10 great New German Cinema films

With our Werner Herzog season under way, we celebrate the extraordinary renaissance in 1960s and 70s German cinema in which he first came to fame.

11 January 2024

By Carmen Gray

Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

“Papa’s cinema is dead,” was the catchcry of a generation of German directors in the 1960s and 70s intent on reinvigorating an industry they regarded as stagnating in commercial escapism. After a short-lived Weimar golden age many filmmakers had fled into exile as cinema was harnessed for Nazi wartime propaganda; then, with Allied occupation, came a flood of Hollywood entertainment. The Oberhausen Manifesto, signed in 1962 by 26 filmmakers including Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz, called for a post-war cinema that would take risks to confront the trauma of fascism and its legacy of violence – a subject their humiliated parents, in a state divided in two, preferred to avoid. Bold mavericks including Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder rallied their energies to the cause.

The new generation, working with low budgets, were influenced by the French New Wave and Italian neorealism, and repurposed elements of American genre cinema with subversive twists as they critiqued society and examined the plight of the marginalised. They portrayed characters with lifestyles defiantly outside the law, their only recourse in a bourgeois West German democracy characterised by hypocrisy.

Key post-war novelists Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass were looked to for source material. Real-world political crisis offered strong inspiration, as kidnappings and assassinations by the far-left Red Army Faction gripped the public imagination. Fassbinder’s prolific burst of abrasive, politically astute work epitomised New German Cinema’s on-the-edge spirit, and his 1982 death by overdose at the age of just 37 is often pinpointed as the movement’s end.

Journey into the Unknown: The Films of Werner Herzog plays at BFI Southbank throughout January 2024.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is back in cinemas for its 50th anniversary from 19 January 2024.

A new documentary, Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer, is in cinemas from 19 January 2024.

Not Reconciled (1965) 

Directors: Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

Not Reconciled (1965)

French filmmaking duo and committed leftists Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet made their first films in Germany, where they went into exile when Straub refused to fight in Algeria. Allied with New German Cinema’s drive to hold the establishment to account, they made rigorous, confrontational and fragmented films whose themes include continued fascism in post-war society.

Their Cologne-set Not Reconciled, subtitled ‘Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns’, is a stripped-down adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-past Nine, a novel of flashbacks and perspective shifts examining how Nazi horrors divided society into those complicit and those resisting. It comprises the memories of an architect, famed for building an abbey demolished to clear the army’s line of fire, whose wife was committed to an asylum after criticising the Kaiser’s militarism, and three generations of their bourgeois family. There is little to signpost movements through time, as history persists into the present.

Yesterday Girl (1966) 

Director: Alexander Kluge

Yesterday Girl (1966)

The past was a burden and a taboo of discussion in post-war Germany, due to the shame of Holocaust atrocities and defeat. Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl, based on his own short story ‘Anita G.’, shows a society ruled by rigid conventions that is unequipped to treat its outsiders and their histories with authentic understanding or dignity.

Anita G. (played by the director’s sister, Alexandra Kluge) is a Jewish woman who has fled a sense of insecurity in the East. She has run-ins with employers and the justice system, as accusations of theft and institutional hostility upend her dreams of education and a stable future. For her, love is frustrating and conditional, as the politician she is seeing clandestinely is married. Discordance and discontinuity in sound and editing provide a film language for the chaos of 1960s Germany and Anita’s transient existence. French New Wave influence echoes through the 22-year-old’s alienation.

It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but the Society in Which He Lives (1971)

Director: Rosa von Praunheim

It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971)

Germany’s queer underground played a vital role in New German Cinema, and filmmaker and activist Rosa von Praunheim, still a prolific force today, was an influential pioneer in the era’s gay liberation movement. The title of his unapologetically confrontational sociological essay film and manifesto, which called for men to proudly leave the closet and was made just after homosexuality was decriminalised in Germany, says it all.

With arch humour, we follow Daniel, a young man from the provinces, as he arrives in Berlin and navigates the challenges of gay life. He imitates a bourgeois marriage, cruises among the leather-clad in a park, frequents but then tires of bars, and visits a gay flatshare, where he is urged to become more politically active and embrace public solidarity. The film sparked notoriety, and numerous German gay rights groups.

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) 

Director: Werner Herzog

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

The ambition and volatility that marked the production of Werner Herzog’s historical epic Aguirre, Wrath of God are as legendary as the end result, which is widely hailed as a masterpiece. Made chronologically on a shoestring in the Peruvian jungle without stunt people and with local help, it stars Klaus Kinski, who collaborated numerous times with Herzog despite his violent rages and their mutual animosity.

