Watching Germany III: Recent Films with Contemporary Themes

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017),

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.

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elangenbacher@aicgs.org

As the third installment of AICGS’ “Watching Germany” series (see television and contemporary films on German history), I am turning to post-reunification films with contemporary themes. There is a multitude of great or at least entertaining films made since 1990 that one could include, so, once again this list is a little idiosyncratic. But I have also tried to include some of the most popular contemporary films—to get a sense of what resonates with German audiences.



Interestingly, here is a list of the most popular films in German cinemas over the post-WWII era:


Rank

Year

German Title

English Title

1 1968 Das Dschungelbuch The Jungle Book
2 1998 Titanic
3 1969 Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod Once Upon a Time in the West
4 1966 Doktor Schiwago Doctor Shivago
5 2001 Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
6 1972 Vier Fäuste für ein Halleluja Trinity Is Still My Name
7 2001 Der Herr der Ringe – Die Gefährten Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
8 1994 Der König der Löwen The Lion King
9 2001 Der Schuh des Manitu Manitou’s Shoe
10 2009 Avatar – Aufbruch nach Pandora Avatar
11 1971 Aristocats
12 1965 Feuerball Thunderball
13 1964 Das Schweigen The Silence
14 2002 Der Herr der Ringe – Die zwei Türme The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
15 1990 Pretty Woman
16 2003 Der Herr der Ringe – Die Rückkehr des Königs The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
17 1965 Goldfinger
18 1962 Der Schatz im Silbersee Treasure of the Silver Lake
19 1963 Winnetou 1. Teil
20 1977 Bernard & Bianca – Die Mäusepolizei The Rescuers

Hollywood films dominate. In fact, only three German productions make the cut—and only one since reunification. There are also four animated and two James Bond films; the Lord of Rings trilogy is also quite beloved.

The list of the most popular German productions over the same time period is a little different:


Rank

Year

German Title

English Title

1 2001 Der Schuh des Manitu Manitou’s Shoe
2 1962 Der Schatz im Silbersee Treasure of the Silver Lake
3 1963 Winnetou 1. Teil Apache Gold Part 1
4 2004 (T)Raumschiff Surprise – Periode 1 Dreamship Surprise: Period 1
5 1985 Otto – Der Film
6 2015 Fack Ju Göhte 2 Suck Me Shakespeer 2
7 1964 Old Shatterhand
8 2013 Fack Ju Göhte Suck Me Shakespeer
9 2014 Honig im Kopf Head Full of Honey
10 1970 Schulmädchen-Report The School Girls
11 2004 7 Zwerge: Männer allein im Wald 7 Dwarves: Men Alone in the Woods
12 1964 Winnetou 2. Teil Apache Gold Part 2
13 1994 Der bewegte Mann Maybe, Maybe Not
14 2003 Good Bye, Lenin!
15 1968 Zur Sache, Schätzchen Go For It, Baby
16 1987 Otto – Der neue Film
17 2007 Keinohrhasen Rabbit Without Ears
18 1973 Mein Name ist Nobody My Name Is Nobody
19 2017 Fack Ju Göhte 3 Suck Me Shakespeer 3
20 1964 Der Schut The Shoot

Several of the most popular films are based on beloved author Karl May’s western novels—and one (Manitou’s Shoes) is a parody of that author’s western American themes. Much has been written about May, the best-selling German writer of all time, and his influence (good and bad) on German culture over the decades.[1] Many of the most popular films are parodies—like (T)Raumschiff Surprise or Seven Dwarves. Comedies are also quite popular (the Otto films) and the Suck Me Shakespeer franchise.

In any case, here are my top-seven suggestions (besides the many excellent films on historic themes discussed in the last article in this series). They are perhaps not always the most popular German productions, but they are excellent entertainment and often internationally recognized. They are presented in chronological order.

Der bewegte Mann

Der bewegte Mann (1994) starring a young Til Schweiger, Katja Reimann, and Joachim Król is a light-hearted comedy based on two comics by Ralf König. Macho guy Axel (Schweiger) is kicked out of his apartment by girlfriend Doro (Reimann) and ends up living with a gay man, Norbert (Król), who tries to seduce Axel. Doro takes Axel back when she finds out she is pregnant. Axel tries to cheat on her at Norbert’s place with a former girlfriend, but everything kind of works out in the end. This film was an international breakthrough for a new wave of German comedic films and a younger generation of actors and directors. Besides being hilarious, it is, in my opinion, a landmark in mainstreaming LGBTQ themes. Other excellent LGBTQ themed movies in this time period include Aimee und Jaguar (1999); Rosa von Praunheim’s Der Einstein des Sex (1999), a bio-pic of pioneering researcher Magnus Hirschfeld; and the outstanding Freier Fall (2013).

