‘Barbaric’ Soccer Resisted by Prussians; ‘Pina’ Lives: Film

Ruth Amarante and dancers of the Pina Bausch company in "Sacre du Printemps" in "Pina." The film, directed by Wim Wenders, opens in German cinemas on Feb. 24. Source: Neue Road Movies GmbHat via Bloomberg

Before soccer came to Germany in the late 1800s, “sport” meant whiskered, solemn Prussians in voluminous pantaloons performing exercises on vaults, or on rings suspended from the ceiling.

Nineteenth-century gymnastics looks joyless in “Der ganz grosse Traum” (The Very Big Dream), an Anglophile, feel-good movie opening in German cinemas today. The film is a fictionalized account of how English soccer was introduced to Germany, where it was at first deemed barbaric. The credits tell us it was banned in Bavarian schools until 1927.

Now it’s the national sport and a Bavarian team, Bayern Munich, is the reigning champion. The man credited with bringing the game to Germany is Konrad Koch, who started playing in 1874 at the Braunschweig gymnasium where he taught ancient languages and German. (He also tried to introduce cricket, but it never caught on.)

The movie takes liberties with his biography. Played by Daniel Bruehl, the talented star of the 2002 comedy “Goodbye Lenin,” Koch is the school’s first English teacher, arriving fresh from four years in Oxford. He takes the boys to play soccer in the gym, where they have to speak English. (“I keek ze ball into ze goal.”)

Pronouncing ‘th’

When the history teacher encourages the boys to speculate about how many Prussian troops would be needed to conquer the U.K., Koch teaches them to pronounce “th” so they don’t “sound like idiots” if they visit Britain.

The authorities view him as a threat to their rigid, class-bound, militaristic society and ban soccer from the school premises. Then a delegation from Berlin announces it will visit to examine whether the sport may have pedagogical value.

In this story, soccer overcomes class barriers, teaches fairness and gamesmanship, and encourages individuality instead of blind obedience. First-time director Sebastian Grobler touches on big themes.

There are moments where the plot seems formulaic. Some scenes near the end lurch into un-Prussian schmalziness. One incident of slapstick humor is schoolboyish (a chaplain gets a soccer ball whacked into his sensitive areas).

Yet “Der ganz grosse Traum” shines a spotlight on an era that rarely features in German movies. The performances, even by the newcomers playing pupils, are all good. Rating: **1/2

No Gimmick

“Pina” has convinced me 3-D movies are not just a gimmick. This artistic, beautifully crafted dance documentary by Wim Wenders takes you right into the space inhabited by the dancers.

The movie, which opens in German cinemas today, is a tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch who died in 2009 of cancer at the age of 68. She founded a genre known as “Tanztheater” in which the dancers speak, sing, cry and laugh.

The stage is covered in peat for her primeval “Sacre du Printemps.” In “Cafe Mueller,” dancers move blindly around a gray area littered with furniture, unable to make contact.

Bausch’s dancers, some of whom are elderly, pay tribute to their mentor in interviews and in movement. The film offers spectacular images of them performing against a background of industrial sites in the Ruhr region.

In one, a woman in a blue dress dances on pointe in the coking plant of a disused mine. In another, a man wearing rabbit ears sits at the back of the suspended monorail in Wuppertal, the city where Bausch’s company is based.

Dance fans will want to see this film. It may even win a few converts to the art. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)