Kinski plays Lope de Aguirre, a conquistador who leads an expedition down the Amazon to find El Dorado, the gold city of legend. He clashed with the director over just how unhinged his portrayal of the explorer should be. Herzog, whose Fitzcarraldo (1982) sees a rubber baron try to transport a steamship over a hill and involved another treacherous Amazon shoot for the duo, was drawn to stories of eccentric dreamers asserting themselves against unforgiving environments – a mirror of his own wild endeavours.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) 

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) 

The wildly prolific Fassbinder shot Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his first international success, in two weeks on a tiny budget. Emmi, a 60-year-old cleaner (Brigitte Mira) strikes up an affinity with Ali, a much younger Moroccan migrant worker (El Hedi ben Salem, Fassbinder’s then partner), after she stops by a bar in the rain and they dance together. He spends the night – and stays. They marry to ease societal pressure over their living arrangements, but racial prejudice and the scrutinising eyes of moral judgment do not abate. Neighbours, work colleagues and Emmi’s own children make their disapproval clear. A power imbalance within the relationship, too, erodes it.

The melodrama, loosely based on Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955), depicts the claustrophobic, gossiping oppression outsiders are forced to live under in post-war Munich, when their bodies are not being exploited for work. With their gaze, the audience cannot escape complicity.

Alice in the Cities (1974)

Director: Wim Wenders

Alice in the Cities (1974)

Wim Wenders was as ambivalent as he was enthralled by the promise of America as an idea and fantasy escape. Alice in the Cities was the first of a number of road movies (including 1975’s Wrong Move, 1976’s Kings of the Road and 1984’s Paris, Texas) he would direct in collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller.

Philip (Rüdiger Vogler), a German journalist, has been commissioned to write about the United States, but has been unable to produce anything from motel-hopping through its expansive, enigmatic landscapes, experienced as another planet, besides a stack of Polaroids. Disheartened, he flies back to Europe, but not before a chance airport encounter leaves a nine-year-old girl (Yella Rottländer) under his temporary supervision. The two drive through the industrial Ruhr region in search of her grandmother, their mutual dislike gradually thawing, and their connection bringing Philip out of his creative block and back into the world.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

Directors: Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975)

The panicked hysteria in Germany around the Red Army Faction, fuelled by tabloid sensationalism, is the 70s climate of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead. Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) is the housekeeper of a corporate lawyer, thrust into media notoriety when the man she has fallen for is accused of being a bank robber and anarchist and goes on the run. A zealous reporter digs into her private life, printing lies that destroy her reputation.

The film is a harsh indictment of a scandal-obsessed press, which is portrayed as all too willing to distort facts and violate citizen rights, in collusion with a violent and repressive police force. Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta adapted it from the novel of the same name by Heinrich Böll, which he penned after his call for due legal process for the RAF was met with public fury.

Germany in Autumn (1978)

Directors: Alf Brustellin, Hans Peter Cloos, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, Maximiliane Mainka, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupé, Volker Schlöndorff, Peter Schubert and Bernhard Sinkel

Germany in Autumn (1978)

The German Autumn, as it became known, was the 1977 peak of terrorist events involving the Red Army Faction, a West German far-left militant organisation, including the kidnapping and assassination of former SS officer and powerful industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, and the deaths, officially declared as suicides, of three cell members in jail.

New German Cinema directors sought to make sense of the violent climate by linking it to the Nazi past. Eleven of them rapidly made the omnibus film Germany in Autumn as a collective, immediate response. Blending fiction with documentary, it includes Schleyer’s memorial service as shot by Kluge, fraught dialogues between Fassbinder and his mother and his lover Armin on the RAF prison deaths that reveal the intersection of the personal and political, and a sequence by Edgar Reitz in which, in an atmosphere of paranoia and heightened surveillance, customs officers eye a border crossing for terror suspects.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

In the gloriously surreal opener of Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, the first of his BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) trilogy about women in post-war West Germany, Hitler’s portrait is blown to pieces. Maria (famed actor and frequent Fassbinder collaborator Hanna Schygulla) marries an officer during the chaos of an air raid, with them signing their papers while flat on the ground before he returns to the front. Working in a bar for Allied patrons, Maria falls for a Black GI. Violence erupts when her husband unexpectedly returns alive. While he serves time, she becomes the mistress and resourceful right-hand of a wealthy industrialist, caught unhappily between desire and necessity’s cool calculations.

The Germany of this acerbic political melodrama is one of hardboiled opportunism, reeling from the devastation and shame of the Second World War, flooded with American influence, lost and scrambling for a soul in the so-called ‘economic miracle’.

The Tin Drum (1979)

Director: Volker Schlöndorff

The Tin Drum (1979)

Oskar (David Bennent) is a three-year-old boy of preternatural talents in pre-war Danzig, who can shatter glass with his scream. He is so repelled by the adults around him and resistant to the terrible years he senses approaching that he decides to stop growing, throwing himself down some stairs to become physically stunted. He stays the size of a child as the Nazis rise to power.

The Tin Drum is Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of the surreal 1959 novel of the same name by Günter Grass, a ferocious satire of the death-cult nationalism that took over Germany. It has Oskar, now an asylum patient, as its unreliable narrator, and shares New German Cinema’s resolve to examine how the Third Reich warped power. The film was an international success, jointly winning the Palme d’Or along with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, even as controversy exploded over its perverse bawdiness and lack of piety.

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