Wings of Desire
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau got us thinking of all the important and inspiring films set in Berlin. In a subversive metropolis that has seen more changes than anywhere in Western Europe over the last 150 years, many filmmakers have made movies as unmistakable love letters to Berlin. With no lack of deranged tentacle sex, drug abuse and political struggle, we’ve rounded up our favorite films with Berlin playing a major role. Spanning close to 9 decades, our list takes you on a tour of Berlin at different historical points, through all the luxury and glamour, the horror and disillusion. From German Expressionism to German New Wave, click on to see which films made the cut.
This cult classic, shot in 1980’s West Berlin takes you on a gut-wrenching ride through a couple’s blood and pus-filled divorce. This outrageously sick story, directed by Andrezej Żuławski and starring a wide-eyed, hysterical Isabelle Adjani alongside a young, handsome Sam Neill, has been described as a psycho-sexual-menage-a-trois-cum-horror movie. Possession is sinister and unrelenting, offering no relief between the scenes of martial drama, alien miscarriage, electric carving knife bloodbaths and sex with slimy, tentacle-equipped demonic entities. Shots between a Kreuzberg Altbau and a Prenzlauer Berg Neubau in GDR era Berlin act as the perfect backdrop for the couple’s self-destructive search for grace. The pinnacle scene of Adjani’s milk-and-goo-drenched hyperventilating miscarriage will ensure you never walk through the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn the same way again.
B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 (2015)
This film, also set a decade before Germany’s unification in West Berlin, is a documentary portraying chaos in a different light. With use of unreleased film and TV footage, B-Movie depicts an engaging declaration of a frenzied decade of love, revisiting the vibrant music and art scene of the divided city. As told through the story of British-born Berliner Mark Reeder, this film shows the journey one makes in search of personal and artistic liberation. Lured by its cheap rent, edgy reputation and never-ending nights, many came and found salvation. With copious amounts of stunning images, footage and audio material compiled by Jörg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck and Heiko Lange, B-Movie ends with the fall of the wall and the rebirth of Berlin as Europe’s new capital of electronic music.
Wings of Desire (1987)
In 1987, Berlin was the stage for the ethereal German New Wave classic “wings if desire”. Directed by Berlin romantic Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire dives into the uncertain love between the divine and the mortal. Starring Bruno Ganz as the melancholic angel Damiel, who has fallen for the elegant and tantalizing trapeze artist Marion, played by Solveig Dommartin. The somber, heart-wrenching longing cast by Damiel is mirrored in the poetic transition between black and white film to color, as perspectives switch between angels and humans.
The first of Fritz Lang’s talkies is also one of his most gripping and subversive melodramas ever. M was released in 1931 and the murder-thriller, in its blood-curdling nature, took Germany by storm. Police were eager to capture the child murderer, played by Peter Lorre, and in their desperate attempt began to detain every criminal in town. To assure their own protection, the crime syndicates of Berlin band with the police force to apprehend the malicious criminal. Lang’s psychological rite sends you into the mind of the killer, leading us to the depths of his anxiety, hysteria and paranoia.
Run Lola Run (1999)
As exciting as it is kinetic, Run Lola Run takes us through a young woman’s race against time, as she must beat all odds to find 100,000 Deutsche Marks in 20 minutes. Tom Tykwer’s energetically erratic drama takes us on a tour of Berlin, with Lola running through familiar sights like the Oberbaumbrücke, the Gendarmenmarkt and the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Lola’s story is told three times, each time with slight differences that affect the outcome and fate of the characters. This clever, fun and slightly nihilistic flick packs a punch, with the layering of imagery and stellar performances accompanied by a techno-infused soundtrack.
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
What better way to represent Berlin’s off-kilter beauty than a score featuring a live symphony orchestra? Filmmaker Walter Ruttmann takes us on a daylong audiovisual journey through a Berlin that no longer exists today. The orchestra propels this 1920’s classic with the rhythm of its time, creating a love letter to the renaissance that followed the dregs of the depression. Beginning at dawn and ending at midnight, Edmund Meisel’s orchestral compositions lift you into the montage of images of this silent documentary filled with poignancy in shots of pedestrians and everyday affairs.
Germany, Year Zero (1948)
The concluding chapter in Roberto Rossellini’s war film trilogy, Germany, Year Zero is a devastating portrait of an obliterated Berlin, shown through the eyes of 12-year-old Edmund. Living with his family as well as five others in a battered apartment, Rossellini gives us a dark and honest depiction of the struggle faced by innocent youth growing up in post-WWII Germany. Left to wander the streets while living in fear, Edmund eventually finds solace in a Nazi-sympathizing former teacher with hidden intentions. This disturbing, daring tale is an in-depth look into the consequences of fascism, for both society and the individual.
Christiane F. – We Children from Bahnhof Zoo (1982)
Set in 1970’s Berlin, Christiane F. is a sad and sordid account of the horrors of drug addiction, starring heartbreakingly young Natja Brunkhorst as a bored and aimless Christiane F. Her loss of innocence as the film’s depraved heroine quickly leads her into prostitution and the horrifying drug scene, which takes her friends to the brink of death, with some falling over the edge. On her search for freedom, acceptance and her own identity, we see relentless sights in a vicious and powerful cycle she can’t seem to escape.
Good Bye, Lenin! (2004)
In the days before the fall of the Berlin wall, devoted communist Christiane finds her son, Alex, on television beaten by the police during a riot. This causes her to lapse into a coma, where she lay unconscious through, coincidentally enough, Germany’s reunification. Soon after she regains consciousness, the doctors warn Alex that the slightest shock could prove fatal, leaving him with no choice but to create a fictional world for her, where Eric Honecker was still in office and the state TV still sang praises of the regime. Wolfgang Becker’s reference-filled social satire is a charming and engaging story of the reunification not only of an entire nation, but of a family living in East Berlin.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)
Our list could not be complete without mention of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 drama, the first of his Postwar Trilogy, which lifted him to international acclaim. When Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries a soldier by the name of Hermann Braun in the last days of WWII only to have him disappear. The years of war that followed shaped Maria into a woman of strength and cruelty, ambition and indispensability. This evocative study of a woman gathering the pieces from the ruins of her own life acts as a metaphor for a society determined to forget its past.
The Lives of Others (2006)
At once a political thriller and a human drama, The Lives of Others is a cautionary tale, which takes us from 1984 East Berlin to 1991. Tracing the gradual disillusionment of Stasi (the East German all-powerful secret police force) Caption Gerd Wiesler, this first feature by German filmmaker Florian Henckel illustrates a society constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires. In a world where the Stasi spy on and interrogate their own citizens, there is no justice. Featuring an extraordinary performance by Ulrich Mühe, this gripping, tightly plotted timepiece lives up to its acclaim.
Starring an award winning Liza Minnelli, Cabaret is set inside the infamous Kit Kat Club of 1931 Berlin where decadence and sexual ambiguity where just part of the ambience. Bob Fosse’s musical drama instills the idea that the rise of the Nazi party in Germany was accompanied by the rise of bisexuality, homosexuality and sadomasochism. Weaving singing, dancing and divine hedonism into social history on the eve of the Nazi ascent to power, Cabaret, in its merriment and musical numbers, is an unforgettable cry of despair.