once distrusting wife: “I was a soldier. I had no choice”.
In time, Trautmann wins the sympathy, the acceptance, and the admiration of sports fans and the wider British public as he proves himself a star performer and a decent, ordinary citizen. A legendary highlight of his career is captured in a sequence about the 1956 FA Cup Final in which Trautmann breaks his neck—yes, breaks his neck—with a quarter hour left in the game, but continues to play until the competition’s end. City won the game and therefore the Cup, and after the crooked-necked Trautmann collects his winner’s medal, x-rays reveal the extent of his injury, which thereafter cements his place in British football folklore. Then something strange occurs, foreshadowing more tragedy. By this time, Trautmann and his wife have kids, one of which is an impish boy who is careless with a football when playing around his father’s hospital bed after that neck injury. This sparks more visions of the Jewish child whom Trautmann had supposedly saved according to the truncated memory shown earlier in the film. Then, as he continues recuperating in hospital, Trautmann’s son later takes his football into the street near their home and is run over and killed by an ice cream truck. Devastated by this loss, Trautmann and his wife sink into depression, with Trautmann now haunted by an intrusively shocking edit to his earlier memory. Later, he confesses the truth of his arresting trauma to his wife: the boy he once “saved” from that cruel Nazi officer was in fact not saved. Trautmann was actually stilled by inaction and simply watched as the officer executed the child. Previously, he had blocked the guilt of that inaction, re-writing the scene so as to maintain the image of an innocent, decent man who simply “had no choice”. Unburdening himself, he reveals the truth of that former moment, explaining to his wife that their son’s death was thus a karmic event. Bitterly, his wife rejects the theory as self-pity, and challenges Trautmann to take fuller responsibility for their shared loss.
Which he does. The epilogue to the drama features Trautmann resuming the career that stalled upon the family tragedy and playing on with dignity until 1964. He is awarded the Order of the British Empire (known by the shorthand, OBE) for services to the British public, is widely lauded for engaging leaders in the Jewish community, and via his example, improving post-war Anglo-Germanic relations. He indeed prevails as a decent man. But the reason I chose to write about this film has little to do with Trautmann’s celebrated life, and even less to do with his reputation as a decent man, though I don’t begrudge him that legacy. However, what fascinates this psychoanalytic observer is the running theme of traumatic flashbacks overlaid upon a primitive splitting defense. The traumatic memory is that of the Jewish boy victimized by the Nazi officer—the shock of witnessing that horrible incident—plus the experience of haplessly looking on without intervening, either during the incident or following it, by implication. The secondary defense lies in Trautmann’s censored memory of the event, which significantly alters its meaning, depicting Trautmann’s heroism versus his neglect, which in turn spares Trautmann lingering guilt. Ultimately, the fully revealed version of his memory disrupts a false self-image of amiability and innocence, which had been stirring tension amid happiness and fame until his son’s death intruded.
Initially, Trautmann’s gentle and winning personality is endearing. One cheers for him as his mischief frees him from the POW camp. Despite my own British heritage, I wanted him to defeat somehow the embittered officer who hazes him and his comrades. When he joins the local football team, it’s a pleasure to watch him make save after save, winning over his new teammates and a skeptical crowd. And when he casts a covetous glance at his manager’s daughter, and soon endures her cold shoulder because she, too, has feelings of anger and suspicion for anyone or thing German, the audience waits and hopes that soon enough he will win her heart also. When the flashback involving the Jewish boy first appears, it seems consistent with the spirit of the film to that point that Trautmann would be portrayed heroically, but when the scene ends abruptly with Trautmann pushing that Nazi officer’s arm away, I felt a twinge of…I don’t know…something. I didn’t know the history of this man beyond the broken neck in the Cup Final story. Watching the film, I didn’t know what was true and what may have been apocrypha, and had my nagging dislike of the first flashback led to critical scrutiny, I might have called out the faulty logic contained within it. After all, is it plausible that Trautmann would have survived, as in not been shot himself, had he actually intervened to save a Jewish child from execution?
In modern psychoanalysis, what happened to Trautmann that day might be termed the unconscious but not repressed. The retrospective judgment that history casts upon Germany is that its decent, ordinary citizens didn’t do enough to prevent the Holocaust. They didn’t care enough. They didn’t like Jews. As a result, Trautmann was unresponsive in a moment wherein an act of cruelty was first predictable and then imminent. Though it may seem harsh to write, he therefore merits no more or less of the judgment that history metes out to his generation’s countrymen. As for myself, I knew something was wrong with the sanguine portrayal within this film’s otherwise wonderful first half. Though I couldn’t pinpoint the matter, I somehow felt that I was being played. Let’s call that my unconscious but not repressed experience.