It sure as hell didn't start with Goal, or Escape to Victory, or even the Highbury Stadium Mystery. Football as a celluloid delight emerged with a Teutonic sheen, not a Hollywood gloss.
In autumn 1927, two silent films appeared in Germany, vying to be recognised as the first ever football feature: Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) directed by Zoltán Korda, and König der Mittelstürmer (King of the Centre Forwards) by Fritz Freisler. Both focused on a popular striker, combining his sporting career with a personal love story, and both looked to find new ways of filming football, with crucial games at their conclusions.
Working just before the arrival of sound film, Korda and Freisler aimed to exploit football’s ongoing popularity, recruiting well-known actors to play their stars (and Korda using top players for his sport scenes). Die elf Teufel’s lead, Gustav Fröhlich, appeared in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, whilst König der Mittelstümer starred Paul Richter, who was Siegfried in Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Unlike Lang’s films, they were not in the Expressionist tradition that began with Robert Wiene’s psychological horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: besides the matches, they used no unusual sets or camera angles; their stories were straightforward, with themes undoubtedly familiar to those who regularly filled Germany’s stadia.
Still strictly amateur, football became increasingly popular with the introduction of the eight-hour working day in Weimar Germany, which left time for leisure activities. According to Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger’s excellent history of German football, Tor, the first team founded by workers is thought to be Lipsia Leipzig, formed in 1893. Before the Great War, several workers’ clubs were established in the Ruhr, between Oberhausen and Dortmund, where a sizeable mining community emerged during German industrialisation. The desire for escapist entertainment during the war generated much greater interest in football, sustained after the ceasefire: the 1914 German Cup Final attracted 6,000 spectators; the 1920 Final drew six times that amount.
Die elf Teufel (subtitled ‘A Folk Play’ about ‘the sport of the century’) centred on workers’ club SC Linda, nicknamed The Devils, and the rich International, whose female mascot tries to seduce Tommy, Linda’s star, into joining them. SC Linda’s players are lathe operators and production line workers during the week, ‘united in their free time by their kit’, whilst International are so wealthy that they can afford an English coach, Mike Lawrence.
Germany had no national league until the Bundesliga was founded in 1963, with the Cup being the main competition. Inevitably, impoverished Linda (who hope to build a modest stadium “in 1947”) are drawn against International, but their dream tie is overshadowed by their awareness that International’s president has his eyes on leading goalscorer Tommy (whose surname is never given). Initially, Tommy seems ambivalent about his amateurism – when International’s president asks “Why haven’t we heard of you before?” he says “We can only play when we knock off” suggesting some weariness with being unable to live on his talents, which was increasingly shared by Germany’s top players. (Hitler’s ascension in January 1933 halted the German FA’s plans to discuss professionalism; German football remained amateur, at least officially, for another three decades.)
For Tommy, leaving SC Linda would also mean leaving the nice local girl and mascot who provided the club’s name. Gradually, he realises that he ought to choose Linda and her team, reaffirming his commitment to amateurism by telling International that “I am a sports man who is driven by passion,” and declining a thousand Mark signing-on fee. Agonising over his potential transfer, Tommy misses work and is threatened with the sack, as his factory had to halt production in his absence. On Linda’s birthday, International’s manager tells her club that ‘Your captain has signed for International and will be playing against you’, cruelly informing Linda that Tommy has fallen for their mascot. Korda shows Tommy at an International team dinner, looking the archetypal outsider – but before the big game, will he make the right decision?
The Cup match is Die elf Teufel’s main set piece: Korda builds the tension by showing the ramshackle stands heaving with spectators, cutting between them and the teams, both sat nervously in their changing rooms, wondering which door Tommy will open. When the International president gleefully tells Tommy that “Today you’ll have to betray your old comrades!” he rips up his contract, the president grudgingly admiring his principled stance as he races back to play for Linda.
The game’s outcome is predictable: the amateurs fall behind but equalise, and Tommy overcomes injury to inspire their 2-1 win, secured by heroic team defending. The film ends on a conciliatory note despite suggesting that International are inherently corrupt: the Cup’s sponsor addresses the players and fans, telling them that “I want to thank both teams” who “both adhere to the great ideals of the sport”. He presents Tommy with a special cup “in recognition of your team’s spirit” – Korda leaves his viewers in no doubt about which side they should support.
