This was a rather romanticised and Roy-of-the-Rovers-ised version of the Bert Trautmann story, and it certainly wasn’t historically (or geographically) accurate, but it was an entertaining film and all the main points were there. In summary – I always thought everyone knew this story, but I gather not everyone does! – Bert Trautmann, a 22-year-old German soldier, was taken prisoner in 1945 and brought to North West England as a POW. He chose to remain here rather than be repatriated, and began playing for St Helens Town as a goalkeeper. In 1949, he was signed by City, and there was an almighty row: people were genuinely very shocked and distressed that a top-level club, especially one in a city with a large Jewish community, had signed someone who’d fought for the Nazis. There were big protests, a lot of letters of complaint were sent, and season tickets were returned. Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who’d come to Manchester as a refugee and lost both his parents and many other relatives and friends in the Holocaust, wrote a very courageous letter to a local paper, urging people not to blame one man for the war and the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.
Things calmed down here, although for a while Trautmann continued to be abused at away matches, but eventually he won widespread respect, especially after he famously played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final, which City won, with a broken neck. Tragically, a few months later, his 5-year-old son was killed in a car crash. Despite everything, he carried on playing, is regarded with great respect in Manchester by City fans and we United fans alike, is seen as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was awarded an honorary OBE for his work in improving Anglo-German relations. It’s a hell of a story even without film-makers romanticising it! Very watchable film, and wonderful use of Abide With Me, the Cup Final hymn which means a lot to so many people. I missed this at the pictures, but it’s out on Sky now, and is recommended viewing.
The timescale was all a bit bonkers in this – one minute it was VE Day, then the next minute the prisoners were being repatriated, and a minute after that it was 1949 – but, OK, you can only fit so much into a two-hour film, and I understand that they didn’t want to spend ages showing him in three different camps. It was all very romanticised, though! In this version of events, he was showing off his goalkeeping skills at the POW camp (as you do!) when his future wife and future father-in-law turned up to deliver some goods from their shop, and his future father-in-law talent-spotted him for St Helens Town, and invited him to work at his shop and move in with his family! Then drove home through miles and miles of stunning open countryside, up hill and down dale … between Ashton-in-Makerfield and St Helens. The East Lancs Road does not look like that, believe me! It is, however, true that he played for St Helens Town, and married the daughter of the club secretary. And, OK, it was all very Roy of the Rovers this way, especially as they had him saving the club from relegation, so I suppose it made for good viewing.
Then he signed for City. There’d been some unease at St Helens Town, but they, with all due respect, were a small non-league club. City were a First Division club, and one with thousands of Jewish fans to boot. The film did show the protests, and it did mention the rabbi’s letter, and show the famous scene in the dressing room in which the club captain said that there was no war there, but … well, whilst we all know what happened during the war, I thought it should still have made it clearer just why people were so upset. Some clips from the radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials would probably have been the best way of doing it, along with some shots of the damage done by the air raids. It did, to be fair, show flashbacks to him witnessing a young child being shot dead in the Nazis in Ukraine – but, in fact, he saw a full-scale Einsatzgruppen massacre. Maybe it would have been too much to have shown a re-creation of that in the film. And yet maybe they should have done – as much to show how much he had to cope with as to show how much City fans and everyone else had to deal with.
They did mention his having won the Iron Cross, and there were some vague references to “war crimes”, but I just didn’t feel that it fully got across the depth of anti-German feeling in the UK at the time and the reasons for it. I don’t know how people at the time came to terms with the Nuremberg Trials, with the details of what the Nazis did. I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a war documentary, but I thought it could have tried harder to show the effect that that hearing about the Nazi atrocities had on people, and why that made it so difficult for everyone to accept a former Nazi soldier joining a leading club. There was a lot of very 21st-century sounding talk about forgiveness and someone trying to find a new home, but I did feel that some more explanation was needed.
And I think they could also have done with, rather than just going on about how he had no choice, talking more about how he went into the Hitler Youth at the age of 9. Because of Jojo Rabbit – although obviously this film predates that one – there’s quite a bit of talk at the moment about the indoctrination of children. Lads like Trautmann joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth as if it were like joining the Cubs – it was somewhere where they could get involved in sports, have fun with their friends. So they were indoctrinated from a very early age. It’s important to understand that.
However, you can only get so much into a film. And it wasn’t meant to be a documentary. And, as I’ve said, the main points were there. It was a difficult time. It was brave of Trautmann to stand his ground, when he was getting death threats, and being abused at every match. And braver yet of Rabbi Altmann to get involved, after everything that had happened to him. He really was a hero.
Anyway, after that, we got lots of football, some of it actual film from the time. I think there was a bit of Bertie Magoo-ing going on here, though! Come on, how do you make a football film set in Manchester in the 1950s and not even mention the Busby Babes?! They could at least have shown Trautmann’s testimonial, when he captained a combined United-City XI. Or maybe it was just that the film didn’t have much sense of Manchester at all. Most of it was filmed in Northern Ireland!
I’ve always been quite sad that I was born too late for that era, when many United fans would go to watch City when United were away, and many City fans would go to watch United when City were away, without the unpleasantness that developed in the rivalries between different clubs later on. We still get that Wider Football Family feeling sometimes, especially in times of trouble, but it’s not like it was then.
Heigh-ho! But the way they showed the legendary 1956 Cup Final was great. And then … I could hardly watch the bit where the little lad was killed, knowing what was coming. Then … well, there was a strange scene in which Trautmann had a fight in a cemetery with a sergeant from the POW camp, whose wife and children had been killed in the Christmas Blitz, and who persuaded him to carry on playing. And then it showed flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Ukraine, and showed him telling his wife that he felt that their son’s death was his punishment for not intervening to stop the murder of a child there.
I don’t know where the idea that he felt it was karma came from, and I’m assuming it was fictional, but it was very powerful, especially with “Abide With Me” playing in the background, and it was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for those who fought for the Nazis to deal with it all. There’s a lot of tension over Holocaust remembrance at the moment, and the authorities in some countries seem keen to play down aspects of what happened. That’s wrong in so many ways. We need to keep talking about it. All aspects of it.
The film didn’t tell us that the Trautmanns’ marriage sadly ended as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of one of their children, but it did tell us about all the awards Trautmann received, both for his football and for his work in the community. His story really is incredible. Carrying on playing in a Cup Final with a broken neck would be story enough, but the story of the Nazi soldier – and he was initially classified as a Nazi whilst he was a POW – who became a hero in English football is something that you just couldn’t make up.
Football can do that. It can bring people together. It’s not always Roy of the Rovers. It’s often anything but. But it does throw up some absolutely amazing stories, and this is one of them. Don’t go expecting historical accuracy, or indeed geographical accuracy, but, if you get chance, this is still a very good film to see.