German cinema and German filmmakers have long been groundbreaking, experimental, visionary, and willing to take on subjects too controversial, brutal, or complex for Hollywood. Germany produced the very first full-length science fiction film and many of the earliest horror films, while Lotte Reiniger became a pioneer in animation techniques and produced a full-length animated film a decade before Walt Disney. From these not so humble beginnings, German cinema gave us many great films. These are the best.
The Last Laugh - Der Letzte Mann (1924)
F. W. Murnau's early masterpiece stars Emil Jannings, one of the greatest actors of his time, as a hotel doorman whose pride and joy is his uniform. When the hotel manager deems him too old to properly represent the hotel, he is demoted to washroom attendant, a terrible humiliation that he attempts to conceal from his daughter and neighbors. Emil Jannings is extraordinary in this absolutely heartbreaking film about aging, humiliation, and loss.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed - Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)
The oldest surviving animated film, this magical fairy tale, inspired by The 1001 Arabian Nights, uses a silhouette animation technique invented by the filmmaker, Lotte Reiniger. The film is significant both for its astounding technical achievements and for its place in the history of women in film, but it is also a magical work of art, filled with sorcerers, witches, demons, and genies. The film has been restored and now includes the original color tinting.
Fritz Lang's dystopian masterpiece is a visual tour-de-force and the first feature length science fiction film. While the wealthy industrialists of the future live and rule in skyscrapers and spend their evenings partying, the workers who keep the machines running live in miserable underground communities. A saint-like prophet named Maria foresees the arrival of a mediator, just as a diabolical inventor plans to make a robotic woman in her likeness in order to crush the coming rebellion. From the explosively sexual to the spiritually transcendent, the nailbitingly suspenseful to the angelically mystical, this film is sublime.
Pandora's Box - Die Buechse der Pandora (1929)
G. W. Pabst's gorgeous silent masterpiece stars Louise Brooks in her most iconic role (and the one that launched a thousand bob haircuts). Lulu is transcendently sexual and utterly uninhibited, so mesmerizing that neither men nor women can resist her allure. Whether you interpret the film as an expression of misogynistic fear in the face of female sexuality or a parable warning against the impossibility of bringing female sexuality to heel through patriarchal oppression, Pandora's Box is one of the great essential films of world cinema.
The Blue Angel - Der Blaue Engel (1930)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel is another great film about male sexual obsession and unbridled female sexuality. Jannings plays a respected professor who, in trying to shield his students from the sinful atmosphere of cabarets, becomes hopelessly entangled in his desperate desire for Lola (Dietrich), a cabaret singer. Dietrich introduces what would become her signature song, "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)," in what is widely considered the first major German talkie.
Fritz Lang's disturbing thriller stars Peter Lorre, in one of his most powerful performances, as Hans Beckert, a compulsive murderer and pedophile whose crimes are so heinous that the criminal underworld decides to put him on trial before the police can catch up to him. This was Lang's first sound film and his use of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" as Beckert's leitmotif inspired the now standard practice of musical leitmotifs for characters in film. A brilliant, engrossing film that hasn't lost one scintilla of relevance or suspense.
Carl Theodor Dreyer's first sound film is by far the greatest vampire movie ever made. The film was funded by Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg who also starred under the name Julian West. How on earth does one describe this utterly unearthly film? Dreyer succeeds in terrifying by normalizing the horrors of the vampiric denizens of the village, keeping both the sound and the cinematography soft, so that the supernatural is suffocating, irrevocable, and inescapable. A horror masterpiece.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God - Aguirre der Zorn Gottes (1972)
Professional madman Klaus Kinski stars in Werner Herzog's notorious film about an obsessive Spanish conquistador certain that he is destined to find and conquer the legendary El Dorado. Filmed over five brutal weeks in the Peruvian rainforest, this movie is visceral in the extreme - its sweaty, bloody, mosquito-ridden reality is claustrophobic - and yet it also ascends to heights of delirious vision that straddle the boundary between nightmare and consciousness.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul - Angst Essen Seele Auf (1974)
This groundbreaking film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder was originally meant to be a time-filler between two other films, but it ended up being a small cinematic masterpiece. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a Moroccan guest worker, alienated and lonely in his transient life, who meets Emmi (Brigitte Mira), an older widow. Their romance is looked down upon as "disgusting" because of their racial and age differences; Emmi's children smash her television and call her a "whore." There are no unqualified hopes or loves in this film, but it is nevertheless a powerful tribute to the diversiform workings of the human heart.
Europa Europa - Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990)
Agnieszka Holland's great war film is based on the true survival story of Salomon Perel, a young Jewish boy who escaped the Holocaust by posing as an Aryan, even (accidentally) becoming a Nazi war hero and studying at the Hitler Youth Academy. Holland never submits to the temptation of easy caricature. Good and evil in this film are more often the results of happenstance than moral strength or weakness - one of the many reasons that this film is outstanding.
Run Lola Run - Lola Rennt (1998)
This is a film that combines the frenetic pacing and art-pop style of MTV with a video game-like replay scenario that explores the philosophical friction between free will and determinism. Lola (Franke Potente) receives a desperate phone call from her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtrau), a small-time crook - if he can't get his hands on 100,000 marks in 20 minutes, he's dead meat, literally. The techno soundtrack pulsates through this film that plays like an eighty minute adrenaline rush.
Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
Alex (Daniel Bruehl) and his rabidly socialist mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) are living in East Berlin right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After Christiane has a heart attack, Alex is advised that a shock could kill her - and what could be more shocking than the collapse of socialist East Germany and the establishment of democracy? So Alex recreates a socialist reality for his mother in their apartment, even filming fake news programs and hiring children to sing socialist songs on her birthday. The film, directed by Wolfgang Becker, is accompanied by a beautiful score by Yann Tiersen.
The Lives of Others - Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
One of the finest films of the past decade, The Lives of Others is about Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (an incredibly brilliant Ulrich Muehe) who is ordered to spy on the only non-subversive writer in East Germany, playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). As Gerd eavesdrops on Georg and his glamorous lover Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), he becomes increasingly involved in their lives and begins to question blind obedience to the state. From the incredibly accurate depiction of East German reality to the fabulous screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and the brilliant performances, this film is unquestionably one of the most essential films of German cinema.