Great ways to learn German: Part 5 – German films

In part 4 of “Great ways to learn German” I discussed dramas/films for television. If you have missed it check out this link. In this part I will look at German films ( or German speaking films) shown in cinemas.

As I mentioned in the last part, watching films in the original language can improve your listening skills.

I want to start my film recommendations with early films.

If you love science fiction and films tackling utopian visions “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang is a must see. The film was released in 1927 and is a silent film – so admittedly not the best example to start this post with. However if you consider yourself a film buff then you will want to watch it as it made cinema history. It stars Gustav Froehlich and Brigitte Helm and is set in a futuristic dystopia. Metropolis  tells the story of Freder, the rich son of a factory director, and  Maria, a poor factory worker. You can find the full synopsis of Metropolis here. The film is famous for its then ground breaking special effects and the robot at the heart of the film – also played by Brigitte Helm. The original film that premiered in the 20s was badly damaged and several attempts have been made to restore it – one version was restored by Georgio Moroder who brought out a tinted version.

“Ich bin von Kopf bis Fub auf Liebe eingestellt, ja das ist meine Welt – und sonst gar nichts” , sings Marlene Dietrich in “Der Blaue Engel – The Blue Angel”, a film that made Dietrich a star and was directed by Josef van Sternberg in 1930. It was based on Heinrich Mann’s novel “Professor Unrat” (Unrat means garbage)  and tells the tragic story of Professor Rath(Emil Jannings) who turns from respected professor to clown and ultimately descends into madness, when he falls for night club singer Lola (Dietrich). The film has also been shot as an English version, though for obvious reasons the German version is better. The title of the film refers to the name of the cabaret where Rath sees Lola sing. Marlene Dietrich went on to pursue a successful Hollywood career and became a US citizen in 1939.

The next film(s) I want to recommend are actually three films. If you love costume drama and a big portion of Kitsch, then the “Sissi” trilogy, directed by Ernst Marischka,  might be right for you. Sissi is the nickname of Austria’s Empress Elizabeth, who reigned between 1854 and 1889, when she was assassinated. The three films “Sissi” (1955), “Sissi – die junge Kaiserin – The Young Empress” (1956) and “Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin  –  The Fateful Years of an Empress” (1957) depict the courtship of Kaiser Franz Josef and the princess Elizabeth up until their wedding in the first film and show her becoming empress in the second film and getting used to her new life. The final film shows Sissi falling ill and recovering  from tuberculosis, while being separated from her children. It doesn’t go further than that.  Karlheinz Böhm plays Kaiser Franz Josef – he also appeared in international productions such as “Peeping Tom” (directed by Michael Powell in 1960) and has been well known for his humanitarian work in later years. He founded the charity “Menschen für Menschen”.  The Sissi films made the very young Romy Schneider a star and she also reprised her role in 1972 in Visconti’s film “Ludwig II of Bavaria”. The beautiful Schneider, who had quite a tragic life herself, was a good choice as she bears a resemblance to the Empress. The films should be viewed as what they are – light entertainment and not for historical accuracy. The real Sissi was a difficult woman who struggled with eating disorders and had a very disturbing exercise/beauty regime to maintain her stunning looks.

In Germany they tend to show these films every Christmas.

If you love Bond movies and have seen “Goldfinger” you will recognise Gert Fröbe in “Es geschah am hellichten Tag – It Happened in Broad Daylight”. The film was directed by Ladislao Vaijda and is based on a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It tells the story of a detective (Heinz Rühmann) who investigates the brutal murder of a child and ends up using questionable methods in catching the killer (Gert Fröbe). If the story sounds familiar it’s because it has been filmed several times and one of the newest version is “The Pledge” (2001) – directed by Sean Penn with Jack Nicholson as the detective. As the story takes place in Switzerland you will hear a mix of German and Swiss dialect.

Given its dark history it is not surprising that history plays an important part in German films. So here are recommendations of films that deal with the Nazi era, the Stasi era, the Cold War and the era of the “Rote Armee Fraktion” (RAF).

“Die Blechtrommel – The Tin Drum” directed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1979 won him an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1980. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Günter Grass. I actually read the novel in school (so quite a long time ago). It’s hard to sum up this surreal movie and you can get a full synopsis of it here. In a nutshell it tells the story of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) who decides on his third birthday not to grow up, banging his tin drum as an act of rebellion against the society he lives in.

The film is a dark and surreal comedy drama which follows Oscar and his family from the aftermath of WW1 to WW2. It has some real disturbing scenes and be warned – if you like to eat eels (and I don’t especially since watching this) you might want to give it a miss.

