Films in Germany often have a historical basis, helping Germans to understand the country’s diverse history. The much acclaimed Good Bye Lenin! (2003) is an example of this, yet Wolfgang Becker’s tragicomedy engages with the fall of the Berlin Wall in an original fashion. Our guide surveys German cinema in the last decade, examining films that focus on subjects from gun-toting radicals to avant-garde dance to analyzing the nature of evil.
The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
In 1967, a mass demonstration erupts when the Shah of Iran visits Berlin. It turns violent when the police attack the crowd and kill a student named Benno Ohnesorg. This state murder occurred in the midst of existing alienation from authoritarian rule in West German society and untrammeled US imperialism during the Vietnam War. The culmination of these factors led to the creation of The Red Army Faction (RAF). RAF was a left wing militant group that aimed to start a revolution through urban guerrilla tactics. Based on a bestselling book of the same name by Stefan Aust, the film chronicles this turbulent period of social history, focusing on the protagonists of the group from 1960s-1970s: Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. The film is slick, akin to a Hollywood thriller, yet its fundamental purpose is to ask whether these people were honorable revolutionaries or just callous criminals.
Barbara is a chain-smoking doctor in East Berlin. The withdrawn character is played by Nina Hoss, an inspired piece of casting by director Christian Petzold as Hoss conducts herself with commanding presence on-screen. Barbara is being punished for seeking to leave East Germany and is therefore transferred from the renowned Charité hospital to a rural town. The start of the film catches Barbara in 1984, about to begin her first day at this quiet hospital. Her new colleague André Reiser, a bearded surgeon, is immediately intrigued by her, yet his captivation is openly ambiguous leaving us to wonder whether he could be a Stasi informant. Meanwhile, Barbara is constantly being harassed by the secret police who attempt to monitor her every step. This is a naturalistic film exuding stark aesthetics that successfully capture the tone of the Cold War period. Barbara is a gripping portraiture of a character engaged in passive resistance against the totalitarian regime.
There must be nothing more daunting as an actor than portraying Adolf Hitler – particularly if performed in front of a German audience. Yet Bruno Ganz‘s portrayal in Downfall is surely one of the astonishing cinematic performances in recent times. Based on the diaries of Hitler’s private secretary Traudl Junge, Downfall reconstructs the last days of World War II, as Hitler and his cohorts are confined to their claustrophobic bunker in Berlin. With the Russian army circling round his fiefdom, Hitler is forced to confront his own failures and eventually to relinquish his power. Downfall is an incredibly powerful piece of cinema that has resulted in a blossoming public appreciation of Bruno Ganz.
Gerhard Richter Painting (2011)
This documentary directed by Corinna Belz is an accurate description of what the title promises it to be. Richter is lauded as a master of different styles yet since the turn of the millennium, he has focused more on large abstract works that have often been described as mature paintings. Belz has unprecedented access to Richter’s studio in Cologne, allowing the audience to gain rare insight into Richter’s artistic process, such as what type of paints he uses. Richter starts working on new canvases, yet there is an interesting scene where he hits a stumbling block, admitting, ‘I don’t know what to do next’. Gerhard Richter Painting will appeal to aspiring artists as well as casual observers of art.
Hannah Arendt (2012)
Margarethe von Trotta creates a touching film about political theorist Hannah Arendt. Hannah is a German Jew who fled from the Nazis to America in the 1930s. The film focuses on her assignment for the New Yorker to chronicle the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s former transport administrator. Her numerous articles would later be published as the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which proved to be controversial. Her most memorable piece of phraseology was in coining the term, ‘the banality of evil,’ an articulation of how stricken she was by Eichmann’s sheer ordinariness. Actress Barbara Sukowa convincingly conveys the philosopher grappling with her ideas, as Arendt receives death threats and hatred for her writing. Overall, Hannah Arendt is an important film that upholds the legacy of a remarkable woman by surveying her life – including her complex relationship with philosopher Martin Heidegger.
The Lives of Others (2006)
In 1984, the Stasi is omnipresent in East Berlin. The duty of the secret police force is to know everything about all citizens in the German Democratic Republic. After attending a premiere of a play by Georg Dreyman, Stasi officer Wiesler becomes convinced that a seemingly loyal playwright needs to be subjected to intense surveillance. Dreyman and his girlfriend, an actress named Christa-Marie, are pitched against the totalitarian state despite Culture Minister Hempf’s claim that ‘artists are the engineer of the soul.’ Yet after bugging his apartment, the poker-faced Weisler cannot help but be emotionally swayed, as he becomes exposed to Brecht and a moving rendition of Beethoven’s Appassionata. Donnersmarck’s first ever feature film is understated yet tense and moving, demonstrating how an independent artistic talent can be a powerful antidote to an oppressive regime.
North Face (2008)
Germany is about to host the Berlin Olympics, but the Nazis want to gain an early morale booster to generate national pride. They decide to challenge two mountaineering teams to attempt to climb and conquer the north face of the Eiger, reassuringly known as the ‘murder wall.’ Philipp Stölzl’s film fictionalizes the real-life story, focusing on two apolitical Alpinists, Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, as they attempt to climb the deathtrap. North Face exhibits impressive cinematography with plenty of suspense, as we see the climbers literally holding on to life by their fingernails.
Prepare to be transfixed and beguiled by the medium of dance. Wim Wenders is most well-known for his spellbinding fictional film: Wings of Desire (1987). Yet Pina, a 3D documentary, is now considered to be one of the best films in his catalogue. The subject is innovative choreographer Pina Bausch, who died suddenly before filming was about to start. Her legacy is captured remarkably, as Wenders films the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch Ensemble. The dancers are clearly distraught by her death, yet they find relief by acting out her dynamic and expressionist form of dance. The documentary posits the idea that there are limits to what words can express and consequently dance is an important form of language. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must dance.’
Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (2005)
Sophie Scholl is renowned in Germany as the leader of an anti-Nazi pacifist movement entitled the White Rose. She was a student activist, busy distributing pamphlets and dedicating her life to opposing the Third Reich. Director Marc Rothemund retraces her last six days, including her final hours on earth, when the 21 year old was found guilty of high treason and immediately executed. Julia Jentsch is superb as Sophie Scholl, conveying her innate courageousness as she defends herself in the inquisition and trial. Rothemund’s film is a haunting docu-film about a young heroine in the face of unimaginable circumstances.
The White Ribbon (2009)
Michael Haneke is seemingly hard-wired to creating films that make viewers profoundly uncomfortable. The White Ribbon is typical of his characteristic style as dread is pervasive throughout. Stylistically, the film is black and white thereby lending itself to austerity. Set in a rural village in Northern Germany, on the eve of World War I, a series of sinister and inexplicable events unfold, such as a barn being burnt down for no apparent reason. In this Protestant community, there is a heightened sense of paranoia. The children are presented as sinister for no particular reason. This anxiety-ridden film is framed within the context of the World Wars because Haneke seeks to look at the roots of evil – in particular the roots of Nazism.
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