From Metropolis to The Lives of Others: History of German movie-making

Do you remember the last German who took home an Oscar? It was in 2017 when Gerd Nefzer won the Academy Awards for Visual Effects on an American movie “Blade Runner 2049”. To find a win for a German movie and a German nominee we’d need to dive in deeper in the past all the way to 2006, when “The Life of Others” by first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck received an Oscar in the “best movie” category – and even then just for being the ‘Best Foreign Movie’.

Another German Oscar winner around those times was Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar not once but twice; first in 2009 and then in 2012 as the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ in Quentin Tarantino movies. When it comes to nominations, the most successful of them would be German musician Hans Zimmer. To date he has collected 11 nominations for movie soundtracks, and although he only won once, every one of these movies was a major production.

What about German movies then? The German movie with the most nominations ever is “Das Boot” from 1982 – however, ‘most nominations’ didn’t amount to a single actual win.

“Der Untergang” (Downfall) from 2004 boldly presented Adolf Hitler during his last days, a risky venture which actor Bruno Ganz mastered brilliantly. Although the film received many prestigious awards, it didn’t make it to the Academy Awards.

There is a common denominator connecting most internationally successful German movies: History. Not any history, but – of course – the domestic one. Many, like “The Life of Others”, describe life in East Germany before the reunification and others relive the era of National Socialism and World War II which are internationally known by the historically intrigued audience but rarely gets the attention of the mainstream and its rewards.

The domestic market of German movies however has a vast variety of genres. While Germans do like films based on real historical events or social issues, they won’t shy away from comedy or romantic dramas and police and crime dramas are a must on a German TV evening.

Beyond the surface

It is easy to let success – or the lack of it – cover up what German movie industry really is about: An amazing and very lively habitat of enormous versatility.

When motion pictures began at the end of the 19th century, Germans were among the main inventors. The first ever screening to a paying audience happened in the Wintergarten Music Hall in Berlin on November 1st 1895, pre-dating the first display of the Lumiere Brothers and their Cinematographe by nearly two months.

Cinematographs were seen as an attraction for the upper classes in Imperial Europe, and it took a few years before short films became an attraction on fairgrounds, where they were shown in booths known in Germany as “Kintopp” – a name that still sticks among the older generations. Dedicated cinemas were opened in 1906 for the first time in Germany, but in 1910 there were already 1,000 of them operating throughout the German Empire.

Not much later in 1912, Babelsberg Studios was the first large-scale film studio in the world and literally the forerunner to Hollywood. The second big player in the market were the Universal Film Studios – UFA – that also still exist to the day. There are only other two major production companies that produce the most mainstream movies in Germany: Bavaria Film (Munich), and Constantin Film.

In those days, filmmakers around the world looked to Germany, and its reputation and success of films lasted beyond the end of World War 1 and survived the boycott of the years following the war.

During the Weimar Republic, which saw a boom of cinematic expressionism, German motion pictures were liked around the world with master pieces like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” or Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Voices in Hollywood felt that they might not be able to compete with Babelsberg – not on technological level nor when it came to storytelling and narratives. Many of the makers of these expressionist films later moved to Hollywood, where their influence is still noticeable to this day.

As soon as silent movies were no longer silent, language barriers emerged throughout the film industry. Movies became less efficient to produce – many were filmed multiple times in different languages, like the 1930 movie “The Blue Angel” made after the novel “Professor Unrath” bei Heinrich Mann, which exists in two versions: German and (at times horrible) English. It introduced a young Marlene Dietrich to an international audience, who later went on to become a Hollywood star.

The Downfall

During the Nazi Rule in Germany, the expressive arts took a massive hit. Literature, music, theatre and movies suffered a great loss. The German Film Studios were quickly taken over by the Nazis, and Jewish actors, writers, directors and musicians had to leave their work places. Over 3,000 people were excluded at once.

Many great minds moved abroad – among them were known figures such as Billy Wilder and also Fritz Lang, the creator of Metropolis. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ attempt to groom the famous director as head of the newly established Reich Chamber of Film remained pointless.

