In the comments to my last post, I recommended a bunch of full vintage German movies I found on YouTube to Sherwood. In case somebody else is interested as well, here is the list again, reorganized and expanded a bit.
The movies span eight decades, four regimes, several genres and range from light to heavy, from humourous to serious, but the main focus is on West German films of the 1950s and 1960s, though I have a lot of 1920s and early 1930s films as well. Most of them are theatrical features, though some TV movies have snuck in as well. All movies are full versions. With very few exceptions, none of them have subtitles. Trigger warnings are included for those that might bother some audiences.
So here it is. The master list of the best of German cinema from the Weimar to the Berlin Republic, from 1920 to 2003:
Der Golem (The Golem) from 1920: Early fantasy/horror classic by Paul Wegener, based on the novel by Gustav Meyrink. This version has English language title cards.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) from 1920: Expressionist horror classic. This is a restored and tinted version with English title cards.
Die Geierwally (Vulture Wally) from 1921: A very early example of the Heimatfilm, that peculiarly German genre of melodramas and romancs with strong regional settings. This one is based on a famous novel.
Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu – A symphony of terror) from 1922: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s famous Dracula adaption. This version has English title cards.
Dr Mabuse – Der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse – The Gambler) from 1922: Based on the epoynmous novel by Norbert Jacques, Fritz Lang’s thriller marks the screen debut of one of the most versatile and long lived mastervillains of all time. We’ll meet him again on this list. For more on the evil Doctor, see this essay I wrote about him. This version has English title cards.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (The Nibelungs: Siegfried) from 1924: The first part of Fritz Lang’s revolutionary two part adaption of the Nibelungen saga. Heroic fantasy from the 1920s. This is a restored version with German title cards.
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (The Nibelungs: Kriemhild’s Revenge) from 1924: The second part of Fritz Lang’s revolutionary two part adaption of the Nibelungen saga. Heroic fantasy from the 1920s. This is a restored version with German title cards.
Berlin – Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin – symphony of a big city) from 1927: This pioneering silent documentary by Walther Ruttmann chronicles a day in Berlin from sunrise to nightfall and is worth watching for the glimpses into everyday life during the Weimar Republic alone. In 2002, Thomas Schadt remade Ruttmann’s famous documentary in today’s Berlin. Schadt’s version is here and makes a fine comparison.
Metropolis (1927): Fritz Lang’s early SF classic in its full restored glory. With original soundtrack and title cards in German.
Die Frau im Mond (The Woman on the Moon) from 1929: More early SF by Fritz Lang. This is the movie that inspired a young Wernher von Braun. This is a restored version with German title cards and Italian subtitles.
Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (The white hell of Piz Palü) from 1929: An early example of that quintessentially German genre, the mountaineering film. Shot on location in the Alps with some spectacular and stars Leni Riefenstahl (yes, the infamous propaganda director. Don’t worry, this one is quite safe.) in her acting days and aviation pioneer Ernst Udet. The title cards are in German.
Die Drei von der Tankstelle (The Three Men of the Gas Station) from 1930: Nice musical comedy about three friends who operate a gas station (which was very cool and up to date in 1930) and fall for the same woman. Stars Heinz Rühmann, Willy Fritsch and Lilian Harvey.
M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A city is searching for a killer) from 1931: This Fritz Lang classic is the granddaddy of all serial killer thrillers and was inspired by some real life serial killings in the 1920s. Stars Peter Lorre as the killer. The glimpses into 1930s police work and everyday life in the late Weimar Republic are fascinating as well. Kommissar Lohmann, the police officer charged with bringing the killer to justice will reappear again as the nemesis of archvillain Dr Mabuse. German with English subtitles.
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) from 1933: The second outing of Norbert Jacques’ mastervillain Dr. Mabuse, again directed by Fritz Lang. We learn how the hell Mabuse manages to cheat death time and again and also meet Kommissar Lohmann from M again. Theoretically, this one belongs into the Third Reich category, since it was released two months after Hitler came to power. But since the Nazis banned it (they feared people would notice certain parallels), it fits better into the context of the Weimar Republic.
Note: All of the Nazi era films linked here are escapism (Nazi cinema was big on escapism) and free of propaganda. What is more, I only recommend Third Reich films that I have rewatched in the past few years, because I sometimes missed creepy propaganda subtext as a child.
Das Veilchen vom Potsdamer Platz (The Violet of Potsdamer Platz) from 1936: Delightful comedy about a Berlin flower girl (Rotraut Richter) who tries to save an aged carriage horse from the butcher. Notable for the Berlin accents and the glimpse of a long lost world.
Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes war (The man who was Sherlock Holmes) from 1937: One of the rare Nazi era crime films (The Nazis did not like crime films, since they might harm public morale) and a deconstruction of the Sherlock Holmes myth, starring Hans Albers as (not-quite) Holmes and Heinz Rühmann as (not quite) Watson. This is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes adaptions of all time.
Zu neuen Ufern (Towards new shores) from 1937: The Nazis may not have liked crime movies, but they were big on melodramas like this tale about a music hall singer who is deported to Australia for a theft committed by her boyfriend and spends the rest of the movie torn between the untrustworthy boyfriend (who has also found his way to Australia) and an honest Australian farmer. Three guesses who gets the girl. Stars Zarah Leander, one of the biggest star of Nazi era cinema, and Willy Birgel.
Immensee (Bee Lake) from 1943: Another Nazi era melodrama based on a novella by Theodor Storm about an old man who regrets the lost love of his youth. This film was directed by the infamous propaganda director Veit Harlan (he helmed the anti-semitic propaganda screed Jud Süß) and stars his wife Kristina Söderbaum, but is largely unpolitical except for a slightly creepy focus on the themes of sacrifice and loss. The whole thing is rather silly, but the Agfacolor footage sure is gorgeous.
Opfergang (Walk of Sacrifice) from 1944: Yet another Nazi era melodrama directed by Veit Harlan and starring Kristina Söderbaum, both of whom specialized in this fare. It’s another story of a man caught between two women, which is resolved by one of them conveniently dying and the other comforting her in the walk of sacrifice (well, ride of sacrifice) of the title. Oh yes, and there is an epidemic of typhoid, too. Silly story, gorgeous colour footage and no political message beyong a somewhat creepy focus on endurance and sacrifice.
Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Punch Bowl) from 1944: Delightful comedy about a writer who had a private tutor and realizes what he missed out on when he hears some friends trading school stories. So he dresses up as a student and goes back to school as the equivalent of a highschool senior. Fascinating glimpses into school life in pre-1960s Germany and an interesting ending. Stars Heinz Rühmann
Große Freiheit Nr. 7 (Port of Freedom) from 1944: Hans Albers stars as a world weary sailor who comes home to Hamburg, finds a bit of happiness with a much younger woman (Ilse Werner) who eventually ends up with another man (Hans Söhnker), so he returns to sea. This one is notable for the wonderful music and the glimpses of Hamburg and particularly the St. Pauli red light district in glorious colour before it was bombed to smithereens. No propaganda either and in fact the Nazis did not much like this one, since Hans Albers’ world weary sailor was not heroic enough. This is the granddaddy of the curious North German subgenre of the St Pauli melodrama. Note the glimpses of people of colour in the background – in Nazi Germany at the height of WWII!
Postwar East Germany:
I’m not very familiar with East German filmmaking and two of my favourites are not available on YouTube, so this section is rather thin.
Rotation from 1949 was directed by Wolfgang Staudte film and chronicles the lives of an ordinary Berlin working class family from the late Weimar Republic through the Nazi era all the way up to the fall of Berlin and shows how politics threatened to tear the family apart. Serious and very good.
Die Legende von Paul und Paula (The Legend of Paul and Paula) from 1973 (Part 2 is here): This unconventional love story was a huge success in East Germany, because of its (very subtle) criticism of the Communist regime and (fairly mild) sex scenes. Personally, I’ve never been able to see the appeal, but then I probably don’t get a lot of the references. However, it’s worth watching for the glimpses into everyday life in East Germany alone.
Jakob der Lügner (Jakob the Liar) from 1974: Jurek Becker wrote this holocaust drama, which was East Germany’s only crack at the foreign language Oscar.
Postwar West Germany I: 1950s/1960s
Note: I’m splitting postwar West Germany into the immediate postwar era of the 1950s and 1960s and the 1970s and 1980s, because German filmmaking changed a lot (and for the worse IMO) from the late 1960s on. West German films of the early 1950s were mainly harmless escapism, romance, musicals, comedies and the like, though as the 1950s wore on the films became increasingly critical, often in a satirical way.
Das Haus in Montevideo (The House in Montevideo) from 1951: Neat comedy about sexual doublestandards by Curt Goetz. Orderly married father of way too many children has once disowned his sister for having a child out of wedlock. The sister emigrated to South America, died and left her oldest niece a house in Montevideo. However, there is a catch in the will. This is not the version I remember from my childhood, apparently there were several.
