Berlin has seen more than its fair share of flux, and has felt the world’s gaze more than most other European cities.
From the cultural boom of the Weimar era to the rise of the Nazi party and the devastation wreaked on the city by the Second World War; from its alienation and privation under allied occupation to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, annexing its east side to the eastern bloc and making enemy of the west – the city has had to fight to find itself.
But as a site of lasting political struggle, Berlin has drawn artists of all disciplines from all over the world. The district of Schöneberg alone boasts the birthplace of photographer Helmut Newton and actor Marlene Dietrich; the shared apartment of musicians Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who relocated there in the late 1970s to rehabilitate and record five iconic albums between them; and the spot of the gay-friendly Eldorado Night Club, the inspiration for novelist Christopher Isherwood’s stories, and whose patrons painter Otto Dix scornfully conveyed to canvas.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
The city has done much for cinema. German Expressionism flourished in its famous UFA studios, while the documentary flavour of its 1930s films influenced the Italian neorealists. It powered the careers of legendary filmmakers like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, and cultivated directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Josef von Sternberg among others. The textures of its assorted architecture – today, an eclecticism of Bauhaus, Gründerzeit, neoclassical edifices like the Reichstag, and the always-visible TV tower – has proven an irresistible setting for stories big and small.
To celebrate the sparkling restoration of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) – which sets a manhunt for Peter Lorre’s infanticidal sociopath in a shadow-black Berlin – here’s our armchair travel guide to 10 of the best films to grapple with the city’s enigmatic identity.
The Last Laugh (1924)
Director F.W. Murnau
Its neighbourly streets included, F.W. Murnau’s wonderful silent film – a benchmark of innovative free camera technique – was shot entirely at the famous Babelsberg Studio: a compacter Berlin outside of Berlin, where working-class tenants are silhouetted in lighted tenement windows.
One such exterior scene shows a wedding party wending through its alleyways. The bride’s uncle is not in attendance because he’s happily at work as doorman of the grand Atlantic Hotel. Played by the extraordinary Emil Jannings, our protagonist looks the perfect portly Santa Claus in brocaded suit. But his bubble is burst when at the start of a new shift he realises he’s been replaced: turning with him in the revolving doors is his younger inheritor in identical uniform. With devastating deliberateness, he puts on his glasses to read the demotion notice. Relegated to bathroom attendant for reason, in writing, of “your – old – age”, he’s catatonic with shock and roughly disrobed of his beloved brass-buttoned coat, exposing a woollen vest. It’s a scene symbolic of the indignity of ageing.
Remarkably, and improbably – concedes the film’s only title card – there’s a happy ending: a feast for the eyes that equals for resplendence an earlier dream sequence that sees the old man holding aloft an enormous trunk to the admiring applause of guests and newspapermen.
People on Sunday (1930)
Directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer
“Today, they are all back in their own jobs”, read the intertitles of this 1930 silent that uses non-actors to tell a fictional story of an average weekend in Berlin. It follows five young, carefree characters: taxi driver Erwin; Brigitte, who works at the Electrola shop; ‘Wolf’, who is a wine trader among other things; Christl, a dark-haired film extra; and the shortchanged Annie, a model, who sleeps through her Sunday. The others take picnics to the lake at Nikolassee. They swim, and show-off Erwin tosses frankfurters, dropping his in the dirt – but no matter, he’ll eat it anyway. After a date with Christl the day before, the caddish Wolf sets his eyes on her best friend, Brigitte, a move that threatens to capsize the girls’ close kinship.
An unusually collaborative production by six filmmakers – combining a screenplay by ‘Billie’ Wilder and cinematography by an upstart Fred Zinnemann – the film uses actual footage of Berliners making the most of their freedom. Their real conviviality is contagious. A sequence of faces in close-up captures the charisma of ordinary people as they pose for a beach photographer, and the interpolated freeze-frames for each shot taken are affecting because they are as ephemeral as wild flowers.
Emil and the Detectives (1931)
Director Gerhard Lamprecht
Within a year of working on People on Sunday, Wilder helped adapt Erich Kästner’s novel Emil and the Detectives. Remade a total of three times, this was the first film version, set in a sun-bright Weimar Berlin.
Emil is a stranger to the city, taking a train from the countryside to stay with his granny. When money given by his mother is stolen by a professional thief, he gets a tour of the capital he never bargained for – courtesy of a bunch of street-smart boys who help him pin the criminal. Like a pack of stray dogs, they race pell-mell through the streets, which were still in one piece in 1931.
