Best in the World: Germany
It’s been a while, but Lord Ian O’Itall is back to teaches us Rosses about movies. If you were missing his Best In The World series here on RvR, you are in for a treat, as here he runs through what he sees as the greatest feats in German cinema history.
If Angela Merkel had her way we’d all be speaking German, but the upside would be that we’d be able to enjoy these terrific films without having to read the subtitles. Critics argue that Germany enjoyed its cinematic golden age between the World Wars, and though they may be right in terms of craft and technique, well, many films from that era are about as boring as a bread and sauerkraut diet (I’m looking at you Blue Angel and Metropolis), and thankfully there have been many unforgettable works since. Here’s my Top 5 favourite films from the Fatherland. No Werner Herzog or Fritz Lang you say? Well, there’s no Leni Riefenstahl either…
5. Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror [Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens] (1922)
A silent oldie to begin with. Unable to get the rights to call his film Dracula, director FW Murnau went ahead with his take on Bram Stoker’s classic under the title that has crept shiveringly into modern consciousness. Hammy and stilted in parts, this is nevertheless one of the best vampire films ever made, with the appearance of Count Orlok (played by Max Schrek, which translates as ‘fear’ appropriately enough) something close to a hunchbacked bat making us both scared shitless and somewhat sympathetic at the same time. The fact that this is a silent movie somehow makes this scarier because it has the feel of a warped, sinister fairytale played out from a grainy, haunted projector. Great use of light and shadow and camera trickery make this a great example of early cinematography, and make the simple task of going upstairs scarier than it ever should be.
4. Wings Of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin] (1987)
In German ‘The Skies Over Berlin/The Heavens Above Berlin’, Wim Wenders’ romantic fantasy about invisible angels who watch over the city’s inhabitants and listen to their thoughts is strange, surreal and sublime. Shot in both black and white (in which the angels see the world) and colour, it follows angel Damiel as his desire to feel human grows too large to resist, when he falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist. The story itself may not be the most gripping, but the technique of following the abstract thoughts of fleeting characters is one copied many times since in arty pop videos and works by ‘auteurs’ from Terrence Malick to Blur. Its very memory has almost been ruined by the 1998 US remake City Of Angels, in which Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage threatened to do to the original what Hitler did to the Jewish-German community on Kristallnacht, and while it is slow-moving, it does also feature Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, and Columbo, as themselves, and how many films can say that?
3. Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004)
A deeply disturbing and highly dramatic film set in Hitler’s bunker as his world literally comes crashing down around him, this is so well acted you feel like you are right there with the Fuhrer, a man bravely portrayed here as a misguided idealist rather than a monster. If you can forget all the ‘insert current cultural reference here’ dubbed parodies on YouTube (which we probably won’t help by posting one below), this tense and gut-wrenching film about being in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, is strangely so enjoyable you almost want ol’ Adolf to live (a little) longer just so you can enjoy more of the brilliant scenes that just keep coming like so many Russian soldiers over the horizon.
2. The Lives Of Others [Das Leben der Anderen] (2006)
If you think your job is bad, spare a thought for poor old Captain Wiesler. As a Stasi agent tasked with spying on his own East German people, the only thing worse than what he has to do is the fact that he does it so very well. Whereas Goodbye Lenin! Shows us a somewhat sweet and comic side to the dark days of Communist-era East Germany, this powerful drama plays out in a far grittier vein, yet still manages to bring some brilliantly dark humour into the compelling story of Wiesler’s mission to spy on successful playwright and socialite Georg Dreyman and his attractive actress girlfriend Christa-Maria. Hidden in an attic and listening to their every word, we feel as uncomfortable as the conflicted Stasi agent, and just as relieved when it seems Dreyman is squeaky clean and actually a firm believer in the Communist state. But things take a turn south when his superior takes a shine to Christa-Maria and orders his man to frame Dreyman to get him out of the picture. A severe attack of the scruples ensues, and we are left really feeling for this man who more and more envies those ‘lives of others’ of the title. This is a masterclass in dramatic tension. Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella bought the rights to a Hollywood remake in 2007, but both died within a year, which though sad was perhaps the Gods’ way of telling people to leave this classic alone.
1. The Boat [Das Boot] (1981)
In Germany this film is legendary because it started countless careers, and rightly so. It’s a magnificent portrayal of the impossibly cramped, claustrophobic conditions endured by those manning U-Boats during World War 2, just when Germany was starting to lose its hold over the Atlantic, and pretty much blows every other war film out of the water. It’s very, very long, but there isn’t a single scene you would choose to cut. Funny, dramatic and tragic in equal parts, it manages to show these brave men in a positive light, despite their missions, because, as is made very clear, it doesn’t matter whose side you are on when all you are doing is your job. The slightly bizarre, fairly surprising ‘Long Road To Tipperary’ scene is great, but unmatched are the suspense-filled ‘ping’ radar scenes when battleships prowl overhead that have been copied by countless movies since, but never with the same degree of success. The action is both exhilarating and gut-wrenching, the debauchery and antics comical, and while you may feel uneasy being almost on their side by the end, relax, it doesn’t make you a Nazi sympathiser.