In honor of Germany winning the FIFA World Cup for the fourth time (and the first time in more than twenty years), I decided to do a quick list of my favorite German films. Now, the thing about the great German filmmakers of the silent and early sound period, is that many of them had to leave their country during World War II in order to keep making great movies. That is why many of the great directors of the classic Hollywood period (Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim) were either German or Austrian. Similarly, many of the best directors of the German New Wave made some of their best films in America (like Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man). This makes it a little difficult to narrow down what exactly I should count as “German” movies, so I’ve decided to limit this list to movies made by German filmmakers in which the primary language spoken in German. Without further ado, here are my five favorite German movies in chronological order…
The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Man – F.W. Murnau, 1924) I think this movie is mostly known nowadays for providing the inspiration for the design of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, which is a pity, because The Last Laugh is one of the greatest movies of the German Expressionism movement of the 1920s. Murnau, of course, was one of the most brilliant directors to ever live, and despite the fact that he tragically died in a car accident at the age of 42, his output includes some of cinema’s early masterpieces. The Last Laugh stars Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman whose life is destroyed when he loses his job. The movie is notable for only featuring a single title card, showing Murnau’s proficiency at telling a fantastic story only through images. The movie not only shows Murnau’s magnificent talent as a filmmaker, but his value as a deeply humanist storyteller.
M (Fritz Lang – 1931) Fritz Lang was another of the great directors of the German Expressionism. His movies include the silent classic Metropolis, but my favorite of his is his first sound movie, M, which stars great character actor Peter Lorre in his breakout role. He plays a child murderer, and most of the film is dedicated to the police’s search to capture him. M is an incredibly dark movie, where men walk through the shadows in the middle of a decadent and seedy city. The movie was made shortly before the Nazis took power, and one can see how the director was deeply concerned and disgusted with the direction his country, which was already experiment incredible political chaos during the 20s and early 30s, was headed.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes – Werner Herzog, 1972) Werner Herzog is, in my opinion, one of the best living filmmakers, and Aguirre might very well be his masterpiece. The movie stars Klaus Kinski, in his first of five memorable collaborations with Herzog, as Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, an obsessively cold-blooded man who ventures into the Peruvian rainforest in a doomed quest to find the lost city of El Dorado. None other than Roger Ebert named this one of the ten best movies ever made, so let the most eloquent man talk about the movie: (from his 1977 review) “Aguirre, Wrath of God is an obsessive film, about obsession. Because it is more or less based on fact, it’s all the more disturbing: Here is what greed and madness can bring human beings to. Herzog’s other films sometimes speak unclearly; this one speaks in blunt, unforgiving despair.”
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974) Fassbinder is the second director on this list who died at a tragically young age (he was only 37). Besides giving his movies some of the best titles of cinema history (you can’t get any better than The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), he was one of the most talented and soulful German directors. The film tells the story of the sad romance between a sixty-year-old German woman and a Moroccon immigrant, as well as the horrific reaction that their relationship sparks in the people around them. It’s an incredibly powerful look at immigration and xenophobia; a lovely movie that feels as urgent now as it probably did back then.
Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten – Wim Wenders, 1974) Of the movies in this list, this is the one that holds the most special place in my heart. There should be a word to describe the specific movie genre of lost men wandering around with little children. In this case we’re dealing with a German photographer who’s going back to Germany after finishing working in the U.S., who suddenly sees himself taking care of the daughter of a woman, and going all around Germany to try to find the house of her grandmother. Don’t be fooled by the premise, it is an incredibly sweet movie, and one that moves relatively slowly, but also shows some of the most unmannered and simple filmmaking I have ever seen. It’s the rare movie that touched me because of the earnestness of its simplicity.