20 years later, remembering East German film and football

Supporters of 1. FC Union Berlin sang anti-socialist songs and absorbed state antagonism within Stadion an der alten Försterei (Stadium near the old forester’s house), chronicled in the 1989 GDR documentary Und Freitags in die “Grüne Hölle” (And Fridays in the “Green Hell”).

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Twenty years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the sixth edition of the 11mm Fußballfilmfestival gives a football-related spin to Ostalgie—that nostalgic attraction to the former East Germany experienced most acutely among those who never lived there.

Fourteen of the 35 festival selections take the German Democratic Republic as theme. For those whose cinematic vision of the GDR encompasses no more than Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) or Good Bye Lenin!, they likely will be surprised by the content: titillation in the musical comedy Nicht schummeln, Liebling (Don’t Cheat, My Love) and meditation on artistic integrity in Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Sporting Field). In addition, the festival, running Apr 3–6 at the Babylon cinema in Berlin, shows that East Germany boasted quality teams in its Oberliga.

George SpringborgThe festival kicks off the first night, according to one of the organizers, George Springborg (see Mar 26 podcast below), with a mosaic of East German football. (The festival is organized by the nonprofit club for sport and culture Brot und Spiele, or Bread and Games, and is run by volunteers.) “The football history of the former East Germany has become a little bit forgotten,” Springborg says.

Therefore, in a journey between 1949 and 1989 viewers will revel in the often overlooked East German triumph at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal—a 3–1 win over Poland to take the gold medal that followed the GDR’s only appearance, in 1974, in the World Cup finals. That tournament, hosted in and won by West Germany, resulted in the only official international match between the two sides. Jürgen Sparwasser‘s solo effort on Jun 22 in Hamburg, with a partial dummy to fool goalkeeper Sepp Maier, lifted the East to a 1–0 victory in the group stages. Culling from archives of East German television—especially clips from Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness), a news magazine show that ran between 1946 and 1980—organizers have compiled footage from little-known “ghost games” preceding the 1960 Olympics. These pitted East and West German sides 15 years before the famed World Cup encounter. (See all GDR international results at rsssf.com).

Interview with Springborg on Mar 26. (31:57) Download »

On the club level, three East German teams reached the final of the Cup-Winners’ Cup, with 1. FC Magdeburg, in 1974, winning the nation’s only European trophy. With the concentration of resources from the mid-1960s on 11 “focus clubs”—the festival screens full European matches featuring three of them, Dynamo Dresden, Carl Zeiss Jena and FC Dynamo Berlin—player transfers to these sides became compulsory. This followed a rebranding of traditional, “bourgeois” teams into company sporting groups. Clubs acquired prefixes such as Chemie (chemical industry), Aufbau (construction), Stahl (steel), Lokomotive (railways), Wismut (ore mining), Empor (meaning “upwards!”), Vorwärts (“forward!”) and Rotation (derived from “rotary press”).

German historian Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger has described the conflicts between Manfred Ewald, president of the East German Olympic committee, who saw sport primarily as “social and patriotic education,” and club directors who had power bases in the trade unions or the GDR’s secret police, the Stasi. Football was passionately supported, says Springborg, yet federal authorities prioritized training in Olympic sports. Football, writes Hesse-Lichtenberger, was “torn between different directives, tugged this way and that by conceited party bosses, unloved by men in suits who would have preferred it if youngsters had taken up swimming and weightlifting. No surprise, then, that things got chaotic, scandalous or simply weird.”

Some of the weirdness comes through in festival offerings. A contemporary German documentary, Der kleine General—Dynamo Dresdens Meisterjahre unter Walter Fritzsch, 1969–1978 (The Little General—Dynamo Dresden’s Championship Years under Walter Fritzsch, 1969–1978), captures Fritzsch’s authoritarian style. Hesse-Lichtenberger characterizes him as “a maniacal bureaucrat” who asked his players to write post-match essays in composition notebooks while Fritzsch’s wife monitored their intake of cigarettes and booze.

In what might pass for commentary on capitalist mores, an elite striker in Der Mittelstürmer verweigert das Paradies (The Center Forward Denied Paradise) is sold to an eccentric millionaire to form part of a human menagerie. Festival organizers label this 1987 release an East German flirtation with experimental film-making techniques. Other offbeat GDR productions include Nicht schummeln, Liebling, a 1973 musical comedy about women’s football. The cover of the festival program offers a screen grab from the film. Women in one-piece, form-hugging tangerine kit frolic in a goal celebration that must realize Sepp Blatter‘s every dream for the women’s game. In Der nackte Mann, a 1974 comedy, bureaucrats commission a sculptor to create a monument for the central sporting plaza. When sculptor Kemmel‘s work is erected, the Olympian figure that he has selected, a nude runner, provokes uncertainty as footballers and other citizens must try to harmonize this classical expression with socialist reality.

Lutz EigendorfAs an example of Stasi meddling in football—Stasi chief Erich Mielke employed “the entire apparatus of state repression” to guarantee success for BFC Dynamo, FourFourTwo reports in Dec 07—the festival presents the 2000 documentary Tod dem Verräter (Death of a Traitor). The director, Heribert Schwan, gained access to Stasi files to trace the security police’s monitoring of Lutz Eigendorf, the so-called Beckenbauer of the East who defected to West Germany in 1979 following a friendly between his club, the Stasi-controlled Dynamo Berlin, and 1. FC Kaiserslautern. Schwan discovered that Mielke directed 50 agents to monitor Eigendorf in the West. On 7 Mar 1983, Eigendorf died in a car crash. Pictures of the wreckage show a car nearly sawed in half by the force of impact. In the FourFourTwo article, Richard Pendleton writes:

What made the accident unusual was that Eigendorf had been travelling down a straight section of country road, and seemed to have veered off, into a tree, for no reason at all. Alcohol in Eigendorf’s bloodstream suggested that this was an instance of a boozy footballer who’d had too much to drink, but his personal history hinted at a very different explanation.

