Best German movies of all time
In the world of mainstream cinema, the German film industry is not thought to be one of the production behemoths. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that over the past century, Germany has birthed some of the most influential and highly-decorated flicks.
Exploring historical and contemporary cinema is an excellent way to learn about the past and present of your adopted homeland. Here’s a guide to German movies and the cream-of-the-crop best German films.
German movies through the ages
German film holds a mirror to the country’s modern history. The history of German film begins in the age of the empire, when brothers Max and Emil Skladanowsky debuted Germany’s first film projector, the Bioscope, at the still-standing Wintergarten theatre in Berlin. Though the Skladanowsky brothers’ triumph is historically eclipsed by the French Lumière brothers’ cinematograph projectors, the Berlin screening took place in November 1895, a few weeks before the first French public screening.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the German expressionist movement began in architecture, painting, sculpture and cinema - characterised by extreme camera tilting, the Dutch angle and chiaroscuro lighting, which uses extreme dark-light contrasts. Expressionism of the 1910s would birth many of Germany’s most famous films, including Nosferatu, Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
Cinema in the Nazi era
While the outbreak of the First World War disrupted the development of cinema, in the interwar period the Nazis adopted the medium as one of their most powerful propaganda tools. Anyone who has seen the chilling footage of Hitler’s mass rallies in Nuremberg has likely seen the work of Leni Riefenstahl. One of the best-known directors of the Weimar period, Riefenstahl was asked by Hitler to direct Der Sieg des Glaubens (The Victory of Faith), which documents the 1933 rally, the crowd’s hysteria and Hitler's meeting with other prominent fascist leaders.
German film in the GDR
With the end of WWII and the country divided, East Germans also turned to film to strengthen their political agenda. This time with Westerns, or rather their own eastern retellings, Osterns (Easterns). Osterns were inspired by the traditional US Western genre, but with a twist. Set in the then-USSR, many Osterns showed “noble” Red Army soldiers acting as communist evangelists in what is now Central Asia. When it came to films produced outside the GDR being shown in East Germany, stringent rules also applied, with anything considered too celebratory of capitalism kept away from the silver screen.
Today, the filmmakers who started their careers behind the iron curtain, and are part of the country’s New German Cinema movement, still make up Germany’s most famous directing exports: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.
And that cultural excellence continues: since 2000 German movies have won more foreign film Oscars than any other language. With All Quiet on the Western Front nominated for nine awards in the upcoming ceremony, German cinema may be further cemented among other silver screen giants.
Best German movies
So, what are the best German movies? With a library stretching back over 100 years, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ve broken down eight of the best German movies from 1922 to today.
Classic German movies
Here are the best classic German movies which set the tone for the country's cinema history.
Nosferatu (Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens) (1922)
100 years after its release, Nosferatu is still Germany’s biggest horror hit, but its success did not come unchallenged. Premiering at Berlin’s Marble Hall in 1922, the silent expressionist film took Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a major influence. Following a copyright dispute initiated by Stoker’s widow, it was ruled that all copies of the film should be destroyed.
What is now considered a masterpiece of German cinema can still be enjoyed today thanks to a few surviving copies. In a story now as old as time, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s film sees a stowaway Nosferatu, played by the aptly-named Max Schreck, bring a plague to the port of a German city. Only the blood of a young woman can remedy the disaster which ensues. Ellen offers her “schönen Hals” (beautiful neck) to the parasite, but just as Nosferatu sets to sink his teeth in, day breaks and he vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987)
This black-and-white classic from Wim Wenders requires some suspension of disbelief and patience for what some may class as pretension. Bruno Ganz, one of very few actors from Switzerland to make a name for themselves, plays an immortal angel roaming the streets of dilapidated Berlin and taking it upon himself to listen to the worries of the city’s inhabitants.
Visible only to children, Ganz and his angelic posse follow the lives of a trapeze artist, filmmaker and sex worker. Nick Cave also gets a cameo.
Vintage German movies
These vintage German films capture life in 1970s Western Germany.
