The 15 Greatest German Filmmakers of All Time

5. Wim Wenders (1945-)

This is the first member of the New German Cinema (orig. Neuer Deutscher Film, henceforth to be referred to as NGC), the group of young filmmakers that decided to make the gears of cinematic art in Germany turn again after an after-war period of unproductiveness.

The signing of the Oberhausen Manifesto was a watershed moment in the history of German Cinema, and what the art became in the country afterwards was something unique, which Wenders was helping build with his emblematic dramas.

Born in Düsseldorf, Wenders came into this world during the last breath of the German effort in the Second World War. Witnessing a post-war world in an occupied region of the country, he graduated early in his twenties and wanted to pursue a career in painting.

Paris, Texas (1984)

Such a one-of-a-kind set of experiences growing up contributed to his excellence in constructing troubled characters with individual flaws and dilemmas that add up to the legitimacy of his pieces, most notably his masterpiece The American Friend (1977), and the psychological drama Paris, Texas (1984).

Other instigating films such as The State of Things (orig. Der Stande der Dinge, 1982), a film-within-a-film narrative about a cast and director thrown into the boredom of having no funds to resume a sci-fi production, helped solidify his name in notoriety.

Being a crucial personality in the NGC, Wim Wenders pleased American and German audiences alike. Over the years, his singular graphic style of introspective and dark plots reached the rest of the world, and to this day, as he directs documentaries like The Salt of the Earth (2014, in collaboration with Brazilian director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) and Pina (2011), he shows the public his immense talent and versatility.


4. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982)

Having died very young, the somewhat vexatious Rainer Werner Fassbinder progressively revealed a dissident, chaotic, and aggressively epicurean personality that caused frequent commotion in the industry. The young man was indeed a contradictory fellow. He declared his homosexuality early in his life, yet he would have mixed feelings towards homosexual issues, and his films would sometimes speak for that.

Beware of a Holy Whore (orig. Warnung vor einer heiliger Nutte, 1971), based on his own experience when filming Whity (1971), is a film that portrays an odd occasion in which actors and producers are standing by at a hotel while waiting for the director of the film to arrive.

Personal tensions arise, and during many an occasion slurs and mean comments against allegedly homosexual characters would surface, revealing Fassbinder’s interesting take on the matter. Perhaps that is what made this filmmaker so fascinating.

His visceral style, especially when portraying protagonists – when they appeared, since it is hard to spot a Fassbinder’s protagonist due to his clever eye for character development and intense psychological construction – gave way to narratives based on personal critical dilemmas arising to the macrocosmic sphere.

Fear Eats the Soul

One of his most acclaimed pieces, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (orig. Angst essen Seele auf, 1974), deals with the inner anguish of a Moroccan immigrant living in Germany and marrying a German old lady.

The prejudice following up that event disturbs the private life of both characters, and reveals the seriousness of Fassbinder’s style when dealing with polemic themes, especially this one being released after the 1972 Munich Olympics incident and the consequent anti-Muslim sentiment escalating in Germany.

This director’s mind is a peculiar instance of a positively inconsistent cinema. Fassbinder filmed troubled characters with troubled motivations and wonderful editing with medium shots that unravelled the contextual pressures of each of his relevant characters.

Martha (1974) is an example of such element, as the protagonist is portrayed as someone who lives in a wrecked marriage only to experience it as a casual suffering. Fassbinder himself described his filmmaking as “the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them.”


3. Werner Herzog (1942-)

This is a more recognisable name, and a heavy one as far as cinema as a whole is concerned. Werner Herzog – another one of the brilliant filmmakers from Germany in this list to be born in the turbulent years of the Second World War, adding up to Schlöndorff, von Trotta, Fassbinder, Wenders, and Petersen – is widely known as an almost definitive representative of contemporary German Cinema.

An initial member of the New German Cinema – and nowadays recognised as one of its main names, his filmmaking is controversial, intriguing, allegorical, visceral, realistic and also surreal in some instances, and several other strong adjectives that would fit well into the vast array of thematic masterpieces he has directed.

