Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
Walter Ruttmann’s silent opus is one of the greatest films in the city symphony genre. Beginning with sunrise and a train ride, it follows a day in the life of the city. Empty streets give way to people as they wake up and the industrial-age metropolis swings to life. Clerks type, factories produce, and shoppers shop. In the evening, residents go to theatres and cinemas before heading to the beer halls. Ruttmann uses his visual gifts, sharpened by his abstract animations earlier in the decade, to create something both beautiful and chaotic, a suitable replication of life in the conurbation. The innovative film composer Edmund Meisel wrote the accompaning score. Since a third of Berlin was destroyed during World War II, this is a captivating journey through a lost world.
Emil and the Detectives (1931)
Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives (1929) is one of the most beloved books in German children’s literature. Unlike many contemporary works for children, however, it is unsentimental and realistic. The young Emil’s mother sends him to the city with money to give to his grandmother. After eating a poisoned chocolate on the train, he loses the cash so sets off to retrieve it. Gerhard Lambrecht’s delightful but slightly noirish adaptation is the finest film of the novel. Child actor Rolf Wenkhaus’ performance truly captures the joys of boyhood friendship, while the cinematography offers a superb view of pre-war Berlin – all sun-dappled streetscapes and busy thoroughfares. Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger – soon to be forces in American and British cinema, respectively – co-wrote the script with Lamprecht.
Germany, Year Zero (1948)
After Rome, Total City (1945) and Paisan (1946), his two seminal films about World War II, the great neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini turned his attention to the city at the epicentre of the war. Germany, Year Zero offers cinema’s most penetrating glance at the devastated city. As with Rossellini’s preceding films, the majority of the cast were non-professionals. Edmund Moeschke plays a boy trying to help his ailing family through small jobs and black market tasks. Eventually, he makes a fatal mistake that scars his life. The film is an essential document of life in Berlin between the War and the Wall.
One, Two, Three (1961)
Because of the city’s tumultuous recent history, few great comedies are set in Berlin. One, Two, Three, directed by Billy Wilder, applies the screwball energy of Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and the acerbic satire of his The Apartment’s to pre-Wall West Berlin. James Cagney’s C. R. MacMamara is a Coca-Cola executive who becomes embroiled in the affairs of his boss’s daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), and her apparently communist lover, Otto (Horst Buchholz). Wilder unleashes a comic on a world in thrall to international capitalism and post-war politics.
Cabaret is a loose adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin. In 1931, English writer Brian (Michael Yorke) moves to the city. He soon becomes entwined with the American entertainer Sally Bowles, sensationally portrayed by Liza Minnelli, and experiences the decadence and decline of the Weimar Republic. Nearly all the songs, composed by the legendary duo Kander and Ebb, are set in the Cabaret club. The one exception – ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, sung by Hitler Youth in a biergarten – chillingly warns of the Nazis’ rise to power. Bob Fosse, Joel Grey and Minnelli won the Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Actress Oscars.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Initially adapted as a 90-minute feature in 1931, Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), revolutionary in its prose style, is one of the greatest works of German modernism. It was fitting, then, that it was newly adapted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the country’s most revolutionary director since the silent era. Fassbinder gave the story 15 and a half hours to breathe – the longest length of any fiction film. Initially broadcast as a television series, it has become enshrined as a singular film experience since its restoration in 2007. Centering on freed murderer Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), it offers a panoramic view of Weimar Berlin’s seamy underbelly and deploys a mixture of naturalist and surrealist techniques.
Christiane F. (1981)
In 1979, two journalists met a 15-year old girl at a West Berlin court. She was a witness in the trial of a man who traded heroin for sex with underage girls. After interviewing her for two months, they published a book chronicling her fall into drug abuse and prostitution. A few years later, director Uli Edel transformed her story into film. Christiane F. is a bleak trawl through the infamous Bahnhof Zoo. Despite this bleakness, however, it remains enthralling, partially through Natja Brunckhorst’s assured performance as the vulnerable teen. Watch out for David Bowie’s phenomenal live appearance. Bowie also compiled the soundtrack from songs from his “Berlin trilogy”.
Wings of Desire (1987)
Damiel (the astounding Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are angels tasked with observing the inhabitants of West Berlin toward the end of the Cold War. Unable to do more than read the thoughts of Berliners, Damiel eventually starts to desire real interaction. When he encounters lonely acrobat Marion (Solveig Dommartin), he crosses over into the human world. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is a meditative roam across Germany’s bisected capital. Unaware of Damiel and Cassiel standing by, Germans think aloud about their pasts and futures. The cinematographer Henri Alekan helped Wenders achieve a rare beauty and grace, with elegant panning shots and incredible use of local architecture. Near the end, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform ‘From Her To Eternity,’ the backdrop to the film’s revelatory finale. A sequel, Faraway, So Close!, picks up Cassiel’s own dealings with humanity in the reunited city.
Goodbye, Lenin! (2003)
When he is arrested for demonstrating against the Soviet government, Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) inadvertently causes his mother Christiane (Katrin Saß) to suffer an almost-fatal heart attack. When she awakens eight months later, the Berlin Wall has fallen and the country is on the path to reunification. Alex, along with his sister Ariane (Maria Simon) and girlfriend Lara (Chulphan Khamatova), strive to convince the ailing mother that nothing has changed during her coma. Wolfgang Becker’s heart-tugging comedy opened up filmmaking about East Berlin by focusing on the day-to-day experience of life in the city. Much of the action takes place in the city’s Platenbauten housing blocks and on the monumental Stalinist boulevard Karl-Marx-Allee, which contribute to the film’s stark beauty.
The Lives of Others (2006)
German cinema has been slow to deal with its post-war past. The Lives of Others was the first significant drama to depict East Berlin’s final years. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s script casts a sympathetic eye on both the oppressed and their oppressors. Ulrich Mühe stars as Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent who becomes entangled in the romantic lives of Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck’s nheatrical couple while spying on them. The film has been praised for its ability to capture the era’s feel and lambasted for its neutered depiction of Stasi brutality. Despite a sentimental climax, its grey, muted cityscapes and subtle emotional resonances create a gripping picture of the divided city.