Hokuspokus (Hocuspocus) from 1953: Interesting courtroom comedy (yes, there is such a thing) by Curt Goetz. A woman is accused of having murdered her husband and remains silent during her trial. Her defense counsel uses some very unusual methods to prove her innocence. Very clever and very good.
Der Förster vom Silberwald (The forrester of the silver wood) from 1955: This is a typical example of the peculiarly German genre of the Heimatfilm, which are basically melodramatic romances among people wearing Dirndldresses and Lederhosen set in stunning, ususally Alpine, landscapes. The stories are mostly weak and the films pure escapism, but 1950s audiences lapped this stuff up. This one is quite interesting because of the environmental angle.
Ich denke oft an Piroschka (I often think of Piroschka) from 1955: Lovely but bittersweet romance between a German student and the daughter of a Hungarian railway station master set in the Puzta region in Hungary. Stars Liselotte Pulver and Gunnar Möller.
Die Fischerin vom Bodensee (The Fischer girl of Lake Constance) from 1956: Yet another Heimatfilm with beautiful landscape photography.
Das Donkosakenlied (The Donkosaks’ Song) from 1956: This story of a struggling single mom and her son, sympathetic Russians (in 1956!) and beautiful music is sentimental, but much better than one would assume.
Charleys Tante (Charley’s Aunt) from 1956: Delightful crossdressing comedy starring the great Heinz Rühmann.
Das Wirtshaus im Spessart (The Spessart Inn) from 1958: This wonderful fairytale like musical comedy based on the story by Wilhelm Hauff and directed by Kurt Hoffmann features a dashing bandit, a crossdressing countess, catchy music by Franz Grothe and stunning location photography in the Spessart region in South Germany. Stars Liselotte Pulver and Carlos Thompson. A full review is here.
Wir Wunderkinder, (Aren’t we wonderful?) from 1958: Kurt Hoffmann directed this satirical look at German society from 1900 to 1958 and how dishonest people often flourish under any regime, while the honest ones can never catch a break. Note the use of ballads as commentary on the action.
Die Brücke (The Bridge) from 1959: Anti-war film about a group of teen boys who are tasked with defending a bridge in the closing days of WWII with predictably tragic results. I don’t particularly like this one (it was required viewing at my school), but it is a classic and well worth watching for seeing future stars such as Götz George and Volker Lechtenbrinck as kids.
Strafbattalion 999 (Punishment battalion 999) from 1960: This adaptation of the eponymous novel by Heinz G. Konsalik tackles the phenomenon of the so-called “punishment battalions” of WWII, Wehrmacht divisions in which condemned deserters, criminals and Nazi critics were sent on suicide missions. A bit melodramatic and not always historically accurate, but still one of the better German WWII movies of the era.
Rosen für den Staatanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor) from 1960: This satirical gem is one of my favourite German films of all time. It starts off with a bang (quite literally) as a hapless soldier is sentenced to death for stealing two tins of chocolate in the closing days of WWII. However, a timely bombardment helps him escape. Fast forward fifteen years: The hapless soldier is just scraping by as an itinerant trader in the postwar economic boom, while the judge who sentenced him to death is now a prosecutor who prefers to forget his Nazi past. However, the past hasn’t forgotten him. Dark comedy which takes a harsh look at how many high ranking Nazi officials managed to end up in high offices in postwar Germany. Stars Walter Giller and Martin Held
Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen (Darkness fell on Gotenhafen) from 1960: This is one of the best disaster movies ever made and tells the true story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise ship carrying East Prussian refugees to safety towards the end of WWII, when it was hit by a Soviet torpedo and sank with between 6000 and 7000 people aboard. Harrowing and very, very good. Forget Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure, this one is the real deal. Don’t watch this one alone or late at night.
Im Weißen Rößl (The White Horse Inn) from 1960: Wonderful screen adaption of Ralph Benatzky’s operetta about the romantic entanglements in an Austrian resort hotel. Filmed on location in Austria and stars Peter Alexander. Great acting and great music.
Kohlhiesels Töchter (Kohlhiesel’s Daughters) from 1962: This neat variation on the Heimatfilm stars Liselotte Pulver as two very different twin sisters. The younger sister has a lover and wants to marry him, but her father won’t allow her to marry until her older sister is married as well. Problem: The older sister is rude and slovenly, so a makeover is in order.
