The Miracle of Bern Review

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
Bill Shankly, Liverpool manager 1959-1974

There is no doubting the passion that the beautiful game inspires in many people, but at least as far as the silver screen is concerned, there is yet to be a football film that lifts the sport anywhere close to the realms of true life drama. The Americans take their sporting films much more seriously, so it is surprising that films about sports that the rest of the world actually play – though thin on the ground – are usually landed with the standard underdog-makes-good formula. The best examples of football films – Escape to Victory and Shaolin Soccer - have thrilling football match sequences that almost achieve that sense of life and death in the balance, but in the end, both films operate within the realms of pure fantasy. The adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch certainly captured the fervour the game inspires in its supporters and the impact football has on their individual lives, but it never conveyed the sport as having a widespread social impact that truly affects the lives of a nation. The Miracle of Bern, the story of Germany’s 1954 World Cup victory over the invincible Hungarians attempts to relate the team’s victory to the inspiration for the economic turnaround of a country devastated by the war, but unfortunately it falls quite a bit short of the mark.

Rather than following the German national team through the ups and downs of qualifying for the tournament, the film follows the fortunes of a young boy, Matthias Lubanski (Louis Klamroth), who lives with his family in a small mining town in the Ruhr. An avid supporter of the local team Rot Weiss Essen, Matthias is adopted by the team as a mascot and - never having known his father who went to the Russian Front before he was born - Matthias regards the team’s top player Helmut Rahn (Sascha Göpel) as something of a father figure. Essen are unfortunately, a poor team, but Rahn has been selected for the national team due to play in the upcoming World Cup in Switzerland. But Matthias’ hopes of following the fortunes of the team’s progress in the tournament are set back by the return of his father (Peter Lohmeyer) who has been a prisoner for 11 years in a Siberian work camp.

From the start of the film it is clear that the human-interest element is main focus of the film, rather than the trials and tribulations of the national football team. The focus is on the relationship between Matthias’ father and the rest of his family as he tries to readjust to life back home and to a society that has changed in his absence. He makes a few mistakes in his old-style disciplinarian methods, but eventually, through his son’s love of football, he manages to relate to them all again. This is however pretty much fluff stuff of predictable family conflicts and comfortable resolutions with only the most tenuous of links to the off-screen developments on the international football competition. For a large part of the film, the football drama takes place off-screen, Matthias for all his supposed fervour being for the most part inexplicably unmoved by the fate of team and Helmut Rahn’s involvement, hearing little more of their progress than the scores related to him by his friends. There is development in the boy’s social and football skills however, gaining a few tips from his father, he progresses from being the kind of boy who is selected last when his friends are choosing teams - even the girls get picked before he does – to finding a position that suits him and consequently his own place in the world. Yes, it’s all as obvious as that. Another minor story thread of a journalist and his wife travelling to Bern to cover the event seems however to have no relevance to the film or its development whatsoever.

Most baffling however is how little screen time is given over to the achievements of the German football squad in the 1954 World Cup. Until the final itself in Bern you don’t so much as see a single ball being kicked by a professional player in a football match. Players lie around in hotel bedrooms and discuss the team selections and their disappointments, the manager Sepp Herberger (Peter Franke) gives progress reports to the German press contingent in typical stating-of-the-obvious football-speak (“the ball is round and the match is 90 minutes”), while the results are communicated through radio reports or in subtitles on the screen. While admirably restrained – perhaps realising that there is only so much tension that can be generated out of a string of football games, particularly when the results are already a matter of history – there is not much suspense or tension generated by the film. There are not too many Roy of the Rovers cliff-hangers here as Germany lose to Hungary 8-3 in their first match only to qualify in a play-off against Turkey by 7-2. Or so we are told, since we never see so much as a glimpse of any of the matches themselves.

The lack of any tension generated by near absence of any match action is certainly detrimental to the film. Both Matthias and manager Herberger remain blankly impassive and accepting of the team’s results, and until we get to the final, there is very little indication given of the importance of the event. While you might at least expect the struggle of the team to be mirrored by the struggle of Matthias’s father to adapt to the changing world around him and by extension the struggle of the German people to overcome the post-war poverty and social upheaval, there is no clear link demonstrated between what happens on the pitch and what happens off it. The football, when it finally makes its way onto the screen in the Germany vs. Hungary rematch for the 1954 World Cup Final in Bern, is pretty well reconstructed, but retains a feel of glossy period recreation in picture book imagery, lacking, like the rest of the film, any real sense of the period and the hardships that made the achievement of the 1954 German team in Bern such a turning point for the nation.

A strong independent UK distributor of lesser-known independent and world cinema titles, Soda Pictures make their debut on DVD with a first wave of DVD releases that include This Is Not A Love Song, The Saddest Music In The World and The Miracle of Bern. The DVD release for The Miracle of Bern is encoded for Region 2.

There are times as a reviewer when you think that perhaps you set standards a little too high for the DVD format to ever live up to and end up being a little harsh for minor issues with a transfer. Then you get a release like this and it reminds you how good a DVD transfer can be. Perfectly sharp, stunning detail, delicately balanced tones and warm, natural colours - a rock solid, stable image with not a mark or artefact to be seen anywhere. Absolutely perfect. High quality transfers like this are all too rarely seen on UK releases of international films. Other DVD distributors take note – it can be done.

Similarly, there is little to fault with the audio track. It’s presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is encoded for channelling through Pro Logic surround and that is quite adequate for the demands of the film’s soundtrack. The sound effects and dialogue are crystal clear, as is the rather overly lush orchestral soundtrack.

English subtitles are optional and clearly read throughout.

Not too much in the way of extra features - Colour Scenes from the World Cup 1954 (10:25) show archival action from a couple of the real matches in the tournament including Hungary’s 8-3 demolishing of Germany in their first encounter, as well as both colour and black and white footage of the final, where the action can be seen as having been well reconstructed for the film. A Documentary Trailer: The Real Miracle of Bern (2:14) advertises a documentary on the real-life events behind the famous win, with interviews from the people involved.

It might have subtitles, but that doesn’t make The Miracle of Bern an art film by any means – this is strictly mainstream fare and surprisingly unchallenging material at that, even for a sporting film. The storyline takes what could have been an interesting parallel between the success of the German team in the 1954 World Cup with the upturn in the social situation of the German people and covers it in the warm, rosy glow of nostalgia, in so doing robbing the film of any sense of excitement, tension or of life hanging in the balance. As far as Bill Shankly’s claim goes, the importance of football is yet to be proven on the cinema screen and reports of a film about the life of David Beckham and a sequel to Escape To Victory don’t hold out much hope for it being achieved in the near future. So when Pat Nevin is quoted on the cover saying that The Miracle of Bern is “the best football film ever”, considering the competition, it’s not really much of a claim. As part of Soda Pictures’ first wave of DVD releases however the superlative quality of the film’s presentation sets a very high standard for other independent distributors of international cinema releases on DVD.

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