10 Films That Capture Berlin In The 1980s

Harriet Blackmore

The beginning and end of 1980s Berlin were completely and radically different, and this selection of films captures aspects of the tumultuous decade and the essence of the city itself. Films about the music and art scenes emerged from this divided city and the underlying political strife that was the backdrop to it all. From the infamous and heartbreaking cult film Christiane F. to the first and last DDR film documenting the queer scene in Berlin, Coming Out, we offer a glimpse into this torn and turbulent decade as captured on film

Christiane F. – We Children from Bahnhof Zoo

Dir.: Uli Edel, 1981

Based on the life of the young Christiane Felscherinow, Edel’s film captures a dark side of the city through the experiences of a young addict in Berlin. Although technically capturing life in the late 1970s, the film, made in 1981, represents a spiritual and cultural aspect of the city that existed well into the 1980s, and a world that was formative to the following decade. With a soundtrack by Bowie, it became a cult film that shocked European audiences, with its brutal and bleak tale of a young girl’s addiction and subsequent prostitution to enable it. Christiane F. is a heartbreaking and harrowing story, made more resonant by the fact it is based on true events.


Director:Christian Petzold, 2012

A doctor in 1980s East Berlin is exiled to a rural East German hospital after applying for an exit visa to move to West Germany. Removed from her position in Berlin and under the watch of the Stasi, Barbara tells the story of the acute paranoia of the oppression of the time. As the main character is unable to wholly trust anyone she encounters, Barbara is an aesthetically elegant and beautiful portrayal of a terrifying time with underlying feelings simmering under the suppression — there’s a tension in the lingering shots and withholding soundtrack that resonates. As Barbara conducts her work, the intrusion and the frustration of the East German occupation become ever clearer.

The Lives of Others

Dir.: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

Set in 1983 in East Berlin, The Lives of Others tells the story of a playwright, Georg Dreyman, living in the occupied and monitored city. Capturing the isolation and fear that George feels, it is tale told with inescapable resonance, showing the extremity of the spying and interference within a state under watch. The people who are spying on him become intertwined in his life, and this extraordinary film offers a poignant and paranoid picture of life in East Berlin. Acclaimed for its factual and aesthetic accuracy, the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

B Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin (1979-1989)

Dirs.: Klaus Maeck, Jörg A. Hoppe, Heiko Lange, 2015

A compilation of mostly unreleased film and television footage, B-Movie documents the West Berlin sub and pop cultures that emerged in the decade before the fall of the Wall. The film is narrated by Mark Reeder, a Mancunian musician and producer who shares his experience of Berlin when he began living there in 1978, and it tells a tale of an illusive and mysterious city that, in reality, no longer exists. Featuring notorious figures of the time like Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave, B-Movie harnesses a strange nostalgia for a city that could only exist then; the creation, the art and the attitudes that emerged from the pain of a divided city.

Wings of Desire

Dir.: Wim Wenders, 1987

Aesthetically capturing the 1980s in Berlin, Wim WendersDer Himmel über Berlin is an ethereal reverie of the city. It sees angels walk through the city, perched upon building-tops, talking of the world below. The angels act as guardians and witnesses, while the film tells the story of one specific angel, who, after falling in love with a trapeze artist, goes to earth to become human. The film has a dreamlike quality and is filmed in black and white, offering an observation of the people within a city. It was almost instantaneously considered a classic film by many an institution and critic, and as it was made two and a half years before the fall of the wall, it simultaneously explores the divisions of a city and celebrates the people within it.

Geniale Dilletanten – No Wave

Dir..: Christoph Dreyer, 2009

A music documentary about the experimental music subculture, this film showcases artists and bands such as Blixa Bargeld of Einstuerzende Neubauten, Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds, Mora Mur and Malaria!, director Jim Jarmusch. As result of political and cultural strife, Berlin was a place that artists flocked to for acceptance, to meet like-minded people and for the revolution of the mainstream. Capturing the essence of the city along with the underground, hedonistic, and vibrant art scenes, Geniale Dilletanten looks at the ‘cultural upheaval’ of the artists in this period, which produced music, magazines, galleries, endless collaborations and innovative ideas.

Coming Out

Dir.: Heiner Karow, 1989

The first film in the DDR to focus on LGBT issues, this is a turning point in the East German film movement. Premiering in East Berlin on 9 November 1989, the night that the Berlin Wall fell. A cult film, it tells the story of a teacher living in East Berlin who embarks upon a secret affair with a young man. Whilst the film shows the secrecy and context within the DDR, the social and cultural worlds of the post-DDR city were very different.

Herr Lehmann

Dir.: Leander Haußmann, 2003

This is the story of a bartender working in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, weeks before the fall of the Berlin wall. The bar, SO36, still going strong in Berlin today, has long been a vital place for the LGBT community. Herr Lehmann, approaching 30, dwindles introspectively, caught up in his bartending work, relationships and friends, missing the seismic shifts in the world around him. Herr Lehmann harnesses a sense of the Kreuzberg district, and the atmosphere of the kiez bordering the wall.

Rabbit à la Berlin

Dir.: Bartek Konopka, 2009

A documentary film and shrewd allegory of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rabbit à la Berlin explores the changed city through the perspective of the rabbits who have lived between the two walls for 28 years. Using found footage from the Cold War, Konopka gives an alternative experience of the fall of the wall, offering entirely new observations through a more abstracted viewpoint. Nominated for an Oscar for ‘Best Documentary, Short Subject’ in 2010, Rabbit à la Berlin is a unique and compelling film that takes on the destruction of the totalitarian state and then destruction of the dividing wall through the eyes of animals.

Goodbye, Lenin!

Dir.: Wolfgang Becker, 2003

Just before the wall falls in 1989, Alex Kerner’s mother falls into a coma. After a few months pass she wakes up; the wall has fallen and both the city and country are in very different places. With the doctors insistent that their mother cannot endure another shock, the family strives to keep the illusion of the pre-revolution city alive. The family then embarks on farcical missions, masking coca-cola posters, sourcing pickles from the DDR era, and staging post-dated news broadcasts. Goodbye, Lenin! is a comedic critique of the reunification.
By Harriet Blackmore

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