Der Schatz im Silbersee (Treasure of Silver Lake) from 1962: The first of several adaptions of the Karl May’s famous adventure novels about the noble Apache chief Winnetou (Pierre Brice) and his German born best friend Old Shatterhand (Lex Barker) was one of the biggest German blockbusters of the 1960s. Though shot what was then Yugoslavia, this movie influenced the image that generations of Germans have of the Old West. Nowadays, the unintentional slashiness is hard to overlook and white actors playing Native Americans may rub many wrong (indeed, don’t watch the Winnetou films if this bothers you). Nonetheless, this one is a true classic and lots of girls fell in love with either Winnetou or Old Shatterhand. My friend and I actually divided them up amongst ourselves. She would marry Winnetou and I would marry Old Shatterhand.
Winnetou 1 from 1963: Not the first film in the series in spite of the title.
Winnetou 2 from 1964: The saga of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand continues.
Winnetou 3 from 1965: The tragic conclusion of the epic Winnetou trilogy left not a dry eye in the movie theatre. Winnetou dies nobly in Old Shatterhand’s arms (spoiler whiteout) and the cavalry is too late, as usual. Italian actor Rik Battaglia who played the villain never lived this one down.
Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi (Winnetou and the Halfblood Apanatschi) from 1966: In spite of the tragic ending of Winnetou part 3, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are back in this prequel of sorts. Also stars Götz George, whom we have seen before as a doomed teen soldier in The Bridge and will see again later on, and future German star Uschi Glas.
Raumpatrouille Orion (Space Patrol Orion) from 1966: Classic German SF TV series. The premise is similar to Star Trek, a spaceship with an international crew has adventures in space with some sly allusions to contemporary West German politics. The effects are 1960s standard (though better than Doctor Who from the same period), the acting is top notch and the unlikely romance between Commander Cliff Alistair McLaine (Dietmar Schönherr) and Lieutenant Tamara Jagellowsk (Eva Pflug) is one of my favourite SF love stories.
Jerry Cotton: Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu (3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan) from 1966: This taunt thriller is the third of eight film adaptions of the popular pulp adventures of G-Man Jerry Cotton and the last to be shot in black and white. The plot surrounds a stolen truck full of nitroglycerin, which falls into the hands of a crazed blackmailer. George Nader, who lost his Hollywood contract after he was outed as gay and became a star in Germany, plays Jerry Cotton, an agent with the New Yor office of the FBI. Heinz Weiss is his partner Phil Decker, Horst Franck plays – what else – the villain. The action is furious and the liberal use of stock footage and back projection does its best to make you forget that this film was shot nowhere near New York City. Watching for accidental slip-ups such as German signage or license plates is half the fun.
Postwar West Germany: 1970s and 1980s
In 1962, a group of 26 German filmmakers released the so-called Oberhausen Manifesto (The full German text is here) and declared “Grandpa’s cinema”, i.e. the German cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s with its escapist Heimatfilme and musical comedies as well as critical and satirical films, dead. Sadly, the almost managed to kill off German cinema for good.
Film critics generally love the films made in the wake of the manifesto, the new German cinema by the likes of Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, Edgar Reitz, Rainer Werner Fassbender, etc… I don’t, which is why you won’t find any of those films here and why this section is rather thin. Besides, if you want New German cinema, I’m sure Netflix can oblige.
Still, here are a handful of good films,mostly made for TV, of the 1970s and 1980s:
Der Seewolf (The Sea Wolf) from 1971: This four-part made-for-TV adaption of Jack London’s novel stars Raimund Harmsdorf as a titular character and is a well-made adventure series. Part 2, part 3 and part 4 are online as well.
Das Millionenspiel (The Million Game) from 1973: One of the rare examples of German SF about a TV game show where a contestant is hunted by a team of hired killers for a prize of one million deutschmarks. Wolfgang Menge’s TV adaption of a Robert Sheckley short story caused a scandal at the time, because it’s shot like a real TV game show and many viewers mistook the show for real and wrote letters of protest to the broadcaster, but also sent in applications as contestants. You’d think the commercial breaks (which didn’t exist on German TV at the time) would have tipped them off. Forty years later, what makes this film so eerie is that it really looks just like the variety and game shows of the 1970s, while the fake commercials look like real 1970s commercials. Plus, the host of the fictional game show is played by Dieter Thomas Heck, who hosted the popular music program Hitparade on TV, and Heck hosts the fictional show just like the hosted the real shows with his trademark motormouth style. If you’re German, you’ll also be stunned to see popular comedian Dieter Hallervorden as the leader of the killer team. This one is like watching TV from a parallel universe.
