The 15 Greatest German Filmmakers of All Time
World Cinema – and American Cinema, in particular – as we know it has received substantial influence from the cinematic works made in Germany over the years. Films such as M, Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fitzcarraldo and others are not strange titles to spectators’ ears, even for the general public.
The heavy and guttural German language, when first recorded into sound and put into films, already announced the peculiar identity that the cinema made in Deutschland would leave for posterity; a work that had already started being done by pioneers of cinematic style and visual language back in the Silent Era.
The Second World War came, and turbulent circumstances forced many a director to seek continuity for their art elsewhere – in other words, in the U.S. These were the émigres of the German Cinema, and with that move, the country and its silver screen artists were then recognised by millions of viewers as creative masters of cinematic expression.
The relevance of the country’s film production may be expressed through its silent gems, or its uncanny Expressionist works, or the Neuer Deutscher Film of the 1960s and 1970s, or the war productions, or still by the fact that two brothers – the Skladanowskys – were supposedly the first filmmakers to present a piece for a paid exhibition, their then enthralling Nebula Spectacle.
All in all, the Germans have always made their way through the film world with class and singularity, and the names displayed here are just a few from the long list of talented creators of awe-inspiring cinema.
15. Wolfgang Becker (1954-)
Born in the modest Hemer, this has been an equally modest filmmaker with immense talent for psychological dramas. His first film, Schmetterlinge, carries a powerfully grim aura throughout its framing, lighting, and character construction. Becker adjusts the actors’ positions precisely, allowing for fluent movement across his settings; something recurring in almost all of his films.
His Child’s Play (Kinderspiele, 1992) is an intense drama about family fragmentation and violence. Good Bye Lenin! (2003), his most accomplished work to date, portrays the saddening world of political alienation, as a son tries to keep his mother serene after a coma.
Unable to undergo any stress that could lead to complications in her heart condition, she cannot find out that the world of East Germany is gone. Daniel Brühl is spectacular as the young Alex; and Becker demonstrates what he is capable of as a director of films about small collective nuclei that suffer the pressure from the macrocosm.
14. Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981)
This Berliner genius came to be known for her contributions to animation cinema; more specifically, silhouette animation. A passion since early in her life, the peculiar craft earned her reputation during the baby steps of animation. Reiniger was a pioneer of her time, daring into the magical and mystical world of non-human, non-living motion, but completely human-manipulated. Her The Adventures of Prince Achmed (orig. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, 1926) is still considered a gem of the genre, and preceded the works of Walt Disney, for instance.
Her style was unique; the shapes of her characters and their movements could almost talk into the spectator’s ear and reveal traces of personality and solid presence in the narratives. Thumbelina (orig. Däumliechen, 1954) is a moving tale, a rendition of Andersen’s original in beautiful shadowy figures and rich editing. She also supervised the artistic elements of Chasing Fortune (orig. Die Jagd nach dem Glück, 1930), a compelling story about a team of shadow-puppet manipulators.
Lotte Reiniger may not be as widely known as others in this list, but she most certainly helped pave the way for animators in the film industry with her short films and her almost-living shadows.
13. Tom Tykwer (1965-)
This is the youngest, most recent success out of the German scene to make into this list. Tom Tykwer is known for his fast-paced action, unrelenting suspense, and his sequences of graphically aggressive images. Run, Lola, Run (orig. Lola rennt, 1998), Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), and The International (2009) reveal his tendency towards thriller-oriented cinema, a factor that slowly but surely distanced him from his native country and moved him into the American film industry.
Tykwer has been passionate about films since his childhood, when he used to make Super-8 films himself. He then worked at a local cinema in his native Wuppertal, and continued his explorations of the medium by meeting people with knowledge on the matter and involving himself in independent productions. His short-film Because (1993) was born out of one of such projects. By projecting his personal touch on his films, Tykwer rose into Lola. The rest is history.
His most recent notable endeavour, the not-so-successful Cloud Atlas, was a work being done in partnership with the Wachowskis, and was turned into a trans-temporal epic about parallel lives and with a touch of action that does not merely translates the style of the Matrix directors, but also that of the German prodigy.
12. Wolfgang Petersen (1941-)
Petersen is still a name remembered by many across the world. His accomplishments as a foreign director in the American cinema are stunning, and his epic masterpiece Das Boot (1981) was such a notorious and bulky work that a miniseries was made out of it four years later.
It still holds the record for a German production with most Academy Awards nominations (six of them, by the way), and its suffocating tale about a team of submarine crewmembers transcended the moral impediments concerning a narrative from the perspective of Nazi followers. The film does not romanticise them; instead, it tries to keep its own distance and depict the horror of submarine bombing and the subsequent paranoia.
Petersen also directed an adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story (orig. Die unendliche Geschichte, 1984), a film that has generated mixed feelings among its viewers. The effort to make a child story turn into a fantasy exuberance on the silver screen has to be acknowledged, and Petersen did it with precision.
He would later direct the box-office monster Air Force One (1997), getting involved with American cinema quite deeply, after making the also successful In the Line of Fire (1993), an action thriller that starred Clint Eastwood perfectly inserted in his niche.
Troy (2004) and Poseidon (2009) were his latest efforts and had considerably different fates: the former generated millions with its top-drawer cast, whereas the latter failed to meet the expectations, and since then, this inspiring director has not given us any piece of his talent.
11. Robert Wiene (1873-1938)
Being born in a family involved with theatre, Wiene had a fairly simple entrance into the then young world of cinema. He started taking parts in small films, and soon enough he was writing for the lost film The Weapons of Youth (orig. Die Waffen der Jugend, 1913), although there are rumours that he also helped direct the piece.
Wiene then began his directing comedies such as He this Way, She that Way (orig. Er reckts, sie links, 1915) and The Queen’s Secretary (orig. Der Sekretär der Königin, 1916) until he reached his watershed moment with a film that would define what German Expressionism is and set a pattern for posterity.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (orig. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) was the name of the film. The sharpness of its set, and the seriousness of its story, regardless of the highly imaginative premise of its plot, together with a strong reference to Expressionist painting, sprang a unique graphic narrative never seen before back then.
A story of a somnambulist whose sleep is controlled by an insane mystic in order to commit murders in a small German town rose to iconic status in the history of cinema. To this day, Wiene’s artistic innovation with Caligari and other films such as the Crime and Punishment adaptation Raskolnikow (1923) and the creative horror The Hands of Orlac (orig. Orlacs Hände, 1924) contributed to his name’s reverberation through the decades of cinema evolution.
Unlike his fellow émigres, Wiene did not journey overseas to ensure the future of his career. Instead, he looked into Eastern Europe and travelled to Hungary, later moving to France and consolidating his work there, until his death in 1938. His unfinished last film Ultimatum was actually completed by a friend, the noir specialist Robert Siodmak.