The 15 Greatest German Filmmakers of All Time

10. Margarethe von Trotta (1942-)

Von Trotta is often viewed as one of the pioneers of the NGC. Her almost flawless skill in directing good, compelling dramas about the conflictive nature of human relations is the reason why she is so highly regarded in the eyes of the general cinema public.

Von Trotta’s cinematic eye is a sharp one, and her exploration of the edges of acting is notable throughout her directing career, as her protagonists and even supporting roles can be seen to carry abundant skill at expressing the sorrows of their respective characters, usually related to family collapse and also individual collapse amidst the social indifference.

The director’s collaborative works with Volker Schlöndorff gave way to fruitful endeavours. Her first film was done that way, and their subsequent marriage lasted for roughly 20 years. But Margarethe would not find obstacles in consolidating herself as a powerful name in the NGC, a career that has been nurtured consistently especially through her status as an influential feminist filmmaker.

hannah arendt

Her “sisters trilogy” is a heart-rending series of violent films, always notable for revealing solid female characters in various situations of psychological crisis; often themes in this iconic trilogy include rejection, pity, suicide, disdain, and longing.

Von Trotta always chose talented actresses to portray all of her sisters, and special talent can be spotted in Barbara Sukowa in Marianne and Juliane (orig. Die bleierne Zeit, 1981), a film marked by its intelligent dialogues and its beautiful cinematography.

Von Trotta would later still retain her high status with more contemporary films such as Rosenstrasse (2003), again a moving film about female bonding and grief. She also directed the biopic Hannah Arendt (2012) more recently, a film that has been well received by critics.


9. Volker Schlöndorff (1939-)

Another Berliner with immense talent, and an eye for cultural dramas set in his home country. Schlöndorff is well remembered as one of the major names in the New German Cinema, and his films are particularly recognisable for their strong tendency to portray human agony and flaws, sorrows and the vital, oftentimes simplistic remedies to such sorrows. His masterpiece The Tin Drum (orig. Die Blechtrommel, 1979) is one of the most important films in German Cinema, and its uncanny style of humoristic drama is eye-catching and shocking.

tin drum

In the film, such drama is embodied by the protagonist Oskar Matzerath, a boy who falls down a staircase to his house’s cellar and injures himself; an injury that stops his body growth. As Oskar “grows up” mentally, he has to witness the rise of the NSDAP, and the subsequent death of every person whom he cherishes.

The exploration of themes such as childhood trauma in war and the ceasing of civil rights in World War II Germany – possibly represented by the odd condition that affects Oskar’s discovery of adulthood – are well documented in the story.

As soon as the war is over, Oskar goes through another injury – taken place during his alleged father’s funeral, when a rock is thrown at his head – that makes his growth come back to normality. The Tin Drum is, indeed, a film of integral allegories.

Other films would colour Schlöndorff’s successful careers, such as The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (orig. Dir verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, 1975), a film co-directed with Margarethe von Trotta, and which would mark her debut as a director; and also the excellent Coup de Grâce (1976), a film with spectacular cinematography and a cunning sense of character depiction.

Schlöndorff’s political positions were often regarded as controversial during the Cold War, especially his favourable views towards the Red Army Faction. However, his anti-war stance as a filmmaker would impress many of his time, and his name is still very much alive as a symbol of modern German film.


8. Douglas Sirk (1887-1987)

A hundred years allowed this man to show the world what his talents could materialise. His experiences as a teenager in Shakespearean plays gave him the edge to perceive acting and directing more clearly. He did not disappoint.

Noted for his American productions of romance and dramas, Sirk knew no subtlety in portraying his nerve-shredding narratives, to the point where there was no more suspense, and the beautiful acting perfectly displayed in front of the camera’s lens would evince catharsis and leave room for more drama. He is known for having directed several Academy Awards nominees for Best Actor and Actress. Drama leaked from his films, so to speak.

all that heaven allows

His work as an émigre bewitched the American audiences, and he was responsible for about thirty films during this period. His anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943) deals with war conspiracy and justifies his previous wish to leave his homeland. He kept growing and growing until he ended his conventional career with his chef-d’oeuvre The Imitation of Life.

But that was not the end of his career proper. He would go on to direct more productions that were never finished, such as a film on the life of Maurice Utrillo’s mother Suzanne Valadon. Sirk had a positive obsession for making films, and that is probably the reason why he is such a directors’ director, from Fassbinder to John Waters to Pedro Almodóvar.


7. Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)

A deep theatre lover at the age of 16, the young man from a modest Russian-Jewish family went against his father’s will to study the wonders of the stage, and later engage himself in participating in comedies and learning from Max Reinhardt himself. Throughout the 1910s, Lubitsch had an intense record of parts in small productions and eventually found his niche as a director, and subsequently, in the eyes of the public.

After some productions in his homeland, and especially his important work The Eyes of the Mummy (orig. Die Augen der Mumie Ma, 1918), a historical drama with odd acting and even odder lighting, he went on to make his breakthrough film Madame Du Barry (also known as Passion, 1919). Both films had Pola Negri and Emil Jannings as protagonists.

The grandiose The Loves of Pharaoh (orig. Das Weib des Pharao, 1922) consolidated his status as a promising filmmaker for foreign eyes to see, despite the financial trouble it brought him.


Leaving Germany in the early 1920s, Lubitsch found that he could leave his mark in the United States by making what he knew best: spectacles. He capitalised on the advent of sound cinema, making musicals and earning attention and respect, especially inside Paramount; and later, with 20th Century Fox.

With clever eyes for satire, he directed the war-comedy Ninotchka (1939), which would involve problems with writing, Greta Garbo not feeling comfortable with the style of the film, and a ban in the Soviet Union upon its release. In 1947, a heart attack would take the director and the “Lubitsch Touch” of humour from the world, and with them, a more colourful cinema.


6. Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)

It is impossible not to bewail the fact that Riefenstahl’s immense eye for filmmaking could have shone more had she not been inserted into the period and place of an authoritarian regime such as the Third Reich. Hitler’s favourite was indeed a master of the craft, and her propaganda films had an aesthetic touch that could somehow transcend the usual celebration of the Reich’s grandeur that pervaded her productions.

Featuring as actress in films such as Ways to Strength and Beauty (orig. Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit, 1925), she would later arise as a director in The Blue Light, written by the film critic Béla Balázs, a film with a plot full of conflicts about witchcraft and superstition in which Riefenstahl showcases her modest skills as an actress.

Her next film, Der Sieg des Glaubens (1933) is already a Josef Goebbels-centred piece, functioning as her first Nazi-propaganda work.

Triumph of the Will

It was right afterwards, however, that she reached the peak of her career: the exuberant Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935), the infamous documentary about the Nuremberg congress.

The film is perfectly edited, the framing is stunning, and had we not known the tragedies to follow that date in history, the film might have been an aesthetic pearl to watch, with all the shots of joyful locals and crowded streets to receive Hitler’s visit and listen to his words.

The films directed by Riefenstahl are of considerable relevance to German cinema. Not only are they a document of a dark age in the history of the country, but they also express a genius that was unfortunately lost in directing politically celebratory pieces.

Her stern way of directing, always demanding and perfectionist, can also be felt in the two-part documentary Olympia (1938), either through the attention to detail in the real-life “mise-en-scene”, never missing anything relevant; or through her dramatic and punctual cinematography.