In this part of Great ways to learn German I am talking about German television dramas and films (or German language films).
One of the best ways to improve your language listening skills (and broaden your vocabulary in the process) is to simply watch films in that language. Whether it’s a television drama or a film made for cinema you will not only listen to the language, but also learn a lot about the country that it’s made in.
In Germany we are at a disadvantage when it comes to films from different countries, as most films are dubbed into German – usually with a lot of skill and they tend to choose actors whose voices are close to the original, but to me it just doesn’t feel right. With the exception of Amadeus – where the German version is almost better because of the authentic Austrian dialect that you don’t get when you watch it in English – I really prefer to watch English speaking films in English because I want to listen to the actors’ voices. German films on the other hand are not dubbed so you end up watching the original with subtitles- and this is great for enhancing your German listening skills. You’ll listen to different German dialects and get a good feeling what German really sounds like – which is nothing like the stereotypical German pronunciation a lot of UK comedians still use to mock the “Krauts”. Tragic I know.
What films to watch though?
In this part I want to focus on television dramas.
If you are into tense war movies Das Boot (The Boat) is a good one to watch. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (who went on to have a successful Hollywood career with movies such as Air Force One, Troy and The Perfect Storm) it was released as a movie and also a four part television series in 1981. Don’t ask me what the main difference is between the movie and the mini-series is – it’s been a long since I saw the series and the film. Das Boot is based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and tells the story of the submarine U-96, its crew and the battles they had to fight during WW2. The movie was a massive hit and launched not only Petersen’s career, but also made Jürgen Prochnow, Klaus Wennemann and Herbert Grönemeier famous. Grönemeier left acting shortly after and followed his other passion: music. He became one of the most successful German singing artists in Germany. Warning – if you are claustrophobic, don’t watch it as its main setting is a submarine! A few years back I actually visited a real life submarine which you can find on a beach in Laboe pretty similar to the one in the film. And I am not good with tiny, confined spaces. I was really glad to get the hell out of it at the other end. However it gives you a good idea of the working conditions of the crew in those days.
Heimat is another epic television series with a whopping 32 episodes and its first series, which spans the years 1919 to 1982 has been shown on the BBC several times. The 5 series of Heimat have received plenty of accolades and were written and directed by Edgar Reitz. They depict life in a small fictitious village called Schabbach which is situated in the Hunsrück area of the Rhineland. What is so remarkable about Heimat, well certainly the first series, is that Reitz used a combination of professional actors such as the wonderful Marita Breuer, who plays Maria Simon, and amateur actors. In the first series you will hear the dialect spoken in the Hunsrück area (and even for Germans it is not always easy to understand) and you fall easily in love with its characters. While Heimat 1 focuses on Maria Simon and her family and covers the 20s, Nazi era and the 50s, Heimat 2 (Die zweite Heimat – Leaving Home) focuses on Maria’s youngest son Herman and his time in Munich, where he studies music, meets other like-minded artist friends and falls in love with cellist Clarissa. The series mostly concentrates on the 1960s. Series 3 (Chronik einer Zeitenwende – Chronicle of a changing time) follows Hermann’s return back to Schabbach in 1989, depicts the events that lead to the fall of the Wall and ends in the year 2000. New characters from East Germany are introduced in this series. There’s also a film called Heimat Fragmente – (Fragments) which was released in 2006. This film concentrates on the Simon women in the 60s and around the year 2000. I haven’t seen this one, but put it on my rental list.
Update (18/6/2016): Since I have written this post I have actually watched Heimat Fragmente. It’s a very long film which focuses on Hermann’s daughter and her reflections on her family. She is basically walking around and narrating while looking at old films and photos and we see a lot of old footage mostly of Hermann, Schnuesschen and their friends. As much as I liked seeing the old footage and felt a tad self indulgant and also I missed a coherent storyline). So this is really for die hard Heimat fans.
The final series is Die andere Heimat (Home from Home) from 2013, which I also haven’t seen yet and have to put on my rental list. This goes back in time and is set in the mid-19th century, when poverty and famine was rife. It is essentially a prequel to the Heimat series. It follows the fate of Jacob and his family and their decision to migrate to Brazil.
Update (18/6/2016): I have also managed to watch this now. It’s not a film I would recomment to people who just started learning German – even I struggled with the strong Hunsruecker dialect! However it’s an interesting story highlighting a part of Germany’s history I didn’t really know much about – the harsh living conditions and sheer poverty in the 1840s which resulted in the migration of whole commuinities to Brazil.The story is rather moving and you really can sympathise with Jakob. The ending is quite surprising – and there’s even a cameo of Werner Herzog as Alexander von Humboldt.
Why is Heimat worth watching? Because of its superb storytelling, you get a sense of history, beautiful cinematography (it’s shot in black and white and colour) and great acting.
Another series I want to recommend, but which might not be so easy to come by is Rote Erde1 and 2 – Red Earth directed by Klaus Emmerich. The 13 part series follows the story of miners in the Ruhrgebiet starting in 1887 until shortly after WW2. It not only follows historical aspects, but gives the viewer a realistic depiction of the harsh life of miners and the dangers of the job. One of the characters is called Käthe Boetzkes, which I always found amusing because I have an aunt who has the same name.
I liked the music of Rote Erde so much that I bought it as a single- it was composed by Irmin Schmidt who used to be part of the famous avantgarde band Can.
Deutschland 83 /Deutschland 86
And finally I want to recommend a very recent German production, which was aired earlier this year on Channel4 and received glowing reviews. Deutschland 83 is an an eight-part drama about young GDR soldier Martin Rauch, who is blackmailed by his Stasi aunt to work as a spy for the Stasi Foreign Service in the West. It’s the year 83 and the cold war is pretty much hotting up, with the Americans positioning their Pershings and Cruise Missiles right on Germany’s doorstep. So this is following more recent history. I have lived through this period and remember going to peace demonstrations (as shown in the series) and being generally pretty scared of an impending Nuclear War. The series shows how messed up the situation was, how very different life in the East was from the West and how paranoia was the order of the day. It also shows how nasty the Stasi was and how easy it was for them to blackmail and manipulate ordinary citizens. Martin’s aunt promises a kidney transplant for his sick mum in exchange for his services. The series, which was created by Anna and Joerg Winger, has lots of plot twists and turns, very sympathetic characters (Alex Edel, the major’s son, who hates being in the army) and of course Martin/Moritz himself. He is an unlikely hero and for me the final episode feels incomplete and like a cliff-hanger. So here’s hoping for another series. It’s one of the best dramas I have seen in recent years and definitely worth watching. It also boasts well known and loved actors such as Maria Schrader (Lenora Rauch) , Ulrich Noethen (Wolfgang Edel) and Alexander Beyer (Tobias Tischbier). However the star is really newcomer Jonas Nay (Martin/Moritz) who is also an accomplished musician. If the actor playing Alex Edel looks familiar to you it could be that you know Ludwig Trepte from his role as Viktor Goldstein in Generation War.
The catchy title track “Major Tom: Völlig losgelöst” was a big Neue Deutsche Welle hit for Peter Schilling.
EDIT: Since I have written this series 2 has been released and shown on Channel 4 under the name of Deutschland 86. The story this time takes partly place in Africa and it’s – you might have guessed it – 1986.
In the next part I will recommend German movies made for cinema.
I hope you enjoyed reading this part. Feel free to comment below or share.
Thanks for reading. Helen 🙂
- How to learn German vocabulary so you can actually remember it.
- Great ways to learn German: Part 5 – German films.