Christiane F. (Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo) (1981)
You may have done this one in German class. Christiane F. is a well-known figure in German culture and the cinematic adaptation of her co-authored autobiography makes for grim but poignant viewing. It’s 1970s West Berlin and a bored 14-year-old Christiane F. falls in with the wrong crowd at a Bowie concert. Things move quickly and Christiane is soon a teenage heroin addict, spending much of her time in Zoologischer Garten, an S-Bahn station in Berlin, hence the film’s name.
It's a dark story, but the protagonist lived to tell her tale, with the real Christiane publishing a second book about her life in 2013. This is a cult classic and since Mr Stardust himself composed the soundtrack, a must-watch for all those keen on Bowie’s Berlin legacy. Enamoured viewers can move on to the 2021 spin-off series by Amazon.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974)
Another West German drama, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the work of the aforementioned German cinema legend Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The 1974 hit tells the story of Emmi, a 60-something window cleaner who falls in love with Ali, a Turkish “guest worker” (Gastarbeiter). When Ali’s presence is met with racist hostility and ignorance by Emmi’s acquaintances their relationship is tested.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul won two Cannes awards upon its release. Alongside Love, Deutschmark and Death (2022) and the 2011 comedy Almanya: Welcome to Germany, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is essential viewing for those interested in German-Turkish history.
Popular German movies
These popular German movies have won the hearts of judges in Cannes and Hollywood.
And Tomorrow the Entire World (Und Morgen die ganze Welt) (2020)
This recent political drama follows Luisa, a 20-year-old studying law, who moves into a squat and becomes embroiled in a group of young and eager Antifa activists. In the beginning, the wealthy student has to build up the courage to throw an egg at a far-right politician, and a few weeks later she finds herself deep in a mission to foil a far-right terrorist attack.
The 2020 production premiered at the 77th Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Oscars.
Toni Erdmann (Toni Erdmann) (2016)
Toni Erdmann provides excellent, dry comedic relief. This German-Austrian production is a moving story of the father-daughter relationship. Saddened by the fact that his grown-up child has become too serious and career-focused, Winfied, a retired music teacher, pays her a surprise visit in Romania, where she lives.
When his daughter is too preoccupied by work to pay her father the attention he is hoping for, Winfried devises a plan to play a series of pranks on his daughter while she is working. False teeth and whoopie cushions provide the basis for this film's childish, but irresistible sense of humour.
Winner of 22 international awards including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017 and Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2016, Toni Erdmann is certain to remain a classic.
Blockbuster German films
These blockbusters are two of the best German movies of all time.
Good Bye, Lenin! (Good Bye, Lenin!) (2003)
If you haven’t already seen this film it’s a good job you’re reading this list. Good Bye, Lenin! is the ultimate German learners' film, played in language schools across the world. This tragicomedy stars German cinema dependable Daniel Brühl as Alex. Alex and his sister Ariane are faced with a big decision after their mother, a staunch member of the Socialist Unity Party, awakens from a coma shortly after Germany’s reunification.
Doctors advise the siblings that their mother should not be exposed to shock, and so the two devise a plan to replicate the continuing existence of the GDR as the world rushes West just outside their door in Berlin. Again, a multi-award-winning flick and essential viewing for newcomers in Germany.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)
Another telling of life in the GDR, The Lives of Others tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, who is commanded to spy on intellectual, buttoned-down-shirt-wearing playwright Georg Dreyman. With a listening station set up above Dreyman’s house, Wiesler begins spending hours engrossed in the conversations between the playwright and his actress girlfriend, eventually developing an affection which casts doubt on his allegiances to the state.
This is yet another Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film. In a sad turn of events, German actor Ulrich Mühe, who plays Wiesler, died before he could collect his many awards for Best Actor in the production.
Dive into the best of German film
So, there you have it. From invisible angels walking the streets of Berlin and Antifa squats to Romanian corporate businesses injected with childish laughs, the eclectic landscape of German film is one to be explored endlessly! Gönn’ dir!
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