Lola rennt

One of the best films of the last thirty years is Tom Twyker’s Lola rennt (1998) with Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu. Lola’s boyfriend Manni has lost DM 100,000 on the subway and has only twenty minutes to get it to his boss. He calls Lola for help and she runs off. What is brilliant about this move is that we see three different scenarios in which Lola and Manni try to get the money—with very different endings each time. In the final scenario, Manni gets the money back from a homeless man, while Lola won big at the casino. This film is quite thrilling, but also speaks to various philosophical and existential issues about free will, predetermination, and the massive consequences of seemingly small decisions or events (the butterfly effect).

Gegen die Wand

This article would be woefully incomplete without mentioning the brilliant German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin. Although Aus dem Nichts (In the Fade, 2017) with Diane Kruger as a traumatized wife and mother whose family was murdered by neo-Nazis is amazing, I would recommend the earlier Gegen die Wand (Head On, 2004). After a car accident, Cahit (Birol Ünel) is approached by a young Turkish-German woman Sibel (Sibel Kikilli) who wants him to marry her to liberate her from her conservative family. He eventually agrees and they live separate, tempestuous lives, while slowly falling in love. Cahit eventually kills one of Sibel’s lovers and is incarcerated. Meanwhile, Sibel is disowned and escapes to Istanbul where she has several violent encounters before settling down and having a daughter. After his release from prison, Cahit goes to Istanbul to reunite with Sibel, but, despite a heart-warming encounter, she ultimately chooses to stay with her new family. Besides a compelling love story with excellent acting, the film thematizes the many pressures that Germans with migration backgrounds face today.

Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen

As I wrote before, soccer is the beloved national sport in Germany. One film that captures this cultural centrality is Sönke Wortmann’s Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen (2006), a documentary about the experiences of the men’s national team and Germany’s hosting of the 2006 FIFA World Cup of soccer. Eventual winner, Italy, defeated the German team in an agonizing overtime period in one of the semi-finals, but the real hero of this story was the country. As the film shows, there was an almost magical atmosphere in the host country that year. The tournament went off almost flawlessly, and a mature and healthy national feeling was everywhere. As many commented, this was the first time since WWII that Germans actually waved their flag—and this film captures what a turning point this was—or at least a special moment before the perpetual crises of the latter Merkel era. Other excellent documentaries must include Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club (2000) and Pina (2011).

Fack Ju Göhte

I’m pretty sure many cinephiles would disagree, but I absolutely loved Fack Ju Göhte (2013), along with the two sequels—as did German audiences. Bank robber Zeki (Elyas M’Barek) gets out of prison and tries to retrieve the money he stole only to find out that it is buried under a new school gymnasium. He gets a job as a substitute teacher there so that he can dig a tunnel at night. Meanwhile, he develops feelings for a student teacher Lisi (Karoline Herfurth). Always close to getting found out, he develops into an effective teacher of struggling students and, after contemplating a return to a life of crime, is kept on. The film is funny and unpretentious and also thematizes the tensions of class, education, and migration background in contemporary Germany.

Victoria

Another outstanding film is Victoria (2015), starring Laia Costa as a Spanish woman working in Berlin. She meets a group of four men at a club and soon falls for Sonne (Frederick Lau). The four are involved with gangsters and are forced to rob a bank—asking a willing Victoria for help driving the car. Things go awry and various confrontations with the police leave three of the four men dead, including Sonne. The film—shot in one continuous take—ends with Victoria walking away with the stolen money. Full of tension and emotive, authentic performances, this movie is highly recommended.

Toni Erdmann

I will end with Maren Ade’s superlative Toni Erdmann (2016). Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who likes to engage in pranks, travels to Bucharest to try to re-connect with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) a busy businesswoman. Despite several attempts to reconnect, the two still have a strained relationship with Ines not appreciating her father’s disguises and pranks—including the persona of life coach Toni Erdmann. The film culminates in a hilarious sequence in which Ines ends up hosting a “naked party” that Winfried attends in a Bulgarian kukeri costume. The two finally make amends. One of the funniest and freshest films of the decade, it was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.

Where to Watch

Many of these selections are available through a subscription to Netflix or Amazon Prime. There are also some options to pay individually for streaming. Also quite useful is the Telescope Film website: telescopefilm.com/germanfilms.


[1] Tassilo Schneider, “Finding a new Heimat in the Wild West: Karl May and the German Western of the 1960s,” Journal of Film and Video (1995): 50–66.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.