A way more serious film is “Downfall – Der Untergang” (2004) which depicts the final 10 days of Adolf Hitler and the people close to him as told by his secretary Traudl Junge (the film is partly based on her memoirs) . The film was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and Hitler was impressively played by Bruno Ganz. Downfall has spawned a lot of parodies – well Hitler lends himself. And one of my favourite parodies is actually this one taking the piss out of Giles Coran.

From the Nazi era to the Cold War – if you love Billy Wilder – and I am huge fan – then you should check out “Eins, zwei, drei – One, two, three” with the delightful James Cagney, Lilo Pulver and Horst “Hotte” Buchholz. The comedy was released in 1961 in German and English. It’s set in Berlin just before the wall was built and James Cagney plays the director of West-Berlin’s Coca Cola distribution centre C.R MacNamara, who tries to sell the drinks to the Soviet Union. While in West Berlin, his boss announces that his slightly dense daughter Scarlet is coming to stay with him and his family. Two weeks turn into two months and Scarlett announces that she got married to East German Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), who is very much your typical communist, and wants to move to Moscow! Which causes MacNamara a right headache as his boss is announcing his imminent arrival in Berlin. How is he getting out of this situation? I don’t want to tell you too much of the plot (you can read it here), but needless to say it’s Billy Wilder at his best with star turns by Liselotte Pulver as Cagney’s secretary.

“Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex” (2008) depicts the more recent history of terrorism in Germany. I was born in the 70s so vaguely remember the news of terror attacks by the Rote Armee Fraktion or RAF especially the abduction and murder of Hans-Martin Schleyer. The film, directed by Uli Edel, focuses on the RAF founders Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin – their terror activities and subsequent struggle (and death) as political prisoners, who were detained in isolation cells at Stammheim. You can read a detailed synopsis here. The film captures the mood of the time that  it’s set in and shows the terrorists as human beings who chose the wrong path. It certainly doesn’t glorify the RAF. What really sells the film is its excellent cast – Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader, Marina Gedeck as Meinhof and Johanna Wokalek as Ensslin. Other big stars include Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara and Jan Josef Liefers.

“Das Leben der anderen” – “The Lives of Others” (2006), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is set in the Stasi era and tells the story of loyal Stasi spy Gerd Wiesler whose task it is to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, famous actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Wiesler gets rather involved in the lives of these two and soon finds out the real reason why he is set up to spy on them. The film shows the grim reality of living in the former GDR, but from the point of view of a Stasi employee rather than the victims of the Stasi, which makes the film unique. Wiesler, played by Ulrich Mühe, who sadly died shortly after the film was released, is not your typical bad guy and portrayed rather sympathetically. The film received a lot of excellent reviews and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. Other cast members are Martina Gedeck, Bruno Ganz and Ulrich Tukur.

I love watching comedies or rather comedy dramas and luckily you can find a lot of German films in this genre. Here’s a selection of films I like.

Goodbye Lenin!

Goodbye Lenin!

First up:

“Goodbye, Lenin” (2003), directed by Wolfgang Becker. I recently had to re-watch this film because one of my students had to prepare a short essay about this film for her German A-Levels. The film concentrates on Germany’s more recent history and is set in East Berlin during the fall of the Berlin wall. It actually starts in October 1989 and continues until the reunification one year later. Alexander Kerner’s life changes dramatically when his mum, a seemingly loyal Socialist, has a heart attack and slips into a coma for eight months, during which the wall falls and the whole country changes. Heeding his mum’s doctor’s warning that she could suffer another heart attack if she gets shocked, he decides to recreate the former GDR – or a rather an idealised and friendlier version of it. This includes: finding old GDR food stuff such as Spreebohnen and re-creating the news! While his sister Arianne and her Wessie boyfriend embrace the new capitalist life, he is much more critical of the new life and has his hands full keeping up the lie he has created for his mum. Though it has some really funny moments – Alex’s commentary throughout the film, him and his mate re-creating the news etc. – the film is actually more a drama with lots of sad moments. We find out why his dad left the family to flee to the West and why his mum didn’t follow him with the family – and we get a lot of hints of how oppressive life was for GDR citizens. One of the big highlights of the film is the delightful Daniel Brühl, who plays Alex. It was his breakthrough film and he is now an international star – you might want to check out “Rush” by Ron Howard, in which he plays Niki Lauda. “Goodbye Lenin” received a lot of excellent reviews and is really worth watching.

What do you do when your wife decides to leave you for another man? Give up? No, not in “Männer” – “Men” (1985) by Doris Dörrie. Instead said man Julius Armbrust (Hainer Lauterbach) decides to befriend the lover Stefan Lachner (Uwe Ochsenknecht) and moves into his flat… Männer is basically a clever revenge comedy and was well received when it was released in the 80s.

