8. The American Friend (1977)
New Hollywood legend Dennis Hopper and German acting heavyweight Bruno Ganz (Downfall, The Reader) star in this neo-noir adaptation of Ripley’s Game. The former is Tom Ripley, a career criminal who dabbles in art forgery and the latter Jonathan Zimmerman, a terminally ill framer whose circumstances impel him to becoming a rather amateurish hitman.
With the casting of Hopper, having most of the dialogue in English and a significant stateside noir influence, it is obvious why director Wim Wenders is regarded (as he himself acknowledged and accepted) as the most Americanised of his New German Cinema peers. But that certainly doesn’t mean he is so at the expense of originality.
With The American Friend he creates an idiosyncratically atmospheric piece, often dispensing with unnecessary plot elements. Ripley is given no characterisation beyond the minimum needed for an audience to understand and the plot feels lean, with narrative secondary to tone.
This is where the film’s strengths lie, particularly in scenes complimented by Wenders’ great sense of visual artistry. His locations often appear pulpy and are given a harsh edge by the amplified use of colours and lighting. When dealing with acting talents on the scale of Ganz and Hopper, it’s rare that the abilities of the one behind the camera are up to scratch.
9. Germany in Autumn (1978)
In the Autumn of 1977 West Germany was teetering on the edge of insurrection. The ultra-leftist Red Army Faction continued to receive a great deal of public support despite (and most likely in part because of) Helmut Schmidt’s government’s employment of more and more authoritarian means of combating the group.
A contemporary poll showed 25% of the population sympathised with their struggle and 10% would hide a RAF member from the state. However in a few short months circumstances dramatically shifted against the vanguardists. A high-profile assassination and a botched kidnapping only increased the political tension.
The situation seemingly escalated daily as a disastrous hijacking of a Lufthansa flight left three RAF comrades dead, almost all of the organisation’s remaining original leadership died in a high security prison in what the state suspiciously labelled suicides and the highly valuable ex-SS officer hostage Hanns-Martin Schleyer was executed in revenge.
As a means of attempting to come to terms with these extraordinary events, some of the New German Cinema’s most significant auteurs collaborated on a tempestuous anthology. Each of its sections comes from a separate director and Schlöndorff, Kluge, Edgar Reitz and Heinrich Boll all contributed, amongst others.
What is most striking is the variety of styles employed and stories told. Opening with a deeply personal and ideological drama from Fassbinder, the film feels at once engaging. Another section is a much more strictly formal documentary that is surprisingly inaccessible. However as the sum of its parts it does a commendable job of conveying the urgency and subversive nature of the era from which it was produced.
10. The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978)
With the childcare centre her daughter attends nearing bankruptcy, Christa, a young mother played impeccably by Tina Engel, robs a bank. On the run with an accomplice and part-time lover, the pair try to evade the police and deliver the much needed cash.
This list’s first of two entries Margarethe von Trotta directed solo is typically political and as the plot and the characters’ plans unravel there is a certain feeling that the original reason for the robbery has become secondary. Instead it is more a matter of principle, of kicking out against circumstances. The film treats its audience with enough respect to not spoon feed such ideas. Instead they emerge from its sedate pace as the plot drifts from scene to scene, though never without inspiration.
First and foremost however The Second Awakening… is a study in the inviolable bonds women can form through a sense of gendered solidarity. Out of desperation Christa turns to her old friend Ingrid and the two develop a profound connection.
They are mutually reliant, drawing strength from their attachment that withstands their respective situations: life as a fugitive for one and being bound to a loveless husband for the other. As the first film von Trotta singly directed it is a powerful debut and a statement of intent from one of the all time great cinematic feminists.
11. The Tin Drum (1979)
Schlöndorff’s adaptation of Günter Grass’ seminal novel is a strange satire with extraordinary historical percipience. Playing the role of the unreliable narrator, Oskar Matzerath dictates his autobiography from his birth in pre-war Danzig to the fall of the Third Reich.
After intentionally stunting his own growth by throwing himself down a flight of stairs at the age of three, and after discovering he has the ability to smash glass with a high-pitched squeal his story moves swiftly from the romantic to the absurdist to the magical realist.
Perhaps the closest comparison to be made between The Tin Drum and a recent Hollywood film would be with Forrest Gump. Both see a deceptively perceptive main character move through a cruel yet definitive period of their country’s history.
But where Zemeckis and Hanks settled for a glossy, insipid film that intermittently stops to look at some of the most barbaric events of America’s modern history as if they were little more than attractions on a theme park ride, Schlöndorff opts for a tone that is simultaneously farcical and honest, melding the brutal destruction of conflict with the naivety of youth.
At times perverted and obscene, at others sacred and affectionate, The Tin Drum is essential viewing for understanding the German experience of the first half of the 20th century and the cinema movement it produced.
12. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
In the few years before the cocaine and barbiturates overdose that ended both his life and (arguably) the New German Cinema movement, Rainer Fassbinder’s films became increasingly brash and imposing. He was already regarded as one of the preeminent auteur of his generation but more and more he was dependent on narcotics to maintain his inexorable penchant for filmmaking. His latter filmography leaves us with glimpses of what might have been.
The Marriage of Maria Braun heaped an as yet unachieved level of commercial success upon him, with great financial returns and critical recognition across the world. It is also perhaps his most bitter work. The titular character (Hanna Schygulla) is married during the war (in the middle of a bombing raid no less) and spends one night with her husband before he is deployed to the front. She desperately hopes to see him again but subconsciously acknowledges she might have to face life without him.
We follow Maria through decades of German history, firstly the American occupation and then the Wirtschaftswunder (the German post-war economic ‘miracle’.) Fassbinder however evidently saw nothing miraculous and wove The Marriage of Maria Braun as a spiteful satire as both his main character and the bourgeois society she sells herself to ignore the guilt of their pasts in favour of blind acceptance of the vapid future.
The film saves its harshest blows for Adenauer. Perhaps the epitome of the society the film passes judgement on; his aforementioned decision to end the deNazification process granted amnesty to 792,176 people suspected of involvement in war crimes. Fassbinder’s anger here is palpable and his ability to express it artistically is brilliant.
13. Marianne and Juliane (1981)
Marianne is an imprisoned left-wing ‘terrorist’ whose sister Juliane becomes her only remedy for the psychological burdens of confinement and mistreatment at the hands of prison authorities. They are fictionalised interpretations of Gudrun and Christiane Ensslin, the former one of the aforementioned political leaders of the Red Army Faction who is claimed to have taken her own life in Stammheim Prison and the latter her sibling who devotedly campaigned for an inquest into her sister’s death. J
uliane writes for a feminist magazine and shares her sister’s profound indignation at Germany’s past and the direction in which it is headed towards the future, yet they differ greatly in their proposed tactics of resistance.
Marianne and Juliane cemented von Trotta’s reputation as one of the most important feminist directors of both the New German Cinema movement and international film. Its study of women’s roles in left-wing movements and the misogynist contradictions that are at times inherent in them are equally relevant and absorbing.
14. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
A decade after making his previous entry on this list Herzog returned to South America for another Amazonian narrative of destructive obsession.
Kinski would again return as his titular character but unlike Aguirre, Brian Sweeney ‘Fitzcarraldo’ Fitzgerald is not searching for personal glory but rather the means to satisfy his most profound desire. He is infatuated with his noble dream of building a grandiose opera house in early 20th century Peru and hearing Enrico Caruso’s most beautiful arias fill the darkest recesses of the jungle. His plan to do so is audacious and dangerous.
If it is indeed possible it will only be because of the single-mindedness of its architect. And yet that notion can be applied to much of Herzog’s own career. Never one to sacrifice cinematographic brilliance for convenience, every set piece in this extraordinary film is genuine. When the audience sees a 320 tonne steamship being flung, tossed and towed that is no trick of smoke and mirrors but exactly what the director used.
Similarly when natives stare at Fitzcarraldo with a seemingly homicidal rage, art is reflecting reality (Herzog later described declining an offer from one of the extras to kill Kinski, such was the vitriol the actor’s inexplicably violent outbursts inspired.) And yet together the two men crafted another masterpiece.
15. Paris, Texas (1984)
Wim Wender’s Palme d’Or winner sees Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) reunited with his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) after years of wandering the deserts of the Lone Star State.
The prolonged separation has left not only an immense void between them but also between Travis and the rest of the world. His attempts at reconciliation are made grandiose as what might otherwise be a rather ordinary familial drama is raised to Homeric levels of romance and storytelling, primarily through three cinematic components complimenting each other.
Firstly, veteran genre-bending multi-instrumentalist Ry Cooder’s melancholic score. Each drawn out twang works to set the serene pace for this unsentimental and honest story. Secondly the minimalist screenplay, adapted from Sam Shepard’s play. By keeping dialogue to a minimum it does justice to the ever present sense of alienation and loneliness, tempered only by an unspoken hope.
Lastly the frankly breathtaking beauty of cinematographer Robby Müller’s camerawork. Shots bloom with saturated colours and are structured so as to leave an ineffaceable impression of the harsh realities of both the surrounding American Southwest and the central character’s heartbreak. Wender was unapologetic and proud of his influences and Paris, Texas is his love letter to his second home’s most desolate landscapes and the concrete canyons of Houston.
Author Bio: Jamie Lewis is a teacher and wannabe film critic. He collects sunglasses and tweets pictures of people in cars from films. You can follow him on Twitter @jamielewisPM.