Germany has been an essential contributor to cinema from its very beginnings. Its film industry stretches back to the late 19th century, and in the first part of the 19th century, the film hub Babelsberg near Berlin was a household name across Europe.
Many great classic and contemporary German films focus on darker chapters history: World War I and II, as well German Democratic Republic (GDR). Yet several others provide a nuanced look into the day-to-day lives of Germans, and what they say about society as a whole.
This list reflects the country's varied and dynamic tradition, touching on themes ranging from integration to flaws in modern work culture.
Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) – 1974
Written, produced and directed by the West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Angst essen Seele auf focuses on the topics of racism, immigration and integration in post-war Germany via the relationship between an elderly German woman and Ali, a Moroccan Gastarbeiter (guest worker) in Germany.
A formative film in the German New Wave cinema of the 1970s, many of this film’s themes remain relevant in 2019 and Fassbinder’s work is still regarded to be one of the best in German cinema.
Metropolis – 1927
A viewing of the original cut of Fritz Lang’s cult film will set you back a substantial 153 minutes of your time, but considering the film's influence and innovation it is certainly worth it.
Lang’s silent movie depicts a luxurious Utopian city called Metropolis which is juxtaposed by its dark underworld where mistreated workers must toil in order to sustain the world of the rich and privileged who reside in the city’s utopia.
Whilst the story focuses thematically on class and socialism, contemporary and modern critics have lauded the film for its remarkable, stylized visuals which took inspiration from Bauhaus and cubist architecture. In turn, the film’s unique images have been referenced extensively in popular culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Recently restored, it is now possible to see practically all of the original film.
Die fetten Jahre sind Vorbei (The Edukators) – 2004
A film about political ideology and revolutionary idealism, Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei follows three young Germans who partake in pseudo criminal activity when they break into the houses of wealthy Berliners, rearrange their furniture and write warnings such as “die fetten Jahre sind vorbei” (the days of plenty are over).
When a break-in goes wrong and turns into a kidnapping, the three youngsters are forced to confront and spend time with the exact type of person they are so critical of.
Das weiße Band, eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon) – 2009
Set between 1913 and 1914, Das weiße Band is a sinister portrayal mis-happenings in a small north German Protestant village. Intrigue and despair drive the plot and the breakdown of law and order within the village represents a wider disintegration of society.
Released to considerable critical acclaim, this is an essential watch for fans of German cinema.
A Coffee in Berlin – 2012
Shot in black and white but set in modern Berlin, this film follows the 20-something protagonist, Niko, through one day in his life where he repeatedly fails to acquire and consume a coffee and has a number of encounters along the way.
The heart of A Coffee in Berlin is a commentary on languid, self-indulgent and stagnant youth. However, references to the ongoing impacts of Germany’s 20th Century history complement the story’s modernity.
Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Bern) – 2003
One for football fans, Das Wunder von Bern is set against the backdrop of the true story of the build-up to West Germany’s surprising victory in the 1954 World Cup in Bern, Switzerland. Simultaneously, the plot focuses on a family who are living in post-war Essen and coming to terms with the struggles of everyday life after the father returns from a Soviet prisoner of war camp to a country vastly different from the one he left.
The returning father manages to bond with his youngest son via football, which symbolically reflects how Germany’s success in the 1954 Word Cup helped the country to heal after the traumatic and troubling events of the first half of the 20th Century.
This often-nostalgic look at Germany’s past serves as a welcome antidote to other historical German films which focus on atrocities, as opposed to how Germans have dealt with these in their collective psyche.
Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) – 1987
Wim Wenders’ romantic fantasy portrays a still-divided but soon to be unified Berlin. Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, are responsible for the wellbeing of West Berlin’s residents and the film follows them and their relationship within human affairs.
Some have seen the film as a pre-emptive call for reunification; the film’s angels are not limited by the wall separating the city and Wenders emphasizes the verity of the universality of human experience, as well as the necessity for Germany as a whole to face up to its past.
With stunning cinematography, this renowned film captures the essence of the city at a defining moment in its tumultuous history whilst emphasising the importance of individuals within the urban landscape.
Toni Erdmann – 2016
Seeking a German film that isn’t steeped in historical reference? Deemed a ‘comedy-drama,’ Toni Erdmann is about the relationship between father, Winfried, and daughter, Ines. Winfried goes to visit Ines in Bucharest, where she works and becomes entangled in her life there.
Allegedly based in part upon writer and director’s Maren Ade’s own parents’ penchant for comedy, Winfried has a comical ‘alter ego,’ the so-called 'Toni Erdmann', who provides most of the film’s comic relief.
A criticism of modern business models with frequently philosophical takes on life, this is a truly modern German film.
Die Blechttrommel (The Tin Drum) – 1979
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Günter Grass, Die Blechttrommel is an allegorical look at Germany’s history in the first half of the 20th Century. Steeped with symbolism with an undertone that is often eccentric and subversive, the film follows Oskar, a child who stops growing after an accident at the age of three.
The banging of a tin drum given to Oskar as a child retains a symbolic position in the film as a representation protest against the middle-class status quo and the audience watches Oskar grow up to witness the birth of National Socialism in Germany.
Though this film reaches ridiculous and grotesque levels at some points, it still won the Academy Award for Best Foreign film in 1980. This is definitely one to watch if you can’t face reading the almost 600 page long book.
Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) – 1920
Often considered the pinnacle of German Expressionist Cinema, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari uses striking, distorted shapes and vertical lines as the backdrop for its horror story.
The highly stylised film is striking and thrilling, featuring a dramatic twist end which is reminiscent of many contemporary horror and suspense films.
Whilst this film won’t help improve your German, it can help shed light onto the era of the Weimar Republic. The film’s dark and twisted nature can be seen as a reflection of post-World War I angst and chaos in the Weimar Republic.