Sixty-plus years of watching films about—and made in—Germany

By Bob Bestor

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Bob's Best Bet

Usually, I was only allowed to watch the Saturday afternoon cowboy movie, typically a Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy, but that day there must have been a mix-up because there was no sagebrush, no horses and no sign of "Hoppy" or Roy. Having missed the film's first few minutes I had not a clue what was on the screen. There were athletes, it seemed to be set in Germany, and the images were hypnotic.

At age 11, I had stumbled onto one of the great documentaries of the 20th century, Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl's ground-breaking chronicle of the 1936 Olympics. The controversy that followed the extraordinary Ms. Riefenstahl throughout her long life (1902-2003), is a topic for another time, but I mark my interest in German films—and films about Germany—from that Saturday afternoon in 1949 in that crummy little theater in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Since then, of course, I've seen Olympia several times and many other German films as well, including Fritz Lang's M, the great submarine movie, Das Boot; Mephisto; Metropolis; The Marriage of Maria Braun; The Nasty Girl (set in Passau); Run Lola, Run; and The Tin Drum.

Five more recent German films are very much worth your time—provided you can find them onlinw or DVD.

Downfall tells of Berlin's last days in WWII from the perspective of Hitler's private secretary. There have been other "docudramas" on this subject over the years but this is by far the best. The film is of special interest because its a German, not an American or British, view of the Third Reich's end. Some scenes are difficult to watch and the film evokes a range of emotion. For example, its easy to despise Magda Goebbels at first meeting but less so near the end when she gently and reluctantly - in obedience to her monster of a husband, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—administers first a sleeping potion, then instant death in the form of a cyanide capsule to each of her six children.

Much easier to handle is Schultze Gets the Blues. This deliberately-paced story of a retired salt miner is rich in detail and good humor. The film's characters are easy to warm to, particularly Schultze, and the depiction of life and culture in a small town in eastern Germany is squarely on the mark. You can almost taste the beer served at the Stammtisch.

In Good-bye, Lenin!, a party-loyal East Berlin woman goes into a coma just before the Wall comes down and awakens shortly afterward. Fearing the shock of capitalism will be a danger to her recovery, her son devises elaborate, and often hilarious, ways of fooling his mostly bedridden mother into thinking nothing has changed. He scrounges for the awful canned food stocked by grocery stores in communist times and even rigs her television to show only pre-Wall GDR programming. Besides the funny stuff, its an interesting look at how East Berliners dealt with the almost overnight change in their culture and way of life.

Nowhere in Africa is the true story of a well-to-do Jewish family that escapes Nazi Germany by emigrating to Kenya. In a much different way than Good-bye, Lenin!, the film examines how a German family grapples with a radical life-style change.

The Lives of Others, one of the 21st century's best films in any language, chillingly depicts the absolute corruption and immorality of the communist system as practiced by the GDR (German Democratic Republic/East Germany) and its effect on both spies and the spied-upon. This is not a docudrama but a riveting story of fiction about an East Berlin playwright and the Stasi (East German Ministry of Security/secret police) operative who electronically stalks him. There are no chases, gunfights or bombs, just the careful, quiet, step-by-step ratcheting of suspense to a tragic climax and surprisingly satisfying ending.

On the Internet's numersous travel forums you'll find only a few hundred on Germany as opposed to perhaps 3,000 on France and Italy. These numbers seem a fair indication of American tastes in European travel destinations. Is there any doubt that this country's interest in visiting Europe was fueled by postwar, romantic films such as Roman Holiday (1953, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn) and Charade (1963, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant) featuring gorgeous on-location scenery? No such movie pastry was ever cooked up about Germany. Instead we got caricatured, anal-retentive Germans, both military and civilian, and lots of war—not Cary and Audrey cruising the Rhine. It is a bias that continues to this day. I can't think of a single Hollywood movie that presents a romantic view of Germany. Even Japan got the Hollywood travelogue treatment in Lost in Translation.

Bias or not, give me an American-made movie with location scenes in Germany and I'm there with the popcorn. There are too many to mention, but here are some of my favs:

One, Two, Three (1961, directed by Billy Wilder), is James Cagney and Coca Cola vs. communism and has good shots of post-War, pre-Wall, Berlin.

The Great Escape (1963) is a terrific Hollywood version of the true, amazing tunnel escape by Allied fliers from a German POW camp. Several cast members had actually been POWs—some held by the Germans, a couple by the Americans—and Steve McQueen did all his own motorcycle stunts except for one 60-foot jump. The movie was shot entirely in Germany and the motorcycle scenes were done near Füssen. The actual POW camp was in Upper Silesia, about 100 miles from Berlin.

Another Hollywood winner is Cabaret (1972), which followed the 1966 Broadway musical of the same name. Both were based on the book Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood. Starring Joel Grey, Michael York, and Liza Minelli as Fraulein Sally Bowles, it is a story of Berlin's decadence in the '30s, just as the Nazis are coming to power. Grey won a much deserved Oscar for his performance as the tawdry Kit-Kat Klub's salacious master-of-ceremonies.

Even though Judgement at Nuremburg (1961) is just starting to look a bit dated, I still watch it every couple of years, if only for Marlene Dietrich, the scenes of a bombed-out Nürnberg and the soundtrack (especially the stirring German martial music). Judgement asks the same question Downfall fails to answer 44 years later: "How did intelligent, highly civilized people allow themselves to be part of the madness?"

There's nothing Hollywood about Shoah, the nine-hour Claude Lanzmann Holocaust documentary. What you hear in this film—for the most part the pictures are benign—from both the survivors of the camps and those who operated them, may keep you awake nights. Some interviews with former Nazi camp officials were obtained under false pretenses, with Lanzmann making assurances that the conversations would be kept private. He then used concealed cameras to record the meetings. its amazing, powerful and frightening stuff.

Finally, though it's a Netflix TV mini-series — not Hollywood — Babyon Berlin had me in its clutches for the entire 16 hour-long episodes. In it, Gereon, a Cologne police inspector on assigment in 1929 Berlin, tracks a deliciously evil collection of commie revolutionaries, crime bosses, Soviet agents, and bad cops, all of whom revel into the wee hours at a spectacularly depraved Cabaret. Most of the way Gereon accompanied by 20-something Lottle a gutter-poor, but resourceful and fearles part-time police typist. Amazing sets and costumes, and a haunting soundtrack reflect the  $47-million spent on the most expensive non-English language TV show ever produced. 

-RHB