8 Good German Movies with English Subtitles
What kind of movies would come from a country of poets, philosophers and scientists? Indeed, Germany, which gave us Beethoven, Kant, Goethe and Röntgen, has always been indefatigable in her quest for humanism, and German cinema is not an exception.
German (and European) cinema in general is neither fast-paced, nor filled with actions. You should expect rather silence than orchestra roar; dramatic conversations rather than dramatic smiles. European cinema is less a dream factory, it's more a poetic reflection of an ordinary man's life. The best examples of their cinema throw a ray of light into the deepest recesses of human psyche.
The Legend of Paul and Paula // Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973)
Heiner Carow's The Legend of Paul and Paula is one the best East German <sic!> movies. No, don't expect the glorification of tractor-drivers or scenes with defectors hopping over the Berlin Wall, or anything socialist for that matter. It's a universally human love story, a legend of struggle and victory. There is Paula, a single mother, who tries to break her loneliness and, exhausted, wants to settle down for a good match. Class-free or not, but a country house, car and other amenities do matter in a socialist country to a young single mother when she considers a prospective partner, even if he's old and dull. In a parallel world there is Paul, a modest young man, married to a bimbo who only spends his money and cheats on him. The fate inevitably brings Paul and Paula together. Full of visual metaphors and some naked flesh, the film was very controversial for the authorities but has become a cult classic ever since for East Germans.
Fox and His Friends // Faustrecht der Freiheit (1974)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one of the key figures of German New Cinema of the 1970s. Fassbinder’s constant theme is a play within a play. In his movies the protagonist often plays someone, whom he wants to be but cannot be: he only manages to carry out his dream for a moment.
Fox, the main character (played by Fassbinder) wins lottery and immediately finds himself surrounded by various 'friends' from bourgeoise circles. He does not realise that the upper middle class he was let in accepts only his checks, despising at the same time his unsophisticated personality of a working-class nobody. He randomly buys posh things, pays for his homosexual friends, who laugh at him behind his back. Then penniless and unwanted, he is thrown out of their lives, as if he had never existed. It's a stark realistic portrait of the 70s Germany that rolled in chic decadence.
Following Fassbinder's fascination with lost souls, another German director, Werner Herzog, tried his hand at the utmost desperation. This is truly the most depressing German melodrama ("ballad") that I have ever seen. Stroszek, the aponymous protagonist (played by Bruno S., non-actor, as is often the case in Herzogs's movies), tries to find his place in this cruel and indifferent world. Having some mental slowness, he is played around by everyone; his girlfriend is a slut; he gets occasionally beaten up by her friends in his own apartment. When things start to look unbearably grim, a ray of hope comes from his friend's suggestion to move to America, the land of promise. Upon their arrival, everything goes according to rainbowed booklets: there's a new car, a new house, a new job... only to see how they all are taken away soon. In an act of despair, Stroszek and his friend decide to rob a bank, but even that turns into a failure (the bank is closed). The end is inevitable: it could have happened back in Germany earlier, but it happened in cold foreign Wisconsin...
Unlike Fassbinder, Herzog has explored a vast spectrum of themes and settings with each movie. His latest film is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Calls New Orleans, with Nicolas Cage.
Das Boot (1981)
Das Boot ("The Boat") is a war epic that follows the small fearless crew of U-96, a German submarine, in their struggle to pass by the enemy. It hardly has any spectacular marine battles. Instead, it shows the clandestine work of those who are locked in the depths of the ocean. Staring at the green waters and listening to the sounds of a sonic depth-finder is not for everyone. However, if you're patient, you will be rewarded with a great symphony of tension and joy. Like a masterful conductor, the director Wolfgang Petersen plays our emotions, leading us towards the victory over the elements and inner fears and doubts. The movie has several editions, its longest version runs about 4 hours. Recommended for a big TV screen and good sound system.
Wolfgang Petersen went on to make more epic international and American movies, including The Perfect Storm, Troy and Poseidon.