The crime show Tatort (Crime scene) is one of Germany’s longest running TV programs. It’s an anthology type programs featuring different investigators in different parts of Germany every week. Tatort is very hit and miss (more miss than hit), with one exception, namely Götz George (one of the doomed kids in The Bridge) in his most iconic role as Kommissar Horst Schimanski, the foul mouthed working class cop from the Ruhrgebiet region who brought a breath of fresh air into the dullness of German TV from 1981 on. Most of the Schimanski Tatort episodes are on YouTube (with some exception due to music rights). The quality varies, but they’re well worth watching for the glimpse into Ruhrgebiet working class life in the 1980s, just as it was about to vanish.
Two standouts are Schimanski’s debut in Duisburg Ruhrort from 1981 and his finest outing in Kuscheltiere (Stuffed animals) from 1982, a hard look at the illegal adoption industry and the trafficking of Vietnamese children for adoption. While many found loving homes (one of them is Germany’*s secretary of the economy Philip Rösler), others were not so lucky. If you don’t cheer for Schimanski at the end, you have no heart. BTW, when watching those early Schimanski episodes, keep in mind that Götz George wanted Schimanski to be gay and originally played him that way, but the producers nixed that idea as “too controversial”.
Liebling Kreuzberg was a TV series that ran irregularly over five seasons from 1986 to 1997. Episode 1 is here, further episodes may be found here. Manfred Krug stars as an unconventional lawyer who has its office in the immigrant/working class/alternative lifestyle neigbourhood of Kreuzberg in (West) Berlin. The scripts were written by Jurek Becker whose film Jakob the Liar (linked above) almost won East Germany an Oscar. I usually don’t like legal and courtroom dramas except for Liebling Kreuzberg, Harry’s Law and Danni Lowinski. If you’ve seen either of them, you’ll notice certain parallels.
Schulz und Schulz (Schulz and Schulz) from 1989 (Part 1 is here, part 2 here) stars Götz George as twins separated in the closing days of WWII, who grew up in East and West Germany respectively and decide to swap lives for a day, when they are reunited as adults. This classic miniseries was made a few months before the fall of the Wall. There were a couple of sequels, too, but the first one was the best.
Unified Germany (post 1990):
Again, not a whole lot from this era, largely because they’re not freely available. But if you’re interested, a lot of post 1990 films may be found on Netflix.
Go Trabi Go from 1991: Shortly after the unification, an East German family climbs into their trusty baby blue Trabant and goes on a madcap road trip to Italy. This comedy is rather light, but culturally interesting.
Schtonk from 1992: Comedy about the true story of the faked Hitler diaries which almost brought down the news magazine Der Stern in 1982.
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door from 1997: Unlikely comedy plus road movie about two terminally ill young men who meet at the hospital and take off in a sportscar “borrowed” from the hospital garage to see the North Sea. Unfortunately, the car belongs to a gangster boss and the trunk is full of money, so a wild chase ensues. This is one of the biggest German successes of the 1990s. Stars Til Schweiger, Jan Josef Liefers and Moritz Bleibtreu. With Russian subtitles.
Aimee und Jaguar (Aimee and Jaguar) from 1999: Touching lesbian love story between a married German woman and a young Jewish woman who hides under an assumed identity in WWII Berlin. Based on a true story. Steven Spielberg is a fan. This version is German with French subtitles.
Good Bye Lenin from 2003: This touching tale of a woman who falls into a coma in East Germany in late 1989 and wake in the middle of the transition to a unified Germany and her son who tries to keep the dying East Germany alive for her sake and accidentally creates an alternative version of the unification. This is the third biggest German box office success ever. No film chronicles the rapid changes between the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989 and the unification on October 3, 1990 better. This is one of the best films about East Germany and much better than The Life of Others. With English subtitles.
Schultze Gets the Blues from 2003: Schultze, an unemployed East German miner and passionate accordeon player, chances to hear Cajun music on the radio. Fascinated he travels to Louisiana in search of the music. Stars East German TV legend Horst Krause
Gegen die Wand (Head on) from 2004: German-Turkish director Fatih Akin won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival this dark romance set among Turkish immigrants in Hamburg. After a failed suicide attempt, Cahit, a depressive alcoholic, is hospitalized and meets another failed suicide, Sibel who tried to kill herself in an attempt to escape her ultraconservative Turkish German family. Sibel proposes a marriage of convenience to Cahit, an open marriage that will allow Sibel to get away from her family and have the general and sexual freedom she craves, while Sibel’s wealthy father will pay off Cahit’s debts. Of course, things don’t work out as intended, because Cahit and Sibel gradually fall in love and Cahit gets jealous of Sibel’s lovers. Stars Sibel Kekilli, best known to international audiences as Shay in Game of Thrones, in her screen debut. This version is German with Turkish subtitles. Part 2 is here.