1. Das Boot (The boat) – 1981
Let’s start with a true German classic. Telling the story of the German U-boats in the Atlantic during the Second World War, this war epic still manages to seem contemporary. Two full-scale submarine models were created for the interior and exterior filming, making it one of the most expensive German films of all time.
Because the cast was forced to act inside an accurate replica, their pale faces and increasingly scraggy beards make the film very authentic. Also, don’t miss the opening scene in a French nightclub that makes even the drunkest house party look sedate!
2. Der Untergang (Downfall) – 2004
Oscar-nominated, this movie has become famous outside of Germany too. Bruno Ganz, the actor who portrays Hitler, is eerily convincing. Don’t take our word for it: Ian Kershaw, a renowned historian and biographer of Hitler, said that “of all screen depictions of the Führer […] this is the only one which to me is compelling.”
The film also became a YouTube sensation, with hundreds of videos dubbing over one of Hitler’s angry speeches. Funny or tasteless, it’s certainly landed a few people in trouble, including a Scottish MP, who had to resign after he posted a parody video.
3. Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) – 2007
This is an Austrian film, so it’s maybe a bit cheeky to put it on this list, but it is set in Germany and is German language.
The winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film, Die Fälscher the fascinating but little known story of a Nazi wartime operation. Operation Bernhard was the plan to counterfeit British pounds in order to flood the British economy and create hyperinflation.
Based on memoirs, it follows the journey of Jewish counterfeiter, Sally Sorowitsch, who is forced to lead the operation in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
4. Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa) – 2002
Set mostly in remote Kenya, this beautiful classic is another Oscar-winner, and a truly moving piece. Made more authentic by the mixture of German, English and Swahili, the film chronicles a family of Jewish refugees that migrates to a small farm in the middle of Kenya before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Focusing on the relationships between the family members and the native people, this one is guaranteed to move you.
5. Good Bye, Lenin! – 2003
Humour doesn’t spring to mind when you think of the GDR and East Berlin, but this film takes a surprisingly comical standpoint. The ‘tragicomedy’ follows a young East Berliner called Alex who tries to conceal the fall of the Wall and the end of communism from his staunchly socialist but very ill mother. As signs of capitalism start springing up everywhere, the film deals with the whole idea of ‘Ostalgie’ – nostalgia for East Germany – and it is a funny yet emotional watch.
6. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) – 2006
Probably one of the best known German films, Das Leben der Anderen depicts the terrifying presence of the Stasi (the East German secret police) in East Berlin in the 1980s. Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on a Berliner playwright, but he becomes increasingly uncomfortable doing so.
Fascinatingly, the lead actor, Ulrich Mühe, who was a star of the stage in the GDR, discovered he had been informed on by four of his former colleagues, and accused his wife of informing on him. When asked how he prepared for the role, he simply replied: “I remembered.”
7. Barbara – 2012
For those who prefer slower, more arthouse films, this could be the one for you. Whereas most German Cold War movies are based in Berlin, this feature shows what life was like in provincial East Germany. Barbara, a physician who applied to leave for the West, is punished by the state and finds herself in an isolated rural hospital. No explosions or gunfire, but a very heartfelt story and beautifully filmed.
8. Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (The Baader-Meinhof Complex) – 2008
Especially for those who are too young to remember the Cold War, West Germany is often seen as the prosperous and peaceful one in comparison with its eastern sibling. This movie proves the opposite: it documents the growth of the radical youth movement in Germany, focusing on the extreme left-wing Baader-Meinhof Group that the state deemed a terrorist organisation. A great film that gives insight into the minds of these extreme activists.
9. Die Welle (The Wave) – 2008
This thriller is inspired by the true story of a high school teacher in California who designed an experiment to teach his students about Nazism. Similar to the 1971 Stanford-prison-experiment – excellently depicted in another German film, Das Experiment – it powerfully portrays the horrific allure of mass movements.
It asks whether fascism could still happen in the modern world. By the end you’re not so sure that it couldn’t.
10. Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Generation War) – 2013
The last one is actually a TV mini-series. Broadcast as three 90-minute parts, it follows the different journeys of five German friends between 1941 and 1945.
It has been compared to Band of Brothers, but alongside the action scenes it also raises many moral questions. Dividing the critics, some say the show has sparked discussion about the past at a family level, whereas others see it as ignoring many important issues. Watch it and see what you think.