“Der Bewegte Mann” – “The Most Desired Man” (1994) directed by Sönke Wortmann is based on Ralf König’s two comics “Der bewegte Mann” and “Pretty Baby”. The plot revolves around Axel (Til Schweiger) who gets dumped by his girlfriend (Katja Riemann), joins a men’s self-help group for advice and moves in with his gay friend Norbert (Joachim Krol). His ex-girlfriend discovers that she’s pregnant and wants to give him another chance – unfortunately she finds him in a rather compromising situation with Norbert and draws the wrong conclusion… When the film came out I really enjoyed it – not only because the plot is funny and has a few twists, but also because of the excellent cast and the fact that the film is based in my home city Cologne.

“Kleine Haie” – “Little Sharks” (1992) by Sönke Wortmann explores the world of acting. The plot centres around dishwasher Ingo (Jürgen Vogel), who returns a bar chair to the renowned Folkwang Theatre School in Essen and ends up accidentally in an audition for the next year’s intake (and successfully, without him knowing). Here he meets aspiring, but unsuccessful, actor Johannes ( Kai Wiesinger) who wants to try his luck at the Otto-Falckenberg-School in Munich. They decide to hitchhike to Munich and along the way they meet confident Albrecht von Korweiler („Ali“) who also dreams of becoming an actor.  The film follows the adventures of this accidental trio – will they all succeed? The title is actually based on a book called “Der kleine Hey – Die Kunst des Sprechens” by Julius Hey, which helps actors working on their pronunciation (and which I will definitely use in my German lessons). My favourite actor in this film is Jürgen Vogel, who is also starring in the next movie I want to recommend to you.

“Das Leben ist eine Baustelle” – “Life is all you get” (1997) by Wolfgang Becker – is a bitter sweet comedy about a man who finds himself in a bad way. Jan’s ex-girlfriend tells him that she is HIV positive and might have infected him, he loses his job and finds his father dead in his kitchen. Then he meets musician Vera (Christiane Paul) and falls in love with her, but his fear that he might be HIV positive puts a damper on things and eventually he has to confront his fear. This is not your typical comedy as it deals with the serious issue of death. It is well written and acted and you might actually recognise a certain Ricky Tomlinson, who plays Buddy. The translation of the film title is a bit odd – if you’d translate it literally it actually means – life is a building site.

The next two films I’d like to recommend star the beloved multi-talented comedian Loriot (real name Vicco von Bülow), who also directed both comedies. Loriot had a quite a successful career as a cartoonist (he was very fond of pugs – Möpse in German) and sketch show creator and his work was mostly shown in the 70s. Find more about Loriot here.

In his first film “Ödipussi” (1988) Loriot plays Paul Winkelmann, at 54 still a bachelor, who runs a family furniture shop and has a very close relationship with his rather dominant and overbearing mother. One day he meets psychologist Margarethe Tietze (Evelyn Hamann), who tries to help him to improve his consulting techniques with potential customers. This leads to his mum being very jealous and confusion also ensues when he meets Margarete’s parents, who think he is a patient of hers.  In “Papa ante portas” (1992) – Loriot plays Heinrich Lohse, a manager of a company producing light bulbs, who is slowly losing the plot. It starts with him accidentally ordering a 40 year supply of paper and erasers for his company which leads his boss to send him to his early retirement – much to his family’s dismay. At home he creates more chaos…

If you’re already a fan of Loriot you will love both films, if you haven’t heard of him and like gentle comedies with some slapstick thrown in this might be for you.

Sadly both Evelyn Hamann, who was his long term side kick in his TV shows and films, and Loriot died a few years ago and are very much missed by the German audience.

The final film I’d like to recommend to you stars Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu and is the experimental “Lola rennt” – “Run, Lola run” (1998) by Tom Tykwer. It tells the story of small time criminal Manni (Bleibtreu) who is delivering smuggled goods for his boss (Heino Ferch), but accidentally leaves behind the money in a subway carriage. He rings his girlfriend Lola for help – who has only 20 minutes to raise 100.000 DM and prevent Manni from robbing a bank. The fast paced film is narrated in three versions with very different endings. The film propelled the careers of both, Potente and Bleibtreu. Tykwer went on to direct “Perfume” with Ben Wishaw and “Cloud Atlas”.

And that’s it – my selection of German films I recommend to you. I have left out a lot of famous directors such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Margarete von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – and if you like serious, rather depressing and often wordy films you might want to check them out too. Since I have only watched a few of their films and honestly can’t remember them very well I can only give them a brief mention.

Thanks for reading. In the next and final part I am writing about German music – and I don’t mean Schlager- and Volksmusik!

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Helen White

I am a bilingual journalist, jewellery designer, German tutor, and translator – and I am passionate about cats.

Helen White – who has written posts on Helen Kaut Press.


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