DVD Review: The Miracle of Bern
The Miracle of Bern
Directed by Sönke Wortmann
Soda Pictures, 2003, £7
Sönke Wortmann’s The Miracle of Bern is a decade old now but its telling of the story of West Germany’s 1954 World Cup victory has begun to enjoy greater relevance given the current Nationalmannschaft’s increased popularity both at home and abroad.
Phenomenally popular on its release, the movie recreated a crucial moment in modern German history – a nation cowed by the horrors of the Nazi regime had, until then, scarcely cared to thrust its head above the parapet of the world stage while huge swathes of its cities continued to lie in ruins, austerity bit, and soldiers remained mired in Russian labour camps.
It is the story of one such fictional inmate that forms the central narrative of the film – a brave attempt to portray sweeping, historical events in the context of the personal. Richard Lubanski, played by Peter Lohmeyer, returns to the coal pits of the Ruhrgebiet with a strong sense of duty after eleven years in Siberia. That aching responsibility leads him to behave heavy-handedly to his waiting family, including a wife who has held the fort in the meantime, an elder son dabbling in communism, a precociously intelligent daughter and the runt of the litter, a football mad kid whose pet rabbits fails to last the pace.
Waking up to the meanness within himself and realising that this is a new, more humane Germany, Lubanski finally sees the light and indulges in a mad dash over the Alps in time for the World Cup final in Bern; young Matthias (played by Louis Klamroth) emerging from the tunnel of the Wankdorf Stadium with the match poised at 2-2 and Helmut Rahn, the player whom he just happens to know personally and who functioned as a surrogate father figure during his Dad’s absence, about to write himself into history.
So it’s hokum on a level hardly less outrageous than an episode of Batman and that’s the main drawback of the movie. Father and son are listening to a famous radio broadcast of the match as they negotiate a mountain pass, the arena remains curiously unlocked (there were no job’s worth stewards back then) and an accordion is wielded lustily on the team bus.
The occupants of said vehicle occupy the parallel story line – holed up in a sumptuous lakeside hotel in Spietz, the West German squad’s fortunes throughout the tournament are charted – from the horrific 8-3 group stage loss to Hungary via two wins over Turkey and quarter and semi-final wins over Yugoslavia and Austria respectively. Only the final, once again seeing the XI face up to the Mighty Magyars, is actually recreated and the director by and large avoids the common pitfall of the soccer movie in that the action is very convincingly depicted. Indeed, period detail is lovingly portrayed throughout – the image of the pithead looming over the terraces of Essen is an especially evocative one – and those common Fifties tropes of swing music and brylcreem make their statutory appearances.
Overall though, the movie does make cloyingly sentimental viewing – the soundtrack would make a nice accompaniment to a sickly bottle of liebfraumilch and the banter between the players is old fashioned and stilted – the family audience is being squarely targeted.
Hence, I feel the movie is a missed opportunity – the early fifties in Europe was a powder keg environment and one wonders if victory for a much more populous European power over one of the greatest teams of all time – that the Hungary of Puskás and Hidegkuti never won the trophy after their famous victories over Brazil and Uruguay, not to mention the earlier thrashing of the Germans, remains a crying shame.
Hindsight makes it difficult to regard the Germans as underdogs even if they clearly were – nor do subsequent allegations of methamphetamine use, albeit unsubstantiated and likely unwitting, help one to suspend one’s cynicism.
A better movie might examine the period from the Hungarian point of view, leading up to the failed revolution of 1956, the defection of key players to Spain and the malign influence of a bombastic and expansionist USSR – a wider exploration of the themes so marvellously depicted in Tibor Fischer’s novel of Hungarian basketball players Under the Frog. Such a picture would be grittier, altogether more nuanced and less saccharin.