Think about characteristics of a great movie. What made it stand out in your mind? Is it the plot, the dialogues, the story, the special effects, the decor or the actors? For many movies, it’s a combination of several things that creates memorable and iconic cinema. Quality is universal. Yet, around the world, every culture has different perspectives when it comes to making movies.
At school we learn about German history and historical events in the country, especially during its chaotic 20th century— World War I, the rise and fall of Hitler, World War II, the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. All of these events are essential to German history in making it the country it is today, but are also integral to the formation of its cinema, with many great German films focusing specifically on these historical moments. However, these German events did not only affect the nation; they shook nations all over the world. This is why there have been so many great cinematic works centered on Germany’s role in shaping the 20th century. History aside, German films are thought-provoking and reflective of its culture, giving viewers a glimpse into what life is and was like there. These are just a few of the many masterpieces of German cinema. Spoilers ahead.
6 Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Aguirre, The Wrath of God is considered one of the best films made by German director Werner Herzog and has won him much critical acclaim. It explores the destruction and greed of the hunt for unattainable wealth. Embark on a maddening adventure as you join Spanish soldier Lope de Aguirre (played by Klaus Kinski in one of his many iconic and infamous roles with the director) on his quest to find the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Aguirre is one of many soldiers and slaves who descend from the newly conquered Inca Empire into the Andes into the jungle in search of El Dorado. He is chosen alongside other men to scout and has a week to return or be deemed lost for good. However, along the way, the crew encounters many difficulties, including mutiny (led by Aguirre), attacks by unseen assailants, and unruly monkeys. One by one, the crew parries until Aguirre is the sole survivor. Mad and alone, the film ends with him proclaiming to the monkeys, “I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter, and with her I will find the purest dynasty the world has ever seen.” Together, we will rule this entire continent. We will endure. I am the Wrath of God… who else is with me? This reference to “the purest dynasty” is one of the most haunting and subtle lines in a German film filled with metaphors about Nazis, fascism and colonization.
5 Das Boot (The Boat)
Das Boot (The Boat) is a 1981 World War II film based on the best-selling novel and the personal experience of Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who spent his time aboard a U-96 ship. In Wolfgang Petersen’s film, the Captain and his crew board a German U-96 submarine as they are tasked with patrolling the waters near the Battle of the Atlantic. At first, U-96 chased, sinking several ships and escaping the clutches of a British destroyer with only minimal damage. However, over time, the members of U-96 soon find themselves under attack and must fight for their lives. After many difficulties, the crew returns to their destination of La Rochelle, only to meet their fate when Allied aircraft bomb the area. It’s ironic that after all it’s been through, U-96 sank while moored in the port of La Rochelle. While it is important to remember that the Germans were the aggressors in World War II when the Allies were primarily fighting for freedom, Das Boot shows the humanity and vulnerability of each character, most of whom were simply rank and file soldiers largely unaware of the atrocities committed ashore. The film is a claustrophobic masterpiece of psychological tension.
4 goodbye lenin
How far would you go to create the perfect illusion for a loved one? In East Berlin in 1989, Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) lives with his mother, Christiane. Disgusted by the celebration of the 40th anniversary of East Germany, he attends an anti-government demonstration. During the protest, Alex is spotted by his mother, who suffers a heart attack and goes into a coma after seeing him beaten and arrested. Eight months later, Christiane wakes up from her coma but, unbeknownst to her, Germany has changed a lot. Meanwhile, Erich Honecker quit, the Berlin Wall came down and the borders opened up, and East Berlin is now a kind of capitalist democracy. Since Christiane is weak, the doctors tell Alex that any extreme shock can cause her a fatal heart attack. To prevent this from happening, Alex decides to conceal the changes from his mother by creating fake news broadcasts, packing new food into old East German jars, and even dressing up in his East German clothes. goodbye lenin is a great, perfectly scripted tragicomedy that manages to be entertaining and heartwarming, but also educational throughout its deep dive into real (and alternate) German history. It is a typically German masterpiece.
Imagine going on vacation rather than coming back to find your home disrupted and remodeled. In educators (The Educators), three anti-capitalist activists (led by young, pre-Marvel Daniel Bruhl), Peter, Jan, and Jule make it their mission to “educate” and scare away wealthy upper-class citizens by breaking into at their home. and disrupt their perfect lives. To do this, they rearrange the furniture and leave strange notes saying “Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei” (the days of plenty are over) or “Sie haben zu viel Geld” (you have too much money). However, during one of their missions, Jule realizes that she accidentally forgot her phone. When she returns to retrieve it, she finds herself face to face with a wealthy businessman to whom she is in debt. The gang kidnaps him and must decide what to do next. The film asks interesting questions about wealth, class and what is morally right. educators exists at a culturally specific time when former communist Germany transitioned to neoliberal capitalism, and many young people wondered if this decision was worth it for anyone other than the super-rich 1%.
2 Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon)
Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon) is a 2009 black and white mystery dramatizing the horrific events surrounding the German Protestant village of Eichwalde. From the outside, this city looks like any other. However, beneath perfect appearances there is a darkness that resides in Eichwalde. The town pastor leads the children to confirmation classes, scorning them for small offenses, and assigning them to wear ribbons in remembrance of the innocence and purity that has fallen upon them. Soon, strange and dark events begin to occur. The schoolteacher falls off his horse from a wire that was mysteriously tied between two trees, a farmer’s wife dies at the sawmill when faulty boards give way, and her grieving husband hangs himself. While these things might be considered accidents, it is no accident when the Baron’s young son goes missing and is found the next morning in the sawmill, beaten and tied up. The film has an ambiguous and open-ended conclusion that has frustrated some but tends to make The white ribbon even more troubling in retrospect. It is, like most of Michael Haneke’s films, an utterly pessimistic and misanthropic study of the human condition, especially as it focuses on German life in the early 20th century, when innocence of the country (like that of the children) was broken in preparation. for world war and terrible atrocities.
1 Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
Nothing is private in Das Leben der Anderen (The lives of others). In East Germany in 1984, senior officer Gerd Wiesler is ordered to spy on famed playwright Georg Dreyman. While Dreyman is out, Wiesler and his guards bug his apartment, then Wiesler waits and listens, hoping to hear something important. However, Wiesler quickly becomes sympathetic to Dreyman and does not report any of his suspicious activities, a move that later results in his demotion. Dreyman writes and publishes an article accusing the state of covering up high suicide rates, which infuriates East German authorities. Sometime later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Wiesler left his post, urging others to do the same. Eventually, Dreyman learns that Wiesler has been covering up his activity and dedicates his next book to HGW XX/7, which was Wiesler’s code name. The film is an extremely realistic spy picture, and one of the great films about voyeurism (that’s what cinema is). It also focuses on the secret practices and rituals of East German officials in a way that few films have explored so successfully and with such humanity. The film never explores why Wiesler risked his career to help Dreyman, but does anyone ever need a reason to do the right thing? Ultimately, this German film shows how empathy and compassion are the most important things to remember when history seems out of our control and war and ideology run rampant.
The Hoff goes meta in Ze Network, a German television series following the Knight Rider actor caught up in an international assassination conspiracy.
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