One of the first sound films to emerge from Germany, it’s a joyful and exciting family adventure that captures the instinctive ability of children to club together and take ownership of a city. Feeling indestructible as only young boys can, they imagine themselves as a territorial army, and speak of ‘reinforcements’ – a sad presaging of the camaraderie and aggression of World War II, which killed many of the film’s young actors.
Germany, Year Zero (1948)
Director Roberto Rossellini
A tracking shot of young Edmund walking the streets for work in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War shows the extent of damage inflicted on the inflation-rattled capital. His Papa sick, his soldier brother scared of the peacetime PoW camp, Edmund – at 13 years – is the family’s financial hope. The Kohlers are far from the only desperate ones: everyone wants a permit, coal, potatoes – and passersby cut hunks out of a dead horse in the road.
Exquisitely shot, Roberto Rossellini’s depiction of ruined Berlin reflects the moral dissolution settling like dust on daily life. Edmund may be canny for his age, but he’s preyed upon by elders and betters, including a former schoolmaster, who sweetens him into selling a record of a Hitler speech to allied ‘idiots’. Finding just the customers, Edmund plays the record on a phonograph for demonstration, and as the Fuhrer’s unmistakable voice sounds out – with a cut to the bowels of the derelict chancellery – it echoes in the cavernous gallery where a man and his infant child search for the otherworldly source.
Rossellini’s film is full of spooks and omen, and normal, familial relationships are stressed beyond recognition. When Papa has an attack, the doctor recommends he be hospitalised, but the hospitals are “overflowing” and he “can’t make any promises”. Edmund asks to join a game of football with younger boys. “Nein,” they chorus. Empty pledges and abuses of power pile like loose bricks on Edmund, who is out of ideas by the film’s arresting end.
One, Two, Three (1961)
Director Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s madcap comedy takes place in a corporate, cold-war Berlin. James Cagney plays Mac, an American executive holed up in the west side and hell-bent on giving a good impression of himself in the hope of being promoted. But his plans are put at risk when he’s asked to keep a watchful eye over his humourless boss’s dim-witted daughter during her stay in the capital. When the day before her father’s arrival, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) reveals she’s married the scruffy Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz) – an outspoken supporter of the People’s Republic of East Germany – Mac is sent into a freewheeling frenzy with trying to repair the situation. In and out of the Brandenburg Gate, then a militarised checkpoint, in his card-carrying capitalist’s car, he buys favours with six-packs of soda, and coaxes libidinous Soviets on-side with his curvaceous secretary.
Women don’t come off too well in this picture, but then nor does anyone else. Chock-full of national and political stereotypes, Wilder’s fast-paced film is hot off the press. How do you make connection with East Berlin? “You have to call Stockholm, from there go through Warsaw, to Leipzig, then to East Berlin, then nine times out of 10 you get the wrong number.”
Director Bob Fosse
When Joel Grey’s cross-dressing master of ceremonies peers into silvered glass at the film’s opening credits, his warped reflection could be spilled paints or Otto Dix’s ‘The Nun’ – a fittingly twisted appropriation where, inside The Kit Kat Club, anything goes. The smoky bromine-browns of its interiors and the cheer of its gender-bending song-and-dance routines draws a curtain against the political unrest of 1930s Berlin. It’s a nest for cuckoos’ eggs, providing enjoyment for decadents in the dying years of the Weimar Republic. “Outside is windy,” sings Grey, and the gathering storm grows with each street beating by Nazi paramilitaries.
Bob Fosse’s Cabaret – adapted from the Broadway musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories – won eight Academy Awards, including best actress for its lead, Liza Minnelli. Minnelli gives a magnificent performance as singer Sally Bowles, an adorable ham with “ancient instincts” – so she says. Her eccentricity is both rehearsed and lived-in, applied like her sequin beauty mole and reinforced – in case of doubt – by pet catchphrases like “divinely decadent” and “most strange and extraordinary”.
Isherwood didn’t approve of Minnelli’s casting on account of her being too talented an entertainer and unlike Jean Ross, the character’s real inspiration, whose emerald nail-lacquer carries over into the film. But the touching disparity between Sally’s polished performances and the child’s vulnerability of her offstage self rings true. It hasn’t dated in 40 years.
Christiane F. (1981)
Director Uli Edel
Uli Edel’s 1970s-set film uses actual locations referenced in the autobiography of the real-life Christiane F. They are Neukölln’s high-rise social housing; the Sound discotheque where Night of the Living Dead (1968) screens to tripped-out teenagers; Bahnhof Zoo, a rail station and rendezvous for drifters; and public toilets – like beacons in the night – where Christiane, addicted to heroin by her 14th birthday, goes to use.
