‘Playoff’ isn’t a winner

This film about Israeli basketball coach Ralph Klein might have been more of a slam dunk as a documentary.

Danny Huston 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Huston 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
PlayoffDirected by Eran Riklis.Written by Riklis, David Akerman and Gidon Maron.107 minutes.In English, German, Turkish, and Hebrew, with English and Hebrew titles.
Israeli basketball lovers were upset – even scandalized – when legendary Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Ralph Klein, a German/Hungarian Holocaust survivor, went to West Germany to coach the national team there in the mid-1980s. Many saw it as betrayal and wondered why he made the choice.
You will still wonder why after you see Eran Riklis’s Playoff, a film based on Klein’s story. The lead character in the film is called Max Stoller and is played in a convincing performance by Danny Huston. But although the name is different, most of the details of his life and career are the same. The film focuses on his return to Germany and the feelings and memories that this aroused in him.
But it never tackles that central question of why an Israeli who fled Germany would coach the German national team. Perhaps Klein never told anyone, and director Riklis doesn’t want to speculate. That’s his right as a director, but the problem here is that the film is a slow-moving hybrid of several stories, none of which is very compelling. Perhaps it all works better if you know a great deal about and are very interested in Klein, but I had the feeling watching it that a documentary about him would be more intriguing.
At first it seems that the film will be a lovable-losers-start-to-win story, as Stoller meets the team described as the worst in Europe and tells them that in two months they will qualify for the 1984 Olympics. This pits him against the staple of the lovable-losers sports movie, the guy with the bad attitude who is waiting for a great coach to turn him around. In this case, it’s Thomas (Max Riemelt), the team captain, a buff, defeatist guy with a chip on his shoulder: His father, a war hero on the battlefield, was never given his due by a country that was too busy apologizing for Nazi war crimes. Stoller, who cuts the filters off his cigarettes, refuses to talk to reporters about anything but basketball and is given to aphorisms that can usually be parsed as “Believe in yourself,” also had a tortured relationship with his own father. So he and Thomas spar a bit before the inevitable bonding comes.
As he visits his old family apartment, now in a slummy Turkish neighborhood, he gets involved with the single Turkish mom, Deniz (Amira Casar ), a beautiful, honest woman trying to support her rebellious teen daughter, Sema ( Selen Savas). Sema’s father has disappeared, and Sema is sure it is because he doesn’t love her. Stoller’s father also disappeared suddenly, at the hands of the Gestapo, but Stoller has felt for years, as he puts it, that “I killed my father” because his father was so broken over Stoller’s childhood theft of a piece of cake from a local bakery.
Stoller redeems himself by helping Deniz in her search for her husband and discovering the truth about his father. No spoilers here, except to say that Stoller’s sense of guilt turns out to have been misplaced, which frees him to go back to concentrating on the lovable losers.
That’s the basic story, and although it only takes 107 minutes, it feels a lot longer. There are many shots of rotary dial phones, old-style TV sets and now-vintage cars. I found myself noticing the period details because the film moved so slowly.
Huston gives a credible performance as a German-born Israeli and even speaks a few words of Hebrew in a few scenes, but there’s an emptiness at the center of his character. Stoller says several times how his family has stopped speaking to him since he decided to come to Germany, but we never learn what else might have been going on at home or why he did go to Germany in spite of all the opposition. Surely there were other lovable teams outside Israel that needed coaching? This film will keep you guessing.
Riklis has made some wonderful films, most notably The Syrian Bride (2004) and last year’s Ophir Award winner, The Human Resources Manager. I assume he is a basketball fan and was drawn to this story out of fascination with Klein. But while Klein may have been a fascinating person, this isn’t a fascinating film.