For the Germans and the English, football has long been a (relatively) peaceful continuation of war by other means. But how did it all begin?
The rather delightful story of the first Anglo-German match is the subject of a new film, Der Ganz Grosse Traum (roughly translated: “The Great Big Dream”). Mired in the militarism of the Bismarck era, a boys’ school finds the progressive ideas of a German Oxford graduate, hired to teach English, quite a handful — especially when he introduces the pupils to football.
Starring Daniel Brühl, of Goodbye Lenin, the film shows a school and a society in which not only soccer and modern languages, but the very English concept of “fair play” are unheard of. Football is an instant hit with the boys, but the powers that be try to ban it as a threat to the “German” virtues of duty, obedience and patriotism. The climax comes when a visiting English team plays the German boys and the whole town falls in love with the beautiful game.
Not many recent German movies have taken off in the English-speaking world — besides Goodbye Lenin there were Das Boot and The Lives of Others — but Der Ganz Grosse Traum is good enough to join that select company (if they can think of a better title and find a UK distributor). It suggests that games can break down barriers between nations, and that the ideal of behaving as a “gentleman” is not exclusive to England, but has a universal appeal. This is an upbeat message to counter the dire warnings from continental statesmen (and women) that without a single currency, Europe would revert to war and genocide. One less cheerful thought: this film evokes a time when England was admired above all for its decency. Is that still true? If not, why not?