My ten propositions trace the evolution of German Cinema over time: Starting from the Weimar republic, to the third Reich propaganda, the aftermath of WWII and finally the new german cinema. These films are often a representation of what is going on at the time, but they are also innovative and a terrific watch.
1) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is commonly acknowledged as the first Expressionist film due to its use of lighting, set design (props painted by Expressionist artists) and acting (exaggerated and intense).
At a time of national instability (end of WWI, we all know what happened no need to say it again), Caligari expresses the inner turmoil, the angst and the morale of the German population.
But what is this silent nightmare about?
There’s a carnival in town and the mysterious Dr. Caligari introduces his somnambulist: the tall, lean and corpse-looking Cesare who sleeps in a coffin (sound familiar?). Suddenly men are getting murdered and a woman is chased by a corpse.
2) Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau (1922)
What do you do when you want to adapt the famous vampire novel Dracula, but can’t get the rights to it? Oh you know, just tweak the story a little bit and call the vampire Nosferatu.
It was a scandal at the time: they were sued and most of the copies of the film were destroyed. But thankfully, some remained because Nosferatu is now not only a German classic but a film classic in general.
Also a German Expressionist film of the Weimar republic (although in this case they shot on location and not on a specially designed set), Nosferatu tells the tale of a young man named Thomas Hutter, who travels to Count Orlok’s remote castle in Transylvania to seal the deal on a house in town. But Hutter wakes up with two “mosquito bites” on his neck, or Orlok has become obsessed with the portrait of Hutter’s beautiful young wife Ellen….
3) M, Fritz Lang (1931)
Hans Beckert, a serial killer who targets children, is on the loose, and the entire city is after him. Every cop is on the case, but also the underground criminals take it upon themselves to catch the killer.
In a degrading society, Beckert becomes the scapegoat, and in his famous defense monologue, he forces the people to confront the evil that surrounds them, and their own moral degradation.
4) The Triumph of the Will, Leni Reifenstahl (1935)
Yes, this is a Nazi movie and perhaps their greatest piece of propaganda, but bear with me. Hitler, who was a fan of Riefenstahl’s previous work, commissioned her to film the Nuremberg Rally in 1934. After WWII, the director was tried twice for her affiliation with the party, but was acquitted both times. She claimed that her involvement with the party and specifically her interest in the film was from a purely aesthetic point of view. She won the gold medal in Venice in 1935 and in Paris at the World exhibition in 1937. Her documentary is innovative and visually compelling, and I think is a must watch for every film buff.
5) The Murderers are Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte (1948)
Suzanne comes back from a concentration camp, and finds that her apartment is inhabited by the retired and alcoholic Dr. Hans Mertens. She tries to get back to her old life, while he is forced to face the demons of his past (the horrors of the war), and they form an unlikely friendship. The Murders Are Among Us, is a poignant story of healing, hope and forgiveness. The film contains traces of expressionism and its editing is reminiscent of soviet-montage. It is considered one of the greatest films of East Germany.
In the original ending, Staudte has Dr. Mertens kill his Nazi-collaborator officer, but the authorities were afraid that it would inspire people to seek their own revenge as well, so instead the evil Bruckner is left to the judicial system.
6) Alice in the Cities, Wim Wenders (1974)
This film is one of my all time favorites. It’s about a blocked journalist and an abandoned little girl, who go on a quest to find the latter’s grandparents. A road movie about the alienation and angst of the post war period, Alice in the cities, is heartwarming, witty, and just a must see.
7) Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Reiner Werner Fassbinder (1974)
Fassibinder is known for his tumultuous affairs with his male actors and his possessive controlling personality, but also for being one of the most prolific filmmakers, with a total 44 films, TV miniseries etc. in a career that only lasted 16 years (he died in 1982 at 37 from a drug overdose).
Fear eats the soul, homage to Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) is about Emmi, an old woman, who falls in love with a much younger Arab man Ali. It deals with issues like xenophobia, class separation, and the image of the “foreign man.”
The actor who plays Ali, El Hedi Ben Salem, was one of Fassbinder’s lovers who committed suicide (there were two.)
8) The Tin Drum, Volker Schlöndorff (1979)
Let’s be honest this film comes as no surprise, and you’ve probably seen it already, but I still have to mention it. Based on Günter Grass’ novel of the same name, The Tin Drum recounts the story of an unusual boy called Oskar who only agrees to leave his mother’s womb because he is promised a tin drum on his third birthday. Once that day arrives, he makes the firm decision never to grow up and enter the cruel world of adults (set in WWII). In a world filled with sex, corruption and moral degradation, Oskar with his tin drum and scream that can shatter glass, yields a one-man battle against the world.
9) Barbara, Christian Petzold (2012)
It’s the 1980’s, Barbara, a doctor and dedicated smoker, is sent to a rural hospital near the Baltic sea (East Germany). The cold and distant woman seems to only become human when she deals with her patients, especially young Stella, who is desperate to evade her labour camp. The film deals with questions of gender norms, alienation and escapism. It might be a little slow at times, or as cold as its protagonist, but it is the perfect example of the cinema of resistance, and it goes against established Hollywood norms.
10) Hanah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta (2012)
How do you make a movie about thinking?
This Biopic depicts 4 years Hannah Arendt’s life (1960-64), during which the philosopher worked on the Eichmann trial. She was sent to Israel by the New Yorker Magazine to cover the trial, expecting to come face to face with a monster, but instead she saw a man, a banal normal man.
She then wrote her controversial piece “The banality of Evil” in which she argues that Eichmann is not an evil mastermind, but rather a man who committed terrible acts simply because he was not thinking about his actions, he merely did as he was told without question.
The biopic centres on Arendt’s observations, and the scandal that arose from her article. Von Trotta uses the actual footage of the trial, and the audience can see for themselves exactly what Arendt saw. The film is interesting from a historical standpoint, but also visually in its camera movements and cinematography.