Weaponised by a totalitarian state, German filmmakers turned to propaganda like “The Eternal Jew” or “Jud Süß” – movies that collected international success as well, showing that antisemitism was a sickness that existed all around the world. Leni Riefenstahl became a shooting star, creating masterpieces of propaganda like “Triumph of the Will”, celebrating the Nazi Party, and a year later the film “Olympia”, covering the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany.

Yet technically, German movies of the time are outstanding in quality. Famous German actors like the unforgotten Heinz Rühmann were highly successful during the Third Reich, and the movies they made in this time are non-political and often as heartwarming as hilarious. Behind the scenes, however, it meant agreeing with the regime to stay in the limelight, and this fact followed many actors in their later career.

Friendly family entertainment, stories from a world without war, were a common trait of these films – with the loveliest of them all being the “Feuerzangenbowle”, the story of a highly educated and decorated poet who spends an evening with friends while enjoying a German specialty: Feuerzangenbowle is mulled wine with a rum-soaked sugarloaf lit above it, served in a special ritual that in modern times usually only happens while watching the movie. The movie shows a firework of teenage pranks and adventures, committed by a grown man pretending to be a high school student, which is as hilarious as it sounds – and much funnier than most modern movies covering similar topics. The film was a huge success in 1944, when it was filmed in the breaks between allied bombings. Nothing in the movie gives away the distress of the time in war ridden Germany.

After the war

For years on end, the German film industry wouldn’t recover from the damage done during the Nazi years. In East Germany, development was a bit faster than in the West. The DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) was founded in 1946 and started to produce under strict control of the Soviet Military Administration. Over the years, DEFA produced more than 900 feature films, 3,000 documentaries and 800 animated movies. The company was owned by the ruling Socialist Party, so all of its output was strictly in line with government rules, yet it produced many excellent films, often together with other Eastern nations. One particular strength of DEFA were children’s movies and TV series, many of whom became quite successful also in Western Germany.

In the West, it took longer until productions gained traction. The West German film industry couldn’t measure up to other European countries and surely not to Hollywood, and it had to find its narratives. War time stories were among the first successful productions, for example the 08/15 series of movies, describing the fate of a Wehrmacht unit throughout the war. In these early films, the German soldiers usually appeared as apolitical victims of the Nazi regime, fighting bravely and hopelessly in a war they didn’t want. This narrative changed with time, when German filmmakers turned towards the reality of the German war machinery. “Das Boot” from 1982 knows no mercy and no moral upper hand for German soldiers.

The majority of German films in the 50s and 60s were either international co-productions, often “Spaghetti Westerns” filmed in Yugoslavia – or rather sad softcore sex films like the notorious “Schulmädchen Report” (schoolgirl report).

Throughout the 70s, this changed again. New actors and directors emerged to tell new stories. Rainer Werner Faßbinder, Wolfgang Petersen, Maximilian Schell, Volker Schlöndorf and Werner Herzog are among the huge names of this era. Closely connected to Werner Herzog is the ingenius Klaus Kinski, a madman and great actor. Herzog and Kinski made numerous movies together, in a love-hate relationship that Herzog later described in his documentary “My Best Fiend”. Kinski’s insane tantrums are legendary and worth watching:

Which brings us back to the beginning of this article: Here is the teaser for part two: Contemporary German movies,

featuring Til Schweiger, the king of German romantic comedy, who is tends to be cast as a villain in international films, Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), Daniel Bruehl, and the award winning TV-Show Deutschland 89.

One Comment

  • Deutsch Centre
    September 28, 2023

    I have always been fascinated by German cinema and its rich history. From iconic classics like “Metropolis” to thought-provoking films like “The Lives of Others,” German movie-making truly captivates and inspires. Each film showcases the talent, creativity, and innovative storytelling that has made German cinema so renowned worldwide. As an ardent movie enthusiast, I am grateful for websites like Deutsch Centre that shed light on the fascinating history behind these cinematic masterpieces. Keep up the fantastic work!

    Best regards,
    Gary Ford

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