Wortmann makes comeback with World Cup saga

'Miracle' sports pic covers touchy nat'l subject

BERLIN — Soenke Wortmann became a household name in Germany with his hit 1994 comedy “Der Bewegte Mann,” yet when he turned his lens and lights on the country’s stunning 1954 World Cup soccer championship, there were fears the Teuton helmer with the light touch would somehow contaminate the nation’s defining post-war moment — a miraculous victory that lifted a land flattened by war and guilt.

Wortmann has managed to silence most of Germany’s difficult-to-please critics and defenders of the national treasure with his widely applauded “Das Wunder von Bern” (The Miracle of Bern), and he’s also won unprecedented buzz for the pic about underdog Germany’s 3-2 win over Hungary that preems on Oct. 16 on 405 screens.

“The expectations are very high, and there’s been an incredible amount of advance talk about it,” Wortmann, 44, told Variety.

The goosebump-filled pic is based on the true story of Germany’s improbable ’54 World Cup title — won in Bern, Switzerland — mixed with a fictional tale of a wide-eyed 11-year-old fan whose grumpy father, a German foot soldier held for a decade as a prisoner of war in Russia, returns home to a bleak Ruhr River valley coal mining town and struggles to fit in.

“People have come up to me and said they haven’t gone to see a film in 30 years, but they want to see this,” the helmer says.

Wortmann, the son of a miner, says he’s wanted to make the pic for the past 10 years. Before hanging up his cleats and going to film school, he had played professional soccer. “But I avoided (making the film) because even though soccer is such a great sport — a sport I love — it’s not easy to bring to the screen.” The re-enacted scenes of the match — in front of digitally reproduced crowds — were kept to 15 minutes of the two-hour pic, which cost E7.5 million ($8.9 million). It’s not just Wortmann who’s surprised that no filmmakers have tried to tackle the heroic tale until now — German helmers been afraid to tackle historical pics due to fears of audience and critical reaction. “Critics in Germany are too critical,” Wortmann says. ”

Pundits have nevertheless been full of praise for “Wunder,” and the pic seems to have all the ingredients for success. It will be launched at a special screening in the Ruhr town of Essen by no less than Germany’s soccer-mad Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Wortmann has had a roller-coaster ride in Germany and Hollywood since his smash gender-bender “Der Bewegte Mann” (Maybe, Maybe Not) that earned $48 million at home, was sold to 115 territories and spawned a long run of popular German-made comedies.

Several later films fell short of expectations. Wortmann was already one of the country’s most promising filmmakers when he got an offer from Hollywood to direct a dark independent comedy “The Hollywood Sign” with Rod Steiger, Burt Reynolds and Tom Berenger as over-the-hill actors in a risky plot to fund a comeback. The 2001 pic never saw the inside of a theater; it was released straight to video. “They decided not to spend money releasing it,” he says. But Wortmann conceals any frustration, calling work with the three veteran actors a learning experience.

“It was like being in film school,” he says.

Wortmann says there is considerable interest from foreign territories in “The Miracle of Bern,” which won an audience award at the Locarno Film Festival. While some might complain his film feels more Hollywood than German, the man who won the Best Newcomer prize at 1993 Montreal Film Festival — with his “Acting Out” acing Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” — says he takes such assessments as a compliment.

“I was never a big fan of German movies. they too often take the quiet intellectual approach and not the emotional,” Wortmann says.

“I’m pretty critical of my own films and hate to watch them because I only see the mistakes,” the director adds. “But this is the first time I like my own film. If I could afford it, I would retire right now.”

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