Probably best known for works such as the revisiting of Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1979, Fitzcarraldo (1982), or Aguirre: the Wrath of God (orig. Aguirre: der Zorn Gottes, 1972), his career has been consistent and quite diversified in terms of themes and genres. Ranging from historical dramas to psychological thrillers to war films, Herzog has left his personality as a stern director in virtually all of them.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Developing a disturbing relationship with a favourite of his, the actor Klaus Kinski, he went on to make some of his greatest jewels. Fitzcarraldo is an ambitious enterprise in filmmaking, one that cost the director highly. The film had to be shot in English, because of language barriers for German, and Kinski was a major hindrance for almost every step taken in filming this epic about an opera steamship built by a wealthy Peruvian baron.

Herzog also made a career out of documentaries. Works such as Echoes from a Somber Empire (orig. Echos aus einem düsteren Reich, 1990) and the more recent The White Diamond (2004) highlight his seriousness in dealing with very different concepts – one is a historical and political account, whereas the other is an audiovisual travel document – and putting them into the documentary format so subtly.

The multifaceted director is still active, and his range as a filmmaker and an imaginative mind for art has been evident throughout the decades of his career, from the mysterious drama of The Enigma of Kaspar Hausen (orig. Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, 1974) to the American large production Rescue Dawn (2006).


2. Friedrich W. Murnau (1888-1931)

Having been an assistant to Max Reinhardt early in his career, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was familiar with the contingencies of a director. However, Murnau would not become a maker of many works, since he gave birth to only 21 films in his entire career, some of which are now lost.

But his importance to early German Cinema is immeasurable, especially when considering the impact he had on the Expressionist movement in film and his emigration to the United States, just like several big names from his era.

Nosferatu (1912) was his major work, and not without merit. The film is a quintessential demonstration of the typical German play with shadows and shapes, from the eerie rural landscapes to the uncanny human figure of its protagonist, Count Orlok (genially played by Max Schreck).


The change in the title of the film and names of characters was due to the copyrights dispute with Bram Stoker’s widow, something which almost got the film completely out of circulation. Fortunately, Nosferatu and its singular horror atmosphere has reached us, and it is a golden work of the Silent Era.

Murnau also made remarkable films such as The Haunted Castle (orig. Schloss Vogelöd, 1921), an interesting work with a primitive detective-story touch. Later, The Last Laugh (orig. Der letzte Mann, 1924), a deep drama about individual grief and struggle for urban survival; and the masterpiece Faust (1926), his last German production, a formidable adaptation of Goethe’s novel with genial acting from Emil Jannings as Mephisto.

His career in the U.S. would beget only four films, among them the excellent Sunrise and his final Tabu, both of which won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography; and the lost film 4 Devils.


1. Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

It is highly probable that when German Cinema in general is talked about, Metropolis (1927) is one of the first titles to spring to mind. Fritz Lang is, in his career within and without Germany, a name that evokes authority in filmmaking.

Premiering in Berlin with Halblutt in 1919, he would never imagine that one day his mind would craft an epic of the calibre that is Metropolis. A primitive sci-fi narrative with daring sets and expansive cinematography, the magnitude of the film’s editing is sheer magic, with well-timed shots perfectly placed to tell a story in silent configuration, yet with a charming expressiveness.

Also daring was its thematic structure, the telling of two lovers from distinct social classes who could never be together in an unequal civil future.

Tens of thousands of extras were hired for the production, millions of marks were spent, stress was common for the leading actors, a substantial portion of the film was lost, and its aura and story would influence several works from different media in the following years, from Star Wars to the Superman universe to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Lang created a beast that would pervade the audiovisual art for decades to come.


Besides Metropolis, Lang also directed several gems of his time: a “trilogy” of Dr. Mabuse films, and a stunning epic adaptation of the Nibelungenlied (the film was entitled simply Die Nibelungen, and made in 1924) are among them. His break into sound cinema could not have been better than with the giant thriller M (1931), a film that caught the world’s attention with once again superb editing and cinematography, and the marvellous acting of Peter Lorre.

From there, Lang, who had already been invited by the amazed Nazi party to be a member of the “Aryan elite” of the country, decided that was good timing for a change of setting. He moved to France, and then to the United States, and his debut with Fury (1936) was a high commercial and critical success.

The following decades would reveal what great contribution he, together with so many other German directors, had given to American Cinema, especially in the Second World War and the early post-war period. Films such as The Woman in the Window (1945) and The Big Heat (1953) are a testament to that.

Author Bio: George is a PhD student on Comparative Studies of Cinema and Literature. He is in deep love with post-apocalyptic films from the Cold War era, and has special affection for Gothic fiction as well. George loves writing short stories, painting, and playing some RPG.