Jens Pfeifter could not have selected a better time to bring out a basketball film in Germany. Deutschland is experiencing a basketball boom like never before thanks to Dirk Nowitzki winning the NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks; a thrilling German BBL post-season with Brose Baskets Bamberg deserving the championship; and a fascinating future of emerging powers Bayern Munich.
Still, despite all this, Pfeifer’s film – Phoenix in der Asche (No Ashes – No Phoenix) – is more a homage to his home town of Hagen and the efforts of local basketball club Phoenix Hagen to turn a circus facility into a basketball arena for Germany’s top league.
The result is a documentary film accompanying the Hagen team throughout their promotion season of 2009-10, giving the filmgoers a unique glimpse of the everyday on-goings at a professional basketball club in Germany – with everything that includes from hope to doubt, praise to criticism, frustration to happiness, conflict to togetherness, drama to suspense and top level sports. The director Pfeifer brings his viewers on an 88-minute trip behind the scenes as constant observer.
The film premiered at the 2011 Munich Film Festival on June 29 in German and was shown on July 1 in English. Pfeifer was there and described how the idea for the film came to him.
“I live in Munich and read in the (Munich newspaper) Süddeutsche Zeitung that Hagen is planning on playing in a circus tent. I could picture that immediately since I know the city and how things are there. And I thought that could be a documentary film,” said Pfeifer, who himself played for the Brandt Hagen basketball team years previously.
“I don’t do any interviews. I don’t try to steer people in one direction or the other. The only thing I do is observe and in the end put together what I observed.”
Pfeifer and his team recorded 120 hours of raw footage which included plenty of highlights. One of the impressive was the willingness of the Phoenix players to practice in 11.7 degrees Celsius (53 degrees Fahrenheit) during the deep of winter inside the gym. The many shots of meetings between head coach Ingo Freyer and assistant coach Steve Wriedt showed just how much the coaching staff has to deal with. And the shots of some of the many bus trips gave the viewers an idea just how often and mainly for how long the team travels.
An essential part of the film – and season for that matter – was the arrival and eventual departure of Michael Hakim Jordan. Jordan’s time in Hagen was filled with highs and lows and in the end there was an emotional closed door meeting between Jordan and teammate Chase Griffin in the presence of the coaching staff and some of management.
“I try to only show what describes the conflict. And the conflict between Mike and Chase was essential. For me it was a conflict between two young players who are fighting to not always lose. They had two different ideas of how to do that. That was interesting to me,” said Pfeifer, who film the closed door meeting alone.
“It is a strange feeling because you often feel that you are just someone who sits there and has nothing to do with all this or you are eavesdropping like a spy. But in that moment, after being with these people for that long, it’s almost like my job as a filmmaker – also within the team. You’re just the guy with the camera. But it is a strange feeling sometimes,” said Pfeifer.
Of course as a basketball film there were scenes from various games during the season. Pfeifer was selective in picking out his shots, including not too much game action. But there were enough action shots – and from various angles – to satisfied the hoops fans looking for passing and shooting. Pfeifer usually selected scenes from games that were important in Hagen’s fight against relegation.
Another treat was accompanying the coaching staff to the last game of the season for Düsseldorf Giants, who would be relegated if they lost at home to BG Göttingen – which would also secure Hagen staying in the league before their final game at webmoebel Baskets.
This is hardly a criticism of the film, but a fascinating scene missing from the film is one detailing the language issue among coach Freyer, assistant Wriedt and the players. One could get a sense of it at times during the film that Freyer usually spoke with his players in Germany – of course a misunderstanding waiting to happen with seven Americans and two Lithuanians on the squad. Wriedt would then translate for Freyer, even if it were a long monologue by Freyer to the team. An explicit example of this would have given the film viewers and basketball fans a glimpse into how this dynamic works. Pfeifer said after the film that such a scene was the last one to be edited out.
Freyer, Wriedt, Phoenix CEO Oliver Herkelmann and chairman Thomas Haensel were at the premiere in Munich on June 29.
Pfeifer explained Freyer’s view of the film: “Ingo said it was a very important season, his first in the first league. And now he has a document that he can always go back and watch to discover mistakes, laugh and cry. There were important moments for all of them. And the management also see that they have to become more professional.”
Phoenix player Matthias Grothe was in the audience on July 1. “I am still sweating. I experienced everything first hand from the very beginning. It was really a season that will never be forgotten. It took me two or three years to really come to grips with. Today it was in the movies and right from the start everything came up again, and you’re emotional all over again. Now I am really exhausted after watching it in the movies. I am just happy we did it. But you realize just how close it was,” Grothe said after the film.
Also among the filmgoers on July 1 was Bayern Munich and German national team playmaker Steffen Hamann.
“It’s a great thing for basketball that it’s getting more and more public and in the cinemas. I hope a lot of people watch it,” said Hamann.
“For me, it was very interesting because I know every player who was in the movie. And it was very interesting to see something about one of not the best teams. I always played on the best teams in Germany – to see how things go on there.
“Like practicing in a gym with 11.7 degrees – I never experienced something like that in my entire career. I didn’t think stuff like that happened in the first league. It was interesting to see stuff like that. And I can say I never had team chemistry like that before.”
Pfeifer and film producer Alex Krötsch are in talks with a number of German film distributors to release the film. Pfeifer hopes to have everything signed, sealed and delivered in the coming weeks to start the movie in German cinemahouses in time for the start of the German BBL season in October.