Wings of Desire // Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)
1987: the Berlin Wall is still there, as are people's despair, joy, fears and confusion. Two angels quietly observe people's thoughts and actions and meditate upon little miracles of human existence. Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, or "The Heaven over Berlin" by its German original title, is a romantic fantasy film, an eerie soundtrack of human soul of the 20th century. Shot almost entirely in black and white, it is another symphony of a big city. It brings together men of three different generations: actor Curt Bois, born in 1901; Peter Falk, who plays himself; and finally Nick Cave, a post punk icon of the 80s.
The sequel was made in 1993 (oddly it includes a scene with Mikhail Gorbachev). City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan is the 1998 American remake of the Wings of Desire.
Official Film Trailer
Run, Lola, Run // Lola rennt (1998)
If you're not into German melodramas from above, you would definitely appreciate this then-ultramodern movie, which was shot in the 90s Berlin besieged by gangsters and sounds of techno. After Pulp Fiction, Europe experienced a series of similar groundbreaking crime-flavored films (Trainspotting, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch). Tom Tykwer's Run, Lola, Run followed the trend. The protagonist, a petty criminal, loses his bag with money and he has a dozen minutes before his boss would come to collect it. In despair he calls his girlfriend Lola. She is determined to help him with every possible way to beat the time and get the required amount of money. Thus the race against time begins. It's all about time: past, present and future. The most fascinating thing about this movie is how the director presents several split realities springing from the same moment in time, which makes us think: how do little things change the course of our lives? Highly recommended.
Goodbye, Lenin! (2003)
The Rip-van-Winkle theme comes frequently to our mind when we change dramatically our ways of life: haven't we all thought about the shock our ancestors or our past selves would experience in our present? There are several devices for that to happen: a time machine or waking up after a coma. The latter is what happens in Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin!
A woman, who lapsed into coma in a socialist Berlin hospital, wakes up in the reunited Germany in the 1990s. For her, time stopped: she had lived in the world that venerated Marx, Lenin and all the things the German communists fought for. But how to present her the new reality, where capitalism had defeated the idealistic world of her past? Her son tries to cover it up by a make-believe reality created in her bedroom. Finding East German socialist paraphernalia is not difficult, it's harder to get perishable items like food in its socialist package. The movie is quite ironic but its delicious idea could have been carried out better, in my opinion.
Official Film Trailer
Downfall // Der Untergang (2004)
Some may remember Anthony Hopkins playing Adolf Hitler 30 years ago in the CBS TV film The Bunker, a story of Hitler's last days. Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall is the German version, based on the same sources. What makes Downfall a masterpiece is a perfectly balanced measure of excellent acting and historic authenticity that reaches here the voyeuristic level. German speech further enhances the atmosphere.
Downfall kept my breath stopped to the end entirely having me absorbed into this deadly oasis among human ruins. Like in a genuine Greek tragedy, you realize that each of these men and women was mentally trapped and could not act any other way than they did. Hitler is played well, albeit not without a little grotesque, which Hitler himself, like any huge public figure, unconsciously cast upon himself. As well portrayed are Albert Speer und Magda Goebbels. Eva Braun has somewhat decadent imprint on her personality. You watch a highly deluded man's sudden acceptance of harsh reality when it's "too late". The grim verdict - "Der Krieg ist verloren" ("The war is lost") - needed nevertheless to be heard by his well-informed staff from the Führer himself, for it meant the ultimate end.
Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler in the movie, also played the main character in Wings of Desire and a small role in The Reader. Downfall was produced by Bernd Eichinger who also directed dramatically excellent Rosemarie's Lovers (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), which is hard to find even in German.
Of course, all the movies above were made after the war. If you want to explore the most groundbreaking era of German cinema, look out for the 1920s, when Fritz Lang, Friedrich Murnau, G.W. Pabst and Robert Wiene created their silent masterpieces that had a profound impact on world cinematography. Such movies as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Pandora's Box and M are timeless.
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