Die elf Teufel / König der Mittelstürmer Review

Whereas this year’s World Cup prompted the inevitable tie-in DVD releases of The Great Escape and Escape to Victory here in the UK, the host nation went for something a little different. Rooting through their archives the ever-intriguing German label Filmmuseum have unveiled a couple of true rarities in the form of, arguably, the first two features ever to take football as their theme. Released barely months apart in 1927, Die elf Teufel – which translates as The Eleven Devils – and König der Mittelstürmer – King of the Centre Forwards – once again demonstrate Filmmuseum’s urge for letting us in on something altogether unexpected. And yet, nominally, this double-disc set could very well be their mainstream title to date.

On the whole, football movies have a tendency towards being popular movies, or at least those which concentrate on the players (as opposed to the hooliganism) do. Consider, for example, When Saturday Comes or Escape to Victory and you’ll find hugely optimistic films pitched at comic book levels which easily transcend their dour settings: the grim Northern “realities” of the former; the POW camp of the latter. Indeed, Die elf Teufel and König der Mittelstürmer are no different; both go for that Roy of the Rovers feel with their square-jawed, wide-eyed heroes and exciting big match finales. Furthermore, we find complicated, yet utterly predictable romances with young waifs, whilst the first film on the set goes as far as to describe itself as “a folk play”, an unarguable demonstration, surely, of its unpretentious, populist intents.

Needless to say, both dramas therefore unfold in familiar, perhaps even classical formats. Die elf Teufel adopts the melodramatic approach with its big club vs little club dynamics and the resulting tug-of-love crisis which our lead, the star player of course, must undergo in order to reach the triumphant final reel. Conversely, König der Mittelstürmer is more of a prototypical screwball comedy courtesy of its romantic jealousies and luxury weekends spent larking about in the country. And yet its narrative trajectory is almost exactly the same: here we find the triumph of the underdog once more as this particular star player battles big business into order to score that essential goal and get his girl back in time for the concluding fade out.

The difference in these two films lies primarily with their treatment of the sport itself. “The Sport of the Century!” cries out an intertitle from Die elf Teufel, meanwhile König der Mittelstürmer bemoans “this footballing fad!” and thus their dramas play out. Effectively, König der Mittelstürmer feels extremely contrived, the footballing elements always playing second fiddle and easily replacable; had it been a film about a hockey player, say, or a gymnast, then there would be little discernible effect overall. Die elf Teufel, however, is clearly in love with the game, none more so than when indulging in its experimental methods of capturing the matches themselves, all odd angles, expressionistic close-ups, sharp editing and, surprisingly, very little of the ball itself! Furthermore, these attitudes reflect the respective qualities of these titles overall. König der Mittelstürmer is undoubtedly creaky, even for its time, not to mention laboured, stagey and, unfortunately, desperately unfunny – ultimately it’s noteworthy for historical reasons as opposed to artistic ones. Die elf Teufel, on the other hand, feels far more alive. Its melodramatic excesses produce some terrific moments in the grand tradition (at times it even recalls a watered-down Sunrise), there are some fine performances from its enthusiastic leads (including Gustav Fröhlich of Metropolis fame), and it never errs towards the heavy-handed even as its morals are crystal clear. Overall, it makes for a terrifically engaging piece of entertainment and, given the general standards of the footballing movies which have appeared since, a contender for one of the best films to focus on the sport as well as one of the first.

The Discs

Die elf Teufel and König der Mittelstürmer are treated to their own individual discs on this Region 0 package. In both cases the presentations are largely fine, or at least within the context of what we should expect from films made in the late twenties. König der Mittelstürmer, in particular, is blighted by an excess of nitrate damage (at times it feels as though an unknown Norman McLaren short is invading proceedings), yet it’s also the case that this ageing print is the only known one in existence. The important elements, namely the contrast levels and the overall clarity, are really quite fine. Neither film has been tinted, but then we’re getting the photography shown off in a fine light anyhow, so this never becomes a problem. As to the soundtracks, both are available either in complete silence or with improvised piano tracks. Subtitles are also present for the intertitles, the ones for König der Mittelstürmer having been recreated given the damage which the print had incurred. Die elf Teufel, however, comes with its originals intact.

The extras content is limited to a single short documentary, but this piece is really quite intriguing and more than worthy of a place on the disc. Filmed in 1924, Duisburger Stadion takes a peak at the pitch in question and the Germany-Italy match which was played there that year. What’s particularly interesting about this effort is not so much what’s good about it but what isn’t; clearly moving pictures representation of the game was rather limited back then as the static, uninteresting shots repeatedly hammer home. In fact, many of the more interesting details from the match – a broken arm, the fact that Germany lost – are either non-existent or completely glossed over. (As with the main features, there are again a number of subtitle options to translate the intertitles.)

This disc is available direct via the Edition Filmmuseum website.

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