The remarkable reconciliation tale of Bert Trautmann – and why his story is more relevant than ever today

With far-Right groups like The Football Lads Alliance emboldened by the populist earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump, a film about a Nazi paratrooper becoming an English football legend sounds ill-advised. Thankfully Trautmann, the new movie about former Manchester City goalkeeper Bernhard Trautmann (David Kross), celebrates football’s ability to bring enemies together.

Born during the worst period of German history, Trautmann was 10 when the Nazi Party came to power, and therefore eligible for the Hitler Youth. By 17 he was ready for war. Most of his friends would not live to see their 20s, let alone go on to become the first German to lift the FA Cup, but Trautmann’s life was one of euphoric highs and traumatising lows.

Trautmann is a British/German co-production focused on the goalkeeper’s symbolic role in post-war reconciliation.  Manchester City supporters will remember Trautmann best for bravely playing the final 17 minutes of their 1956 FA Cup victory with a broken neck. But despite making 545 appearances for the club, he wasn’t always a fan favourite.

Manchester was still rebuilding after the war when Trautmann signed for City, and his arrival sparked outrage. His past, including the Iron Cross he was awarded for bravery, had been well publicised and provoked public protests at his unveiling. But unlike the fans, director Marcus H. Rosenmueller decides to ignore the war, opening his film with the moment Trautmann was captured by Allied Forces and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Lancashire.

Football matches were a regular occurrence in the camps, but It wasn’t until August 1948 – after they were abolished – that Trautmann began playing football professionally. He started his career with non-league club St Helens Town, but the film focuses on the romance that flourished between Trautmann and Margaret, the daughter of St Helens Town manager Jack Friar.

The pair first meet when Margaret accompanies her father on a routine supply trip to the PoW camp. It’s here, during a muddy penalty shootout, that Friar first notices Trautmann’s ability. Never one to miss an opportunity, he decides to take the shot-stopper out of the camp under the pretence of needing an extra pair of hands in his shop. A few days later, Friar bundles Trautmann into his car and rushes him to the stadium for an important relegation decider.

These fabricated sequences, where Trautmann is removed from his PoW camp to play for St Helens, and subsequently falls in love with Margaret, are laden with clichés and contrivances. But by placing Trautmann in the Friar household, Rosenmueller can explore how the German coped with the daily barrage of bigotry he received from those unable to put their bitterness aside.

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“Why should I help you?”, asks Trautmann after discovering his role in Friar’s plan. “Do you like smelling of shit?” Friar responds, “or do you want to play football?”

Aware that his players won’t be as accepting of Trautmann as he is, Friar gives him a bandage to wear over his neck and tells him to pretend he’s lost his voice. “This is Bert,” he announces as they enter the dressing room, “from… Bradford.”

It’s a moment of offhand humour, but a joke rooted in truth, as it was during his time with St Helens that Trautmann first became known as “Bert”, because his team-mates struggled with the abbreviated version of his name, Bernd.

A confident man, Trautmann refuses to stay quiet, resulting in a heated dressing-room brawl moments before kick-off. However, once the game begins, it doesn’t take long for his ability between the sticks to win over the fans and his new team-mates. His performances only get better, and it isn’t long before Manchester City manager Jock Thompson arrives to offer Trautmann a trial.

Unfortunately, supporters at Maine Road were much less forgiving, and Trautmann’s arrival sparked outrage among the city’s ex-servicemen and large Jewish community, with one demonstration attracting over 20,000 protesters. To make matters worse, Trautmann was replacing the recently retired Frank Swift, one of the greatest goalkeepers in the club’s history. Some fans even threatened to cancel their season tickets and boycott the club entirely.

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In the film, Trautmann’s unveiling resembles a war crimes trial, but it was nothing compared to the yells of “Kraut” “Nazi” and “War Criminal” he would receive from the terraces. The pressure eased slightly when left-back Eric Westwood publicly backed him, saying; “There’s no war in this dressing room.”

However, it wasn’t until an open letter by Dr Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester, was published in the Manchester Evening Chronicle that fans began to embrace Trautmann. “Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans,” Altmann wrote, “we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred. Each case must be judged on its own merits”.

After years of indoctrination, in which he was taught to believe that the Jews were responsible for wrecking Germany’s economy, the letter was a turning point in Trautmann’s career – and the moment of compassion stayed with him all his life.

“Thanks to Altmann, after a month it was all forgotten,” he told the Guardian columnist Louise Taylor three years before his death in 2013. “Later, I went into the Jewish community and tried to explain things. I tried to give them an understanding of the situation for people in Germany in the 1930s and their bad circumstances. I asked if they had been in the same position, under a dictatorship, how they would have reacted? By talking like that, people began to understand.”

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Although hardened mentally after witnessing the massacring of Ukrainian Jews during the war, Trautmann never hid from his past. But Rosenmueller’s film opts to overlook the horrors he observed, instead presenting Trautmann as a caring man haunted by a single tragic event involving a young Jewish boy and a football. Although sanitising his story may make box office sense, it regrettably trivialises the complexity of his character; the film ignores the fact that Trautmann, like many Germans seduced by Nazism, struggled to completely discount the ideology he was taught.

However, despite rewriting history these inaccuracies help impart the power of football to unify communities. “When I play football it’s all about the moment,” explains Trautmann after Margaret asks him why men enjoy “mindlessly kicking a ball about”. “In that moment” he says, “there’s no before and no after.”

It can be argued that football validates dangerous notions of nationalism, but as Rosenmueller’s film demonstrates, it can also play an important role in the complex and lengthy process of peace and reconciliation. No other sport is as classless, universal and representative of society as a whole than football, and when used correctly it can help break down identity structures tied to conflict and replace them with new identity structures anchored to more positive and peaceful relationships with communities.

Rosenmueller’s film may struggle to articulate the complexities of Trautmann’s character, but the role he played in changing public opinion can’t be ignored and, if ever there was a story of forgiveness and reconciliation that needed retelling right now, it would surely be his. He arrived as an enemy, but went on to become the first foreign player to be voted England’s Player of the Year. Football alone may not be able to heal a nation’s deep wounds, but Trautmann suggests that, for at least 90 minutes, it can induce a much-needed sense of cohesion.

The remarkable reconciliation tale of Bert Trautmann – and why his story is more relevant than ever today
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