A live David Bowie concert bisects the film. “You drive like a demon from station to station,” he sings. Edel affixes his camera to the front of a U-Bahn carriage, and the barrelling train is as metaphor for the tunnelling nature of addiction. After the concert, Christiane – on impulse of being left alone – tries heroin for the first time. Anyway, she lent the “bread” that bought the shot: “I want my share.”
Loneliness and being separate is a real fear in Christiane’s world, and her sad, small circle of friends is little ballast. Only once in this difficult film does the group feel really cohesive: when they climb to the roof of the honeycombed Europa-Center – with its orbiting, blue-neon Mercedes-Benz sign like a dead star over Berlin – and watch the dawn.
Wings of Desire (1987)
Director Wim Wenders
There are many ways to know a city: as a foreigner (“You can’t get lost, you always end up at the Wall”); as an aged author who has witnessed and written of its changes, but has lost his compass; or like an angel, who, with aerial vantage, has learned the lay of the city, but not what it is to walk its streets as a sensate human being.
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is an angel. Invisible but to children, he hears the thoughts of the city’s inhabitants and comforts them in their distress. But he’s had his fill “of forever hovering above”. Sat atop the sculptured angel on the Berlin Victory Column, he would “enter the history of the world”. He wants the infinitesimals of corporeal existence, the “Now, now and now”: the feeling of taking one’s shoes off, and “blackened fingers from the newspaper”. Few human beings – besides perhaps Peter Falk, who plays himself in the film – are capable of keeping up this degree of mindfulness. Berlin’s people are withdrawn, and Wender’s weaving camera insinuates an interconnectedness they do not feel.
Wender’s West Berlin, like any place, is asleep to its present history: “What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure and that its story is hardly told?” It takes an angel to be wakeful; to make colour out of monochrome.
Run Lola Run (1998)
Director Tom Tykwer
Released just over 10 years after German reunification, contemporary-set Run Lola Run sees its spring-footed titular character sprint across the city at life-altering speed. Having received a phone call from her stricken boyfriend Manni, who has misplaced 100,000 marks he’s appointed to hand over to his dangerous boss, Lola runs to his rescue – three times. On failing to solve the situation first try – thanks to her self-interested bank manager father’s reticence to help – she revives herself by force of will after being fatally shot by police in the fallout to replay the past 20 minutes another way.
The high-energy of Tom Tykwer’s film is optimised by a throbbing techno score, while obstacles and pedestrians spotting Lola’s route double as timing devices – like the second hand on a stopwatch – to ramp up tension.
Lola’s determination to change the course of fate and her being dealt a science-fictional hand to help her is uplifting contrast to other films in this list, many of whose characters are flattened by diktats and at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Franka Potente, who plays Lola and has a lovely, wide-open face, is the perfect poster girl for the power of first-person agency.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Actor Ulrich Mühe won multiple awards for his tautly emotional performance as Stasi officer Hauptmann Wiesler in this high-tension thriller about surveillance of suspected anti-Socialist artists in 1980s East Berlin.
“We are the party’s shield and sword”, reminds Wiesler’s career-driven superior, just as he’s beginning to have misgivings about spying on playwright Georg Dreyman and his leading lady girlfriend Christa Sieland. Secluded in an attic space like the fly tower of a theatre, Wiesler monitors Dreyman’s every move, gleaned from microphones hidden in his apartment. Increasingly, Wiesler goes beyond the call of duty, manipulating fate. “Time for some bitter truths”, he says, before forcing a confrontation between Dreyman and his lover, after she’s blackmailed into a rendezvous with the amorous minister of culture.
The film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, plays like a B-side to Christiane F. in its exploration of alienation under the German Democratic Republic. Wiesler’s loneliness is made painfully apparent by his ever-tenderer attachment to the subjects of his investigation, while the paranoia of informing and divergent political attitudes drive fissures into Dreyman’s intellectual society. He admits to being afraid of two things – “Being alone and not being able to write” – and the suicide of his good friend and collaborator, blacklisted director Albert Jerska, erects a haunting example on his horizon.
- Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)
- Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
- Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
- Funeral in Berlin (Guy Hamilton, 1966)
- Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)
- Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927)
- Oh Boy (Jan Ole Gerster, 2012)
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)
- Berlin Calling (Hannes Stöhr, 2008)
It’s now over a decade old, but Good Bye Lenin! proved a hugely popular choice when we asked you what we’d missed from the Berlin list. The story of a son who keeps the reunification of Germany a secret from his fiercely communist mother, who has emerged from a coma after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wolfgang Becker’s inspired comic drama took the top spot in our poll, narrowly beating out the once-seen-never-forgotten horrors of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. And where are the spy films?, asked Carl Spiby, “Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold or Michael Caine in Funeral in Berlin? Are these not great films?” Enough of you agreed to ensure both films made it into this follow-up top 10.