It’s one of cinema’s greatest ironies that Hollywood benefited greatly from Germany’s arguably self-inflicted tragedies. Many great German directors who had made their names in Berlin fled to America during the nazi period, and ended up making some of Hollywood’s most memorable films. Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang are the most famous examples. These directors brought the experimental energy of 30’s Berlin to America and ended up positively transforming American cinema in the process.
In other ways, Germany has made the most of its rather terrible twentieth century. Tragedy after all is a great topic for cinema, and each distinct period (be it the Weimar period, the Nazi era, or the Cold War period) of that century has proven to be of lasting interest to filmmakers and cinema-goers worldwide.
1. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
At four and a half hours long, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is understandably not as familiar to audiences as his Metropolis or M, for example. This was the first in a series of films based on the stories of Norbert Jacques.
Mabuse is a criminal mastermind who runs various gambling and counterfeiting rackets in the Berlin underworld. Conveying the interest of the time in paranormal psychology, Mabuse has the ability to control people’s minds using hypnosis.
Mabuse has unsuprisingly been compared to characters like Svengali, Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Fantomas. He primarily uses his powers for petty things like winning card games. One of his grander achievements, however, comes early on in the film, when he manages to influence the stock market and make a fortune from other people’s losses.
Despite its length, the film is tightly plotted, with a number of stand-out set-pieces. One can see the seeds here for the noir films that Lang would go on to make in Hollywood in the late-30s (The Big Heat being the most famous of these).
2. Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)
Cabaret is set in early thirties Berlin, and stresses all the famed decadence of that period. Michael York plays Brian, a British teacher, newly arrived to the city. Brian falls for Sally Bowles, a performer at the Kit Kat club. Soon, however, he faces competition in Max, a wealthy German playboy.
Cabaret made Liza Minnelli an icon, for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Sally. The film is often seen as a musical that can be appreciated by people who don’t like musicals: it has a depth and darkness usually absent from the genre.
3. The Man Between (Carol Reed, 1953)
The Man Between has always suffered comparisons with Reed’s much more famous film, The Third Man. Reed didn’t do too much to avoid such comparisons, given the title, and the setting of ruined post-war Berlin, which looks a lot like The Third Man’s setting of Vienna. The Man Between also lacks the involvement of Graham Greene, whose writing played such a central role in The Third Man’s success.
Nevertheless, The Man Between is an excellent Berlin film. Desmond Dickinson’s camera work makes the bombed-out city feel like a character in itself, haunting and effecting the plot and its cast of characters.
4. Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)
Run Lola Run was one of the 90s most popular foreign-language films. Its success was no doubt helped the striking appearance of its protagonist, flame-haired Lola (Franka Potente) and her blue vest and jeans. Its plot was rather unique too: it tells the same story three times, though with slight changes with each telling, changing the outcome each time.
Lola’s boyfriend has mislaid a large amount of money that he was supposed to deliver to his criminal employers. They will likely kill him if he doesn’t find the money in twenty minutes. So begins each segment of the film, with Lola in each running in the direction of her wealthy father in order to borrow from him.
Another thing that made this film unique was its pacing. The title is no exaggeration. Nearly every minute of the film sees Lola in full flight, with a thumping techno soundtrack adding to high-stress mood.
5. A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948)
Filmed three years after the second world war, A Foreign Affair is set in occupied Berlin, where an American congressional committee has come to investigate the morale of their troops. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (played by Jean Arthur) delves a little deeper into the lifestyles of the occupying forces, and discovers that a high-ranking officer is having an affair with former Nazi, Erika Von Schluetow.
Erika sings in a night club frequented by the G.Is, and is is played by the iconic Marlene Dietrich. Some suggest that Marlene Dietrich’s character in this film is the embodiment of the city: a cold, refined exterior concealing a deep-seated brutality.
Cameron Crowe has described this film as Wilder’s most personal film, as it seems to encapsulate Wilder’s contradictory feelings toward the city: he could fondly remember his childhood there, but could never forgive it or Germany for its descent into barbarism. That said, A Foreign Affair is a less angry film than it could have been. Apart from the war criminals of course, the German people are portrayed rather sympathetically.
The film had for a time undeservedly languished in Wilder’s esteemed canon, but has thankfully come to be regarded as another of his unquestionable masterpieces.
6. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
Wings of Desire is a fish out of water movie like no other. The main character is Damiel, an angel who flies above Berlin with his partner Cassiel. Together they Invisibly observe the everyday lives of Berliners. But when Damiel falls in love with a tight rope walker he decides to become human, thereby foregoing eternal life as an angel.
Wings of Desire is perhaps Wenders’ most widely cherished film, thanks to it’s moving central performance from Bruno Ganz, and the consistently stunning photography. Like many of Wenders’ films, the plot allows him to look at his setting from the viewpoint of a total outsider. And as with Wenders’ best films this technique leads to a highly individual though strangely objective depiction of something that cinema can often take for granted.
7. Goodbye, Lenin (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)
Goodbye, Lenin preceded The Lives of Others as an important revisiting of Berlin’s fraught east-west tensions. This film, however, is far lighter in tone. When an elderly supporter of the communist regime sees her son, Alex, being beaten on television, she lapses into a coma. When she awakens, the wall has fallen, along with her beloved regime. When Alex hears that a shock could kill her, he decides that he’ll have to pretend that the wall hasn’t fallen.
Much of the film’s comedy, then, revolves around Alex’s increasingly complicated efforts to conceal every sign of the East’s rapid westernisation. While many of the jokes here may be quite local, the film had enough wide appeal to make it one of this century’s most popular German films so far.
8. Olympia (parts one and two) (Leni Riefenstahl, 1938)
While Leni Riefenstahl’s work will always be tied up in debates about whether aesthetics can override terrible politics, Olympia is undeniably a historically important and groundbreaking Berlin film. Coming after the slightly more notorious Triumph of The Will, Olympia documented the 1936 Berlin olympics, where the athletes of the world came to compete under the eyes of the increasingly powerful Nazi regime. Riefenstahl’s film is undoubtedly propagandistic, but it is very artfully propagandistic.
The film starts with an hommage to the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome. Just as the nazi ideology often idealised these civilisations, Riefenstahl uses them to illustrate an idea of humanity at its most perfect. When these images disolve into images of German athletes, the point is made clear: Germany aims to attain a greatness worthy of those ancient predecessors.
Throughout the film the focus is primarily on bodies and their abilities, rather than “flawed” personalities or faces. This gives a sense of raw and almost superhuman, or post-human power to the proceedings.
One of the most historically telling moments is when the various teams have to pass under the gaze of Adolf Hitler. While they are all supposed to pay their respects, many, especially the British, don’t hide their suspicion. It’s a moment that seems to capture a lot of the tension of the moment, as the world was teetering near the brink of another world war.
9. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, 2006)
The Lives of Others is one of the most widely seen German films of the twenty-first century. It’s win at the Oscars (for Best Foreign Film) sealed its remarkable success worldwide. Certain extraneous elements make the film all the more remarkable: firstly, The Lives of Others was Donnersmarck’s cinematic debut, and secondly, the main actor, Ulrich Mühe, died very soon after its release.
Mühe plays Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, who monitors east berlin citizens. While Wiesler initally seems a steadfast supporter of the regime he spies for, he is gradually changed through the snatches of people’s lives that he hears through his headset.