Watching Germany IV: Classic Films

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.


This final installment in the AGI “Watching Germany” series is coming (hopefully) toward the end of a long shutdown due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. So, maybe file this for the second wave of the pandemic next winter. I am a little apprehensive writing this final installment because there are literally libraries full of excellent scholarship on highbrow, classic German cinema.[1] Moreover, I realize that this is a very idiosyncratic list and that I am combining two quite different periods, diverse artistic movements, and film makers. Again, I present the films in chronological order.

Pre War


This list begins with the first golden age of cinema during the Weimar Republic—a time when Germany was one of the innovators in this new form of entertainment, massively influencing the future of the medium not the least through the many refugees from the Nazis who emigrated to Hollywood. First on the list must be several works of the legendary director, Fritz Lang. Nothing encapsulates that iconic period of German history, Weimar Germany, like his magisterial Metropolis (1927). A masterpiece of the silent era (although not universally acclaimed at the time), it was the first science fiction feature film and is visually stunning with its aesthetic amalgam of art deco, neo-Gothic, futurism, and functionalist modernism. The plot is a tad complex but revolves around a city from the future rigidly divided between the rich, who live in soaring skyscrapers, and the workers in catacombs below. A romance between the son (Freder) of the city’s “Master” and a working-class woman (Maria) drives the political vision of the film—the exploitation of workers and the attempts to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Along the way, a megalomaniacal inventor, Rotwang, creates a “machine person,” the false Maria, and foments the near-destruction of the workers’ city. Many have commented on the almost communist message of the film, but the Nazis also liked it.

M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

Another Lang classic is M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931) starring Peter Lorre as the child murderer Hans Beckert, eventually tracked down and brought to justice by the criminal underworld, the police, and many average city dwellers. Highly entertaining even today, the tense, noirish sensibility prefigured the flowering of this genre in 1940s Hollywood. The scene during the criminals’ kangaroo court when a desperate Beckert pleads for them to spare his life because he cannot do anything about his murderous impulses is superlative.

Der blaue Engel

Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930) is another timeless masterpiece starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, the original film diva and smoldering movie star. Based on an earlier Heinrich Mann novel, the plot revolves around a stern teacher, Unrat (Jannings), who ventures into the local Blue Angel cabaret and becomes transfixed instantly by the star Lola Lola (Dietrich). He quits his job, marries Lola, but becomes increasingly subservient to her, degenerating into a tragic clown in her show. Jealous of other suitors, he unsuccessfully tries to strangle her, and then returns to the school where he once taught and dies. So much more than a clichéd story of a bourgeois man’s fall from grace because of a seductress, the layers of psychological complexity are immense—as exemplified in the various renditions of the classic song “Falling in Love Again.” The film was an immediate hit internationally and is beloved still in all its transcendent, erotic decadence.

Triumph of the Will and Olympia

Leni Riefenstahl is one of the most controversial directors in the German (or global) pantheon. Denying that she was a Nazi supporter or knew anything about the crimes of that regime (despite using slave laborers as extras in one film) until she died at age 101 in 2003, she has also been heralded as a pioneering, brilliant filmmaker, and even as a proto-feminist. A must-see film is her 1935 propaganda piece Triumph of the Will, a “non-fiction” filmic recounting of the days-long 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg. There are many speeches from top Nazis, especially Hitler, but the most stunning images of all are the endless marching and drill sequences—and the famous aerial shot of Hitler and two henchmen walking across a field with thousands of adoring Nazis in perfect formations. Although too long and repetitive in places, the aesthetic effect of the representations of power, unity, and strength on the viewer is as impactful today as in the 1930s. Susan Sontag even deemed this “fascinating fascism.” Another Riefenstahl classic is Olympia (1938), a non-fiction film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which the filmmaker pioneered many techniques still used in sports broadcasts to this day and created indelible images of athletic physiques.

Post War

The early decades after 1945 are not renowned for their exceptional films, given the popularity of the Karl May adaptations and so-called Heimatfilme like Grün ist die Heide (1951) with idealizations of the countryside and melodramatic plots. Also quite popular were the three so-called Sissi films (1955-1957) starring Romy Schneider, one of the most popular actresses of her age. These films—now cult classics—are historical epics about Elizabeth of Bavaria who became Empress of Austria-Hungary.[2] Several excellent films dealing with war themes were also made during these early postwar years—notably Des Teufels General (1954) about an anti-Nazi general trying to sabotage the war effort, Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben? (1959) concerning the Battle of Stalingrad, and the devastating Die Brücke (1959) that chronicles the efforts of a group of boys to stop the Americans from taking a bridge into their town at the very end of the war. All of these films had a rather sanitized view of the past or glorified innocent yet noble soldiers. Nazi ideology and war crimes did not really surface.

East German Films

I should also mention some East German productions, especially those of the famed DEFA production company. Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946; not technically eastern German yet) tells the story of a traumatized surgeon returning from the war, his new romantic relationship with a concentration camp survivor, and his encounters with his former captain, who had ordered war crimes. Instead of killing the captain, he informs the authorities to bring the criminal to justice. The Legend of Paul and Paula (1973) chronicles the dull lives of two East Berliners who are eventually drawn together romantically, but ends in tragedy. Hugely popular, it was almost not released due to its subtle criticisms of the communist regime. Finally, the original Jacob the Liar (1975), the story of a Jewish concentration camp inmate that creates false radio reports to give others hope, was the only East German film to be nominated for an Oscar.

Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum

In the Federal Republic, a period of artistic effervescence began with the “new German cinema” of the 1960s and especially the 1970s and 1980s. Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975) written and directed by Volker Schlöndorff (of Handmaid’s Tale, 1990, fame) and Margarethe von Trotta (who also directed Rosenstrasse, 2003, and Hannah Arendt, 2012) was based on Heinrich Böll’s eponymous novel. Poignantly acted by Angela Winkler, this is the story of an innocent young woman hounded into a life of crime by a rapacious tabloid reporter and abused by the institutions of the supposedly democratic Federal Republic of Germany. The film also thematizes the substantial domestic tensions that fueled the 68er generational revolt and the left-wing extremism of the late 1960s and 1970s—as well as being a timeless critique of unethical, “yellow” journalism.[3] Indeed, the subtitle to the film—“or How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead”—makes the point rather unsubtly.

Hitler: Ein Film aus Deutschland

At a time when West Germans were increasingly confronting their Nazi past and its legacy, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg made Hitler: Ein Film aus Deutschland in 1977. At 442 minutes, it truly needs to be seen to be believed. Although some scenes and sections are more conventional reconstructions of historical events and personalities (Hitler and Himmler are main characters), the avant-garde aspects are memorable—especially toward the end when one actor speaks to and lambastes a Hitler puppet.

Die Ehe von Maria Braun

One of the most devastating films I have ever seen is Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s Die Ehe von Maria Braun (1978) starring Hanna Schygulla. Maria marries Hermann as bombs fall in the war. Thinking Hermann has died, she begins a relationship with an African-American soldier after the war ended. Hermann returns, there is a confrontation, and Maria unintentionally kills the solder. Hermann takes the blame and goes to prison. Meanwhile, Maria becomes the employee and mistress of a wealthy man, Karl Oswald. When Hermann gets out of prison, Oswald promises to bequeath his fortune to Maria and Hermann if the latter goes abroad. Hermann returns after Oswald’s death, but a disconsolate Maria creates an explosion, killing them both. A critical and commercial success, it is an epic depiction of a generation many of whom compromised their morals, did what they needed to survive, and then rebuilt the country, only to feel a lasting emptiness. Other epics of twentieth century German history include the critically acclaimed Der Blechtrommel (1979).

Das Boot

This list needs to include Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981). Not just one of the best naval films of all time, it is a timeless classic in the war genre with an all-star cast. Chronicling the mission of U-96, viewers are exposed to some of the most claustrophobic and tense shots of submarine warfare. After a series of close calls, the ship is attacked and sinks. The crew barely survives after heroic actions and returns to base in La Rochelle. An aerial bombardment kills much of the crew and the final scene shows the war-weary anti-Nazi captain (played by Jürgen Prochnow) die as his boat sinks. Though a highly entertaining action film, the anti-war message is also abundantly clear.

Heimat – Eine deutsche Chronik

Another modern classic is Edgar Reitz’s Heimat – Eine deutsche Chronik (1984, and two follow-ups in 1992 and 2004). Originally a television miniseries, it clocks in over 15 hours. This is an epic tale of a sprawling German family in the Hunsrück region of the Rhineland. It is a chronicle of the modernization of Germany, the vicissitudes of the twentieth century especially the world wars and reconstruction after 1945, and a paean to the German notion of Heimat, the place of one’s origin. Three interconnected families—the Simons, Wiegends, and Schirmers—are portrayed over several generations. Their attractions, feuds, and political commitments are all chronicled. One of the main characters is Maria, who gave birth to two sons, was left by her husband Paul (who fled to the U.S.), had a baby out of wedlock during the war, and then presided over the rebuilding of the country and the Wirtschaftswunder after 1949. The series ends with her death in 1982. With an expressionist aesthetic, filming switches between black and white. Although highly lauded, some critics think that the series excessively glorifies a nostalgic vision of the past and a premodern way of life, while downplaying or ignoring the many crimes Germans committed during the Nazi period. As true as that may be, I have always been deeply affected by this epic about the good and bad in German history and the transformative impact the twentieth century had on families and German society more generally.

Der Himmel über Berlin

I will end this article and series with Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987), which incidentally was the very first German-language film I watched as a teenager. The protagonists are angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) who watch and protect Berliners from above—trying to intervene, for instance, to save a suicidal man. Damiel comes to long for a human existence, especially after coming across and falling in love with a trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Damiel gives up his immortality and finally feels fulfilled, experiencing the full range of human emotions and experiences. Loved by critics for its poetic, angsty tone, philosophical outlook, and great acting, it has even been called the most German film ever. In actual fact, it is the most Berlin film ever with the tragic beauty of divided Berlin still scarred from the war the real star.

[1] Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (Rutgers University Press, 1989); Sabine Hake, German National Cinema (National Cinemas) 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2007); Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, Deniz Göktürk, and Claudia Sandberg, eds. The German Cinema Book 2nd Edition (British Film Institute, 2020).

[2] Maura E. Hametz and Heidi Schlipphacke, ed. Sissi’s World: The Empress Elisabeth in Memory and Myth (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

[3] Christina Gerhardt, “Surveillance Mechanisms in Literature and Film: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum by Böll and Schlöndorff / Von Trotta,” Gegenwartsliteratur 7 (2008): 69-83.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.