While no one has been held accountable in Eigendorf’s death, Stasi files contain a note instructing agents to “dazzle” Eigendorf, which Schwan interprets as a euphemism for blinding the player with headlights and driving him off the road. Eigendorf was last seen alive and sober.

After the final season of GDR football in 1990–91, the top two Oberliga sides, Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden, joined the Bundesliga. But the drain of players to the wealthier West began in earnest. Passionately supported teams such as Dresden have been sullied by a racist hooligan element. Energie Cottbus, of which Chancellor Angela Merkel is an honorary member, remains the only Eastern team in the Bundesliga, albeit presently in the relegation zone.

Unification in German football has yet to be realized. Writes Hesse-Lichtenberger in the 2002 history Tor!:

Nearly every West German born after 1960 had grown up regarding the GDR as what that country had always wanted to be—a foreign state. Much more foreign, in fact, than France or England or Italy. Soon clubs like Dresden and Rostock would find themselves greeted by chants of “Put the wall back up” when they played in the west. The physical borders between west and east were torn down, but they had been replaced by a psychological one that observers would soon term “the wall in our heads.”

If the 2009 Fußballfilmfestival can fulfill festival director Birger Schmidt‘s ambition to “show that GDR football really existed” (Michael Sontheimer, “Elf Schauspieler müsst ihr sein,” Der Spiegel, Apr 3), another wall might start to come down.


Audience awards—the “Goldene 11”—went to Maradona par Kusturica for best documentary and to Cass for best feature. A jury’s award for best short film went to Eight (dir. Stephen Daldry) about an eight-year-old boy’s love for Liverpool FC (see excerpt).

With deft touch and the ability to nutmeg defenders, tiny Fimpen offers a key to Swedish hopes in the 1974 feature—the best film in six years of the Fußballfilmfestival, according to Springborg and mates.

The 11mm Fußballfilmfestival “Diegos,” 2004–09

Given Diego Maradona‘s popularity as film subject and his charisma on screen, we propose a rebranding of Fußballfilmfestival awards, with statuette in the form of raised fist. Springborg and organizers of the Berlin event indulged our request to name the best films and performances of the festival’s six years.

FimpenBest feature: In front of the raft of Maradona biopics and documentaries, Springborg and cohorts select the 1974 Swedish children’s film Fimpen (dir. Bo Widerberg) as best picture. The movie considers the comic and tragic outcomes when a six-year-old, Johan Bergman, nicknamed Fimpen, is good enough to make the Swedish national team. He helps lead the side to the World Cup finals but, with TV cameras following his every move, is not allowed to be a boy. To add authenticity, Swedish internationals agreed to take part in the production and read Fimpen bedtime stories on away trips. Runners-up in this category are Maradona—La mano de Dios (Maradona—The Hand of God) (see 5 Apr 08) and El camino de San Diego (The Road to San Diego).

Best documentary: Three documentaries have won the festival’s audience prize in past years—The Other Final (see 2 Jun 04), Die besten Frauen der Welt (7 Jan 08) and Maradona par Kusturica in 2009—but the Fußballfilmfestival’s nod goes to Les yeux dans les bleus (Eyes on Les Bleus) (France 1998, dir. Stéphane Meunier). To Springborg and others, this is the prototypical “insider” film about a club or national side. The model has since been duplicated on numerous occasions.

Best director: Meunier, who issued a sequel following the 2002 World Cup, Les yeux dans les bleus II, wins for the capacity to create a personal relationship with his subjects despite the intervening lens. “Although a camera was running, and we know from the scores of interviews with players that we’ve seen where you get relatively monosyllabic or very similar responses to all the questions,” Les yeux “totally does away with that,” says Springborg. “It gives you a view of players and what the pressures are on them.” Runner-up is Marco Risi, Italian director of Maradona—La mano de Dios.

Sylvester Stallone in "Victory"Best actor: Denied an Oscar for his work in Rocky and Rambo films, Sylvester Stallone‘s massive screen presence in Victory (UK, Escape to Victory), directed by John Huston, wins over 11mm Fußballfilmfestival jurors. Despite his relegation to goalkeeper in the World War II prison film (very) loosely based on wartime Dynamo Kyiv’s “Death Match” against German occupiers, Stallone’s command between the pipes as team captain Robert Hatch is decisive. Honorable mention goes to Marco Leonardi as Maradona in Mano de Dios and to Nonso Anozie, who appears in one of this year’s festival selections, Cass. Anozie plays West Ham hooligan cum author Cass Pennant. Pennant is scheduled to appear at the screening, and we cringe at what he might do to Stallone, once pictured in an Everton scarf, when he receives this disappointing news.

Additional sources

Jody K. Biehl, “A Cold War Museum in Sunny Climes,” Spiegel Online, 22 Apr 05; Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger, “Forwards and Upwards: The Strange World of East German Football,” chap. 13 in Tor! The Story of German Football (London: WSC Books, 2002), 277–92; Richard Pendleton, “The Secret Policeman’s Ball,” FourFourTwo, Dec 07, 110–14; Susan Stone, “Museum Offers ‘Ostalgic’ Look at East Germany,” Spiegel Online, 20 Jul 06.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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