10 Must-See German Films


German cinema has a long, hugely influential history that has left an indelible mark on world cinema. In the silent era its legendary studio UFA rivalled Hollywood in both ambition and financial clout, and while the film industry struggled to reinvent itself after WW2, the New German Cinema one generation later eventually brought about a renaissance, which often looked towards the turbulent national history for subject matter. In order to cover as wide a range as possible, I have stuck to a rule of one film per director. The order is purely chronological, as the list tries to tell a very rough history of German cinema.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919)

Influenced by the artistic movement known as Expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was one of the very first films where settings were not just the realistic physical surroundings of the characters, but a stylised reflection of their mental states – a technique used countless times in the 90+ years since. Here, the sharp painted-on shadows on the walls and slanted camera angles give a menacing air of madness and angst to this story of a psychopathic hypnotist who compels a sleepwalker to commit murders. With a twist ending that continues to be imitated to this day (Scorsese’s Shutter Island to name but one), Caligari is an early landmark of psychological horror and of a time when German cinema was at on top of the world.

Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)

Another benchmark moment of German cinema’s golden era, Nosferatu was the first adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula, although the characters’ names had to be changed due to a rights issue. Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, but the evil intent of his trips across Europe remains as ominous. This was the vampire film that started all vampire films, setting the standard all future vampire/Dracula films were to be measured by — and was treated to a fine homage-remake by the great Werner Herzog in the 1970s. Close to a century on, its tension is still palpable through the expert camera angles, set design and expressive shadows, orchestrated by legendary director F.W. Murnau. But most of all it will be remembered for Max Schreck, as the dreaded cadaverous Orlok, complete with fangs and claws, in a performance which remains eternally creepy.

The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)

Like Caligari, the brainwashing, insanity-inducing Dr Mabuse is one of the great screen villains – the prototype for Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker. Mabuse too, is an anarchist who wants to watch the world burn and spread crime for crime’s sake, and this is what is scariest about his ideology. Fritz Lang had a sinister model to base the pure evil of his Mabuse on: the rhetoric of Hitler who was just coming into power. Unsurprisingly the film was banned in by the Nazis who deemed it a threat to social order, and Lang soon had to flee the country for France and later the USA. It’s a shame we shall never know what he would have gone on to make in his native Germany, because the two non-silent masterpieces he made in a row (this and his previous film M) still have the potential to dazzle over 80 years later with their use of sound (extremely innovative for such early talkies), special effects and set pieces.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog, 1974)

Post-war, it took a while for German filmmakers to find their place again, but in the late 1960s and early ’70s, distinctive new talents such as Werner Herzog emerged. In his 1974 masterpiece, he uses the true mystery-story of Kaspar Hauser (a foundling found abandoned in the 1820s whose real identity has been the source of debate and investigation in Germany ever since) to question the concepts of civilisation and social attitudes. Young Kaspar experiences the outside world for the first time, and might as well be a bemused alien just landed on Earth. But Kaspar, played by non-professional actor Bruno S who himself was a social outcast, is no alien but a human struggling to find his place in the world newly forced upon him. It’s clear Herzog sides with the outcasts like Bruno and Kaspar, and values the innocence and instinct for nature of his character here, traits which inevitably and tragically cannot last long amid human society.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

The legendary Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a wild workaholic who lived life at a frenetic pace, making 44 films in 16 years, before dying aged 37 in a self-destructive blaze of drugs and booze. No matter his personal issues, Fassbinder as a filmmaker never failed to be essential vewing. After discovering the films of Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder essentially made a grittier update of his role model’s 1950s melodrama All That Heaven Allows. His version tells the story of an inter-racial age-gap romance between a lonely widow and her much younger Arab lover. The performances from the two leads make us feel every blow as they are alienated by the shock, anger, and prejudice from all around them. Fassbinder’s mix of sympathy for his central couple, and a sharp, unsentimental insight into how societal relations shape us, make this a poignant classic and an ideal introduction into his considerable body of work.

Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)

Operating on a far more epic scale (the most expensive German film ever made at the time) and almost certainly the greatest submarine film ever made, Das Boot in its director’s cut is a 209-minute suspense ride aboard a WW2 German submarine. It follows the crew of a U-96 and their whole gamut of emotions while stuck in an underwater steel coffin, from jovial camaraderie, tedium and claustrophobia, to sheer suffocating terror — all brought to life through faultless set design and camerawork. The pacing is expertly timed as the lulls and moments of human drama only serve to make the action sequences, including depth charge attacks and mid-ocean chases, even more tense and exhilarating. What’s more, it manages to make us sympathise with men who are in effect Hitler’s troops, but they too are humans and victims of a war they are sick of, as embodied by the charismatic and world-weary captain perfectly portrayed by Jürgen Prochnow.

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)

Against the tradition of German cinema’s historical and socio-political films, stands this far more personal and poetic gem from Wim Wenders. A meditation on love, life, death and being human, Wings of Desire follows an angel, played by Bruno Ganz, who surveys over all Berlin. He is privy to the innermost thoughts of all humans, as well as to the darker deeds they suffer and commit, without ever being able to interact with them. Frustration turns into yearning desire when he falls in love with a circus performer, and contemplates sacrificing eternal life to join the mortal realm. Wings of Desire is also an ode to Berlin, beautifully filmed by a camera moving as freely over the city as the angels themselves, alternating between black-and-white for the angels’ view and colour for the humans’ vision of the world. Wenders’ unique graceful fantasy spawned a sequel and Hollywood remake but neither come close to the original.

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)

After a barren spell post-reunification, German cinema regained dynamism with Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer’s domestic and international smash hit. The plot is simple: Lola has 20 minutes to save her boyfriend before he is killed by the mobsters to whom he owes 100,000 Deutschmarks. But we see it in three different ways, each tracing a different alternate fate for the heroine and her race-against-the-clock, and each with a very different outcome. Tykwer knowingly took this alternate-scenarios concept from Blind Chance by Polish master Kryzstof Kieslowski, whom he revered. Their directing styles, however, could not be more contrasting. The break-neck pace, breath-taking editing, jump cuts, instant replays, change of colour schemes and many other tricks used, all seize us into the momentum and never let us go.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

The glossier more recent German cinema has, like its 1970s predecessors though without their intellectual rigour, often tackled the troubled national past, be it the left-wing terrorism of the RAF group or the biggest skeleton in the closet of all, Adolf Hitler himself. Best among these is Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, a dark portrait of life within the oppressive East German state. An officious Stasi agent, brilliantly played by the late Ulrich Mühe, is ordered to keep audio surveillance on the house of a playwright deemed to be veering away from the Socialist party-line. But this listening-in on their lives will make him not only slowly start to question the ethics of his own job and his role as a cog in the state’s system, but also his part in connecting with other people. Imbued with an atmosphere of doubt and fear, this is a compelling tale of individuals trapped in the web that society has created for them.

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)

Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a concentration camp survivor left unrecognisable after facial surgery. Despite ostensibly being a new person with a new face, she roams post-war Berlin, a place itself in need of regeneration, in search of the husband she still unrelentingly loves. The twist is he thinks her dead and does not recognise his restored wife, instead proposing a rather bewildering plan to her… Like in the best classic film noirs or melodrama, the narrative conceit is often preposterous but we go with it and it becomes a strength for its metaphor of (re)creating one’s identity and memory. Two immaculate central performances, and meticulously precise filmmaking throughout makes this exquisitely smooth sailing up to and including the pitch-perfect ending, while Petzold’s cinephile nous (this film is in dialogue with so many others from the past, from Vertigo, to The Marriage of Maria Braun, via The Face of Another) made it one of the richest of modern German masterpieces.