10. Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)
Germany Year Zero brings to ab end Rossellini’s War Trilogy, the other films being Rome: Open City and Paisan. Where the previous films in this trilogy poured all their sympathy into Italy, this film surprisingly turns to Berlin and its desperate war-ravaged inhabitants. It was rather unusual at this time to show any sympathy towards the Germans, and this is testament to Rossellini’s radical humanism: he turns his gaze to the most abject and tries to understand their situation.
Edmund Kohler is a boy living with his family in a crowded tenement with his sister and seriously ill father. Because his father cannot earn an income from work, Edmund’s sister works as a prostitute in an effort to keep the family out of absolute poverty. But her income isn’t enough to pay for food or electricity. Edmund tries his best to help out by selling goods on the black market, but the situation always seems quite hopeless.
The film was shot on location in post-war Berlin. As with Rome: Open City, the on-location footage from a war-torn city is as powerful and dramatic as the story line itself.
11. The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman, 1977)
The Serpent’s Egg was made at a time when Bergman was dealing with some serious problems. When the Swedish government decided to try the director for tax evasion, it began Bergman’s period of voluntary exile. He made three films during this period, From the Life of the Marionettes, Autumn Sonata, and The Serpent’s Egg. None of these films are considered among the director’s best, but even inferior Bergman has a lot to offer.
The Serpent’s Egg is set in 1920’s Berlin. Abel Rosenberg, played by David Carradine, arrives in the city looking for his brother and a job. He quickly learns that his brother has killed himself, and, unsurprisingly for twenties Berlin, finding work proves rather difficult. Abel spends much of the rest of the film with his sister-in-law, Manuela.
They both face the problem of Germany’s rapidly escalating anti-semitism, and Bergman’s typically dour ambiance becomes infused here with obvious political overtones: the encroaching presence of the nazi-era makes itself felt throughout the film.
12. Slums of Berlin (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1925)
Gerhard Lamprecht’s Slums of Berlin is a silent, conscience raising film about how Germany was treating its reformed criminals. Robert Kramer is a trained engineer who is released after three years behind bars.
Though he wants to get his life back on track, it proves difficult when he discovers that he has been rejected by his father and wealthy fiancee. Robert is consigned to Berlin’s slums where he works in exchange for more alcohol than money. Decided on suicide, he is saved by a prostitute, who decides to take him under her wing.
The film offers vivid depictions of Berlin’s slums, with enough documentary realism to balance the more melodramatic elements. It is often paired with Lamprecht’s other slum movie, Children of No Importance.
13. Funeral in Berlin (Guy Hamilton, 1966)
Funeral in Berlin sees the return of Harry Palmer, who first appeared in the admittedly superior film, The Ipcress File. Michael Caine plays Palmer, the secret agent protagonist, who is sent to Berlin to retrieve a defector from the communist east. Palmer is often seen as the everyman counterpart to larger-than-life James Bond. Where Bond is all jets and sports cars, Palmer is more likely to be seen on public transport. And instead of Bond’s sophisticated eloqience, Palmer is all unpretentious cockney.
While this film may lack a lot of the amusing detail that made The Ipcress File such an unusual treat, it is still a fun and fast-paced spy thriller featuring Caine in one of his most memorable roles.
14. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
M is often considered the film that gave rise to the serial killer genre. As with many later serial killer films, there is not much time spent with the actual villain, rather the film focuses on the hunt. Unusually, the film doesn’t have a clear moral centre: the bad guy is not set up against some unquestionably good band of heroes.
In fact, as Berlin films go, M is a harsh indictment of the Berlin and Germany of the early thirties. In a somewhat expressionistic style, Lang depicts Berlin as a dark, filthy, greasy slum. By the end of the film, may viewers will conclude that the killer is a logical manifestation of a chronically ill city.
This was Lang’s first film with sound, and he uses dialogue sparingly. Like many its expressionist predecessors, the emphasis is on the creation and maintenance of mood through striking imagery.
15. People on Sunday (Curt Siodmak et al., 1930)
People in Sunday is a silent film directed by Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann, based on a screenplay by Billy Wilder. Unusually for the time, the main characters are played by non-professionals. As with a lot of neorealist films which would come much later, these non-professional actors play variations of themselves. This gives the performances a, for the time, unusual level of realism.
The main characters are Wolfgang, a wine-seller, Christl, an extra, Brigitte, a sales girl, Annie, a model, and Erwin, a taxi driver. The characters are diverse in their professions in order to give a wide angle on the lives of a generation Berliners at the time. In the film, the characters embark on a trip to the beach. The trip is intercut with other scenes from leisurely Weimar life.
People On Sunday is considered an important document of the Weimar period, which it depicts in a far more natural manner than other films of the time. It all has a special poignancy considering the terrible historical events which were soon to follow.
16. Taxi Zum Klo (Frank Ripploh, 1980)
Taxi Zum Klo is a remarkaby open account of one gay man’s life in West Berlin. The main character is Frank, played by the director, and largely based on his own life and personality. The title translates as Taxi to the toilet (though “Klo” is a much more informal word than toilet). In its opening scenes the title becomes clear.
After going to teach his schoolkids in the morning, Frank takes a taxi to the public toilets, where men loiter at the urinals, eyeing each other up. After an explicit but also humorous encounter there, Frank goes back home. Like many gay films of the time, Taxi Zum Klo is rather loosely plotted and uneventful. The aim is to provide a slice of life, a window onto a world that cinema had at the time rarely depicted.
Even today, the film will be too explicit for some viewers. But for those who don’t mind, it is an ultimately touching and surprisingly light comedy about the life of one gay man in eighties Berlin.
17. Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (Walter Ruttman, 1927)
Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis is a documentary of sorts, though far from a conventional one. It eschews narrative for dynamic and artfully composed depictions of a day in the life of a great city. Apart from Dziga Vertov’s Ma With a Movie Camera, it is perhaps the best example of the “city symphony” genre. These were films which had cities as their protagonists, and rarely had any conventional plotting. This is not to say that they are mere assemblages of shots.
In Ruttmann’s case there is careful planning behind each shot and how each shot relates to the next. There is also a commitment to utilizing all the most avant’garde techniques to make the film feel as complex, vibrant and forward-looking as its subject, the city.
18. One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)
One, Two, Three stars James Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive, J. P. MacNamara, stationed in West Berlin. Things get complicated for MacNamara when he is obliged to take care of his boss’s daughter, who is visiting Germany.
He is busy with the thankless task of trying to introduce Coke to communist Russia, all the while dreaming of becoming the head of operations for western Europe. He hopes that taking care of Scarlett will put him in his boss’s good books, but things quickly go from bad to worse.
This was Cagney’s last role until he briefly reappeared in 1981’s Ragtime. But there is no sense here that Cagney had lost his passion for his art, his performance is full of frenzied energy, easily matching the film’s fast pacing.
Author Bio: Ciaran is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but currently lives in New York. He has passionate interest in European and Japanese cinema – the old stuff in particular. The directors who have left the deepest impression on him are Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Marco Ferreri.