As working people found the freedom to play and watch football, especially on Saturdays, the most successful footballers became national celebrities. Released five weeks after Korda’s film, König der Mittelstürmer’s title referred to Otto ‘Tull’ Harder, Hamburg’s star striker who won 15 caps for Germany. Unlike Tommy, Harder was not a devoted amateur. He had moved from Eintracht Braunschweig to Hamburger FC in 1913: an ostensibly strange move, as Braunschweig were more successful, but when Harder established an insurance firm in Hamburg, his motives became clear – it was widely understood that his club had funded this enterprise. He proved far less honourable that Freisler’s hero, becoming an SS officer and guard at the Ahlem concentration camp in Hamburg during the Second World War before being convicted of war crimes. He was pardoned in 1951, but his name was removed from booklets published in Hamburg for the 1974 World Cup, and his reputation never recovered.
The only thing König der Mittelstürmer’s protagonist (cunningly named Tull Harper) shared with Harder was his nickname – its plot was entirely fictional. ‘The earth turning, a football rolling, sport bringing countries together’ says its opening title, mirroring the ending of Die elf Teufel. The conflict here is not between two teams, but the two worlds of its gifted hero. Unlike Die elf Teufel, which implies that International will illegally pay Tommy for his services, König der Mittelstürmer asks its audience to suspend their likely disbelief that a player as talented as Harper will actually play around a job. A star for Alemmania, hard-working Harper is torn between sport and work, as his father Norbert, who owns the trade company which employs him, detests football, declaring that “My son should be successful in the branch office, not on the playing field!”
Harper falls in love with an American oil magnate’s daughter, but their relationship proves complicated – she suspects that he only wants her money, aiming to buy his father’s company to take revenge. Once she realises that he really does love her, she agrees to help save the firm from bankruptcy, and persuades Norbert to allow his son to continue playing football, just in time for him to represent Alemannia in the national championship game. Freisler’s match takes a similar pattern to Korda’s in Die elf Teufel – Alemannia go behind (although they go 1-0 up before opponents Burgund, score twice) and the hero is injured, being nursed back to health by his fiancée before returning to inspire a comeback.
Given the archetypal nature of the plots, the presentation of the match is the most interesting feature in both films. Coincidentally similar in storyline, both employ similar devices to convey the dynamism of the sport, cutting between close-ups of players controlling the ball, sometimes running towards the camera, tracking shots which follow the action and long shots from the touchline. Korda places his camera amongst the players, sometimes giving Tommy’s perspective to show his skilful dribbling, whilst Frisler focuses on the dramatic goalmouth action, with two goals scored from corners, building a montage from shots of the player heading or kicking the ball, the goalkeeper diving, the ball hitting the net and the stadium responding. Both directors cut to the crowd frequently, showing the packed terraces full of flag-waving enthusiasts – Freisler breaks the intensity to show Norbert slowly being won around to football by the fervent atmosphere, but rebuilds the pace as Alemannia bring the film to its happy end.
Korda and Freisler’s innovative techniques in filming their games – which never come close to passing as genuine competitive encounters – contrast markedly with the primitive methods of capturing matches during the inter-war period. The Edition Filmmuseum DVD that pairs these films also includes a nine-minute newsreel of a friendly between Germany and Italy from 1924, notable as it provided one of Sepp Herberger’s three caps, before he became the national team manager and masterminded their 1954 World Cup triumph. Not that he, nor the great goalkeeper Heinrich Stulfauth, can be recognised: as in the feature films, the camera frequently cuts from angle to angle, giving no idea of the pattern of the play. We are told that ‘Defender [Umberto] Caligaris is Italy’s best player’, but given no evidence besides a couple of routine clearances, and the reel ends with the bald statement that ‘The German team is beaten 1-0’.
This was a time when live matches were not broadcast in their entirety, and more effective ways of portraying their action were not developed until after the war – the most basic vantage points used by today’s television broadcasts did not become widely used until the Sixties. Despite their simplistic and often schmaltzy plots – which set the conventions for the popular football feature – these films offer an intriguing insight into German football culture during the Weimar period, showing what made the sport capture the public imagination despite the suspicion of the conservative Prussian middle classes.
Die elf Teufel and König der Mittelstürmer are available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum: http://www.edition-filmmuseum.com/product_info.php/language/en/info/p24_Die-elf-Teufel---K-nig-der-Mittelst-rmer.html