Kaiser chief

Kaiser chief

By Michael Pickard
December 9, 2022


Das Boot star Klaus Steinbacher speaks to DQ about stepping into the football boots of a living legend, Franz Beckenbauer, for Sky film Der Kaiser, which charts the German icon’s life on and off the pitch.

For German football fans, Franz Beckenbauer – who won the World Cup with Germany as both a player and a manager – is an undisputed legend. So when actor Klaus Steinbacher learned he had been picked to play the star in a new biopic, he was understandably thrilled.

“It’s an honour, of course,” he tells DQ. “When I got that call to play Franz Beckenbauer, I had to hang up and breathe for a few minutes before I could call my agent back. I definitely wanted to play him. That was one year before shooting started, and I knew I had a lot of work to do because I wanted to do justice to that character. I definitely didn’t want to fail.”

Steinbacher takes the lead in Der Kaiser, a feature commissioned by Sky Deutschland that adopts the footballer’s nickname (‘The Emperor’ in English) as its title and explores the life of a man who made headlines both on and off the pitch.

From the start of his career in Munich during the 1960s to the World Cup final of Italia 90, the film charts Beckenbauer’s rise from young starlet to coaching legend, taking in his playing days for Bayern Munich and New York Cosmos as well as his managerial career with the German national side.

Written by Martin Rauhaus (Allmen) and directed by Tim Trageser (Die Wolf-Gäng), Der Kaiser is produced by Bavaria Fiction on behalf of Sky Studios.

Starring Klaus Steinbacher, Der Kaiser charts the life of Franz Beckenbauer from football starlet…

“We start in 1963, when Franz Beckenbauer is 18, working as a sales apprentice at an insurance company but dreaming of becoming a footballer,” Steinbacher says. “We see him getting his first contract with Bayern Munich and his struggles along the way. Then we tell the story through the World Cups, especially the final games in 1966, 1970 and 1974 – his highlight as a player when he finally becomes a world champion.

“The film also shows the end of his playing career – a terrible point in a player’s life. But then suddenly the job as national coach is on the horizon, bringing him back into the spotlight. That’s a big chance for him – he takes it and becomes world champion again. If you’ve been to the top once, it’s very hard to get there again. You almost have to go one step further, and he does that by becoming world champion a second time.”

At the start of his career, Beckenbauer is a player who just loves the game, and is pretty good at it, explains Steinbacher. Later, he becomes more driven to succeed – a quality that helps Germany win the World Cup in 1974.

“There’s this moment in 1974 when they play very badly at the beginning of the tournament and he criticises his teammates and the coach, Helmut Schön, openly,” Steinbacher continues. “He knows it’s his last World Cup as an active player and he’s determined to win it, so he takes the lead because it’s needed.

“The development of the character was very important to me – that young guy who just loves football becomes a professional player and coach, who has to get better and better and has to win everything. But in the end, to win the World Cup in 1990, Beckenbauer has to rediscover his love for football, which he shows at the beginning as a young player. That is really the most important thing. If you want to become a great player or coach, you really have to love the game.”

…to the World Cup-winning coach of the West German national team

Playing a real person on screen for the first time, Das Boot star Steinbacher was tasked with adopting Beckenbauer’s Bavarian accent and deciding how far his performance would lean into imitation. He also watched a lot of football – six months’ worth of Beckenbauer’s games – as well as interviews where he could pick up Der Kaiser’s natural charm and easy-going nature.

And while the actor is a keen football fan and player himself, Steinbacher didn’t spent much time on the pitch during filming, with the drama instead using archive footage to highlight key matches.

“At the beginning, there is a scene in which the young Beckenbauer does some tricks with a cigarette box,” he says. “I definitely wanted to do that on my own. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play in those real games at the championships because we used original footage, so we basically just shot the reactions of Beckenbauer to the goals. That was pretty hard for me, because as soon as I stand on a football field, I want to play football – so on those shooting days I had to play during my breaks in between scenes.”

But just as injuries often dash the hopes of players before a big tournament, Steinbacher came close to missing out on playing Beckenbauer altogether when he tore a cruciate ligament in his knee playing football just four months before shooting was due to begin.

“I cried at my doctors after the diagnosis and feared I couldn’t play the role, but I called Stefan Bechtle, our executive producer, and he said he didn’t need a footballer, he needed an actor,” he recalls. “Luckily, and with the help of lots of training and physio, my knee was stable enough in time for shooting and I was able to do all the football scenes myself.”

Der Kaiser debuts in Germany, Austria and Switzerland next weekend

Playing Beckenbauer at different ages and with different hairstyles also meant physical changes were necessary for Steinbacher. “Before we started shooting, they shaved my head so they could fix the different wigs,” he says. “When I was Beckenbauer aged 44, it took about two hours in make-up. It wasn’t a problem, because I really loved our make-up team, but making changes between scenes was a bit stressful. On some days we shot Beckenbauer at the age of 18, then at 29 and then at 44, so we had one or two big changes in the middle of the day.”

Naturally, some of Steinbacher’s favourite scenes involve the beautiful game, most notably when he is playing Beckenbauer coaching from the sidelines during the 1990 World Cup, which West Germany would go on to win by defeating Argentina in the final. Trageser would shout actions from the pitch at Steinbacher, who would then have to improvise his reactions as if he were watching matches for real.

Other key scenes in the film include those between Beckenbauer and his father, played by Heinz-Josef Braun. “For me, that relationship was quite important, and the two have very moving scenes,” Steinbacher says. “In the beginning, his mum is his biggest fan and he needs her support. His dad is skeptical at first when he wants to become a professional footballer, but nonetheless he is his go-to person for every life-changing decision he makes, and he seeks his approval. And his father makes sure he never forgets his humble beginnings.”

The actor also enjoyed the World Cup victory scenes. Winning the tournament is the highest achievement for any player or manager in football – and as Beckenbauer, Steinbacher got to do it twice in one shooting day.

“That was the craziest shooting day I have ever had, as we shot 1974 and 1990 on the same day,” he says. “I got the trophies and partied with the team in 1974, and after that we shot that iconic scene when Beckenbauer went across the pitch alone after winning the 1990 World Cup as a coach. He was all by himself and lost in thought, while the rest of the team was celebrating with the fans. It was an unforgettable moment.”

When Der Kaiser debuts in Germany, Austria and Switzerland on December 16, scores of football fans will naturally be drawn to learning more about Beckenbauer the player and the man. But Steinbacher is particularly keen to hear what one group of people think about his performance.

“I care a lot about what my friends will say when they see the film,” he says. “They know a lot about football, they know a lot about Franz Beckenbauer. They’re enjoying the fact I’m playing that part and they’re looking forward to watching the movie. I hope they like it.”

But what might they learn about someone who twice rose to the top of world football? “He was very charming and entertaining,” Steinbacher says. “The things he did as a player and as a coach sometimes seemed pretty easy, but he worked a lot for his success. His love for the game drove him to become one of the best players ever. I really enjoyed playing Beckenbauer and I hope that comes across to the audience.”

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