German Cinema for Beginners

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Labyrinth of Lies and described it as a “gem in the underappreciated world of German cinema.” In this post, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss some other films from Germany which I particularly admire.

Of course, there are a number of German films that I could praise: the works of Fritz Lang, silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, submarine thriller Das Boot or even the Adolf Hitler biopic that launched a thousand memes, Downfall. But the films I’ve chosen are ones which, like Labyrinth of Lies, fly under the radar.

Beyond Silence

Beyond Silence poster
English-language “feel good” poster for Beyond Silence

The German film industry was considered an innovator of the medium in the 1920s, only to become dormant during the Nazi regime and again during the Cold War. Though there are exceptions to the rule (such as Das Boot), it wasn’t until reunification in the Nineties that German movies once again received international attention.

One of the earliest, and the best, films to be released during this era was Beyond Silence, or Jenseits der Stille. This told the story of Lara (Sylvie Testud), a young girl torn between her deaf parents and her musically-gifted Aunt Clarissa. Lara is discovered to be a talented clarinet player, but the time she devotes to her music causes angst with her father Martin (Howie Seago).

Beyond Silence is a beautiful film. The interaction between the characters seems natural and genuine, the soundtrack is moving, and the cinematography makes every frame look like a work of art. What particularly intrigued me was Lara’s immediate family: seeing how they communicate and live in a sound-dependent world.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any footage of the film with English subtitles, but the German-language trailer below does provide a general sense of the film’s tone.

Run Lola Run

Run Lola Run
Franka Potente in Run Lola Run

A couple of years after Beyond Silence was released came a film which was vastly different in tone. Its unique style of story-telling has been spoofed and replicated but never bettered, reminding the world just how innovative the German films can be.

Our title character, Lola (Franka Potenta) discovers that her boyfriend Manni (Mauritz Bleibtreu) has only twenty minutes to repay a debt of 100,000 Deutschmarks. As the name of the movie suggests, Lola has to run, run, run to find and help her boyfriend. Lola’s day restarts, twice, as she and her boyfriend fail to complete their task, each time learning from their mistakes and changing lives along the way.

So unique is the story of Lola Rennt (its German title) that I don’t think it even fits into a genre. It’s an action flick without any fight scenes, a comedy with very little humour and a thriller filled with anti-climaxes, yet it’s an incredibly entertaining film. Those willing to embrace its unconventional approach will probably enjoy it most.

Good Bye, Lenin!

Good Bye Lenin poster
German-language poster for Good Bye, Lenin!

One of the greatest benefits of German reunification was the end of the oppressive communist regime in East Germany, allowing stories which would otherwise be censored by the state to be made public. This film, starring a young Daniel Brühl (Rush, Captain America: Civil War) is just one of many.

Taking place during and immediately after the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, it sees a young resident of East Berlin, Alex (Brühl) take care of his mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) after she suffers a stroke. Trouble is, she fell into a coma just as Germany was going through its dramatic change, and once she wakes, Alex is warned not to expose her to any excitement.

There’s a lot of heart to Good Bye, Lenin! – its characters are lovable (especially Alex) and the humour it provides comes when it is least expected, thereby making it all the more funny. It’s also welcoming to see an apolitical view of the German Democratic Republic, showing how it had its advantages as well as its pitfalls.

The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters poster
German-language poster for “The Counterfeiters”

Finally, we have a story about a Jewish prison camp set during World War II. Understandably, it is a contentious topic for the people of Germany, but its interesting story and bold film-making choices helped it to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film back in 2008.

A mysterious man (Karl Markovics) checks-in at a Monte Carlo hotel with a suitcase full of cash. After a night of sex and poker, it’s revealed that the man is Salomon Sorowitsch, a former prisoner of Nazi Germany. The role of his camp was to produce counterfeit British banknotes in hope of crashing Britain’s economy, thereby aiding Germany in the war effort.

The biggest surprise of The Counterfeiters, or Die Fälscher, is the portrayals of the Nazi antagonists. Despite all of their evil connotations, they sympathise with their prisoners and give them an opportunity to prove themselves. But at the same time, the protagonists are aware of their plight and continue to live in fear. It’s tense, edge-of-the-seat stuff.

While the four films above all differ in their approaches, they are much more approachable than many of their European counterparts and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending them. Sadly, it’s very difficult to obtain any of these titles outside of their native land; but if you do happen to find a legal copy with English subtitles, don’t hesitate to make a purchase – it may be the last time you ever see it.

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