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11mm Football Film Festival: Film Review: "Union fürs Leben"

Last weekend saw the eleventh 11mm Football Film Festival take place in Berlin. The headline piece this year was a documentary about East Berlin, personal struggles and 1. FC Union. A review by Andrew Cherrie.

To adequately sum up “Union fürs Leben” to an unknowing punter, it would be quite possible to scribble the famous Bill Shankly quote down on a piece of paper and hand it to them. Football was not a matter of life and death, he said: it’s more important than that. The quote has been regurgitated and taken out of context a million times over, yet in the case of “Union fürs Leben” it serves a pertinent purpose.

The message beforehand from the filmmakers was clear – this is not a football film. In their short introduction to the 500 or so gathered in the Babylon Kino’s grand main room they explained their reasoning behind the steering away from the standard cliched football film. This was not an ordinary football film because Union are not an ordinary football club.

To have made a film solely about football would have been an injustice to the unique set of characters that form the backbone of the narrative, to the thousands of others who contribute to the remarkable spirit of the club. ”Union fürs Leben” is in fact more of a social commentary, a snapshot of six varying and diverse lives that are joined by a common pillar.

The opening preface of each subject is indicative of the overriding themes that permeate throughout. Take Chris Lopata, for example, actor by trade, who is returning to Berlin after a long exile. Lopata leaves no room for ambiguity. “My name is Chris Lopata. I am an actor, Unioner since 1977 and a Berliner…East Berliner.” The East/West divide is a continuous focus but there is no longing for the return of the wall, simply an expression of pride in one’s roots and a wish to uphold the positive distinctions between the two.

Mario Czaja encapsulates this best. A politician for Germany’s Christian Democratic party, Czaja doesn’t fit the stereotypical portrait of an Union fan. We see Czaja promoting a Christian family fun day then making his way to the Alte Försterei, standing out awkwardly with his clean-cut day suit and round-rimmed glasses which cling for dear life amongst the raised scarves.

Though Czaja isn’t your typical Unioner, he still speaks with the same passion as his co-subjects and is most eloquent in summarising the appeal of the club. What is Union to him? “The opportunity to remember the good things about the past – Union is that, every week.” An East Berliner born and bred, his first encounter with Union was seeing fans overturn a tram in the 1980’s and he acknowledges that the past was less than rosy. But in Union he sees the chance to keep the cultural heritage of East Berlin alive.

The only hint of animosity comes when we see Christopher Quiring speak with the press after Union defeat to rivals Hertha in 2012. Grabbing him on the shoulders for a pep talks seconds previous, stadium speaker Christian Arbeit attempts to calm Quiring down – with little success. Having scored the equaliser only to see Hertha grab the winner minutes later, Quiring is incessant.

“I don’t give a shit about my goal. It makes me sick to see the Wessis celebrating in our own stadium.” This particular line drew rapturous applause from all corners of the cinema. Quiring is the darling of the Union hardcore, an Ultra himself before making the jump to professional footballer. His dazzling display of Union tattoos is a testament to his passion. It’s a refreshing antidote to the endless stories of disloyalty in football, and genuine touching to see a professional footballer hold such a depth of feeling for his club.

Union fans before kick-offWhilst tales fire and passion provide the foundations, its the story of Stefan Schützler and Alex Grambow that lends a truly human perspective to the film. Struggling to find work with few qualifications after leaving school and having recently lost his dad to alcoholism, Alex finds solace with Stefan, his social worker. They both, naturally, share a love of Union.

Stefan gives two of film’s many laugh out loud moments when describing his calamitous working history. He was aspiring to be a DDR border guard and was overjoyed when he finally finished his training – only to see the wall come down shortly after. And how did he come to be a social worker? “Well, I live in a society and…I can work.”

Stefan seems to be in the right occupation, however, acting as Alex’s rock as he navigates the aftermath of his father’s death. It is here that the film’s most uncomfortable and perhaps unnecessary scenes play out. We follow Alex as he visits the morgue, picks out a plot for his dad’s ashes and then prepares a wooden crucifix in his workshop. It is undoubtedly moving but a little intrusive – the poignancy of the story would have been put across effectively enough without meddling in such personal moments.

Even so, Alex’s story is brought to a satisfying end as he basks in glorious sunshine on his way to the ground, beaming grin on his face as he hoists his red and white scarf aloft. His acting father figure Stefan joins his actual son on the opposite side of the stadium and puts a loving arm around him as he belts out the final line of Nina Hagen’s club hymne Eisern Union – “we will live forever”. It’s a fitting closing scene that needs to further narration. The overriding message is clear. No matter how bad things are, no matter what life throws at you, you’re never alone with Union.

“Union fürs Leben” manages to deliver this message without slipping too much into cliche or sloppy triviality. It is no such much a film about Union Berlin, or even football for that matter. It is study of how ordinary people cope with universal problems, of identity and belonging as well as an illustration of how East Berlin has evolved since re-unification. Through all these obstacle people need a focus point, a funnel for their frustrations and grievances. “Union fürs Leben” shows how football can provide a saving grace from life’s complications, and it just so happens that Union are particularly adept at offering this lifeline.

The most persuasive conclusion is offered by Lopata’s mother. Full of dry Berliner humour, she lights up the film throughout with her cutting vignettes and has a lust for life that defies her advancing years. She sums it all up best. Taking a break from her overly-energetic fitness DVD, she is asked what makes Union so special. She pauses a moment and ponders. “Well…whatever worries people have, they just go and scream Eisern Union…and then life is ok again.”

Andrew Cherrie is co-editor of "Union in Englisch" - the most comprehensive English language news source on 1. FC Union.

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