A great way to improve your German skills in terms of both the language itself and in getting a cultural insight if you’re not in a German speaking country is to be exposed to media input.
This can be done in many different ways such as by keeping up to date with current events by reading the German press or watching or listening to the news in German, reading about anything and everything (whatever you happen to be interested in and enjoy), listening to the radio, audiobooks or podcasts, or watching TV or movies to learn German.
If you’re thinking of using the latter, movies that is, to hone your skills, you’re in luck! The German speaking world is big and it has a large movie industry. While nowhere near the giants of Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of output or international clout, it still has more than its fair share of actors, directors and movies that are locally produced, so there is a wide choice of movies for you to sink your teeth into.
Watching films can be a great way to jolt your German abilities up to the next level, particularly if you’re at an advanced beginner or intermediate stage in your language learning journey. If you’re a complete beginner, maybe it’s not the most efficient of ways to go but it could be something to set your sights on as an intermediate goal as well. If you do decide to give it a go, no matter what your level, don’t be discouraged if you need subtitles at first but try not to abuse them! Subtitles help, but real life has no subtitles after all. Whether you use them or not, by watching movies as a complement to your language learning approach, you are going to find yourself picking up new words and expressions almost as if by magic by deducing them from the general context in no time!
Given the huge choice available to you, this post is going to list just a few German movies from a variety of genres for you to try.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
This classic German thriller film from 1998 follows the main character, Lola (Franka Potente) as she runs around Berlin (hence the title of Run Lola Run), as she tries to put together 100,000 Deutsche Marks in 20 minutes so that she can save her boyfriend’s life. The film plays out in three different scenarios in three alternative timelines that restart each time shortly after Lola receives the desperate phone call from her boyfriend telling her that he has lost the money that he was supposed to deliver to some mafia types.
Because of this they have slightly different endings due to small events that change their direction. The film was critically acclaimed in its day for its innovative style even though it alluded to earlier films and became the subject of parody in an episode in one of the better episodes of the twelfth season of The Simpsons.
Berlin, October 1989. The Berlin Wall is about to fall and Alex (Daniel Brühl), lives with his mother, his sister and her baby daughter in East Berlin. It is a highly politicised time, and Alex takes part in anti-government demonstrations. His mother, however, is a staunch supporter of the East German State and its totalitarian communist system. At a demonstration, Alex gets arrested in front of his mother who, seeing this, suffers a heart attack. She survives but is left in a deep coma for a few months.
When she wakes up, the German Democratic Republic does not exist anymore. The wall has been torn down, and capitalism has replaced the planned economy of old East Germany. To spare her the shock which doctors say could kill her, Alex tries to hide this from her by pretending that nothing has changed and trying to hide the new world from her. This is easier said than done…
Believe it or not, Germany also produces its fair share of romcoms. Directed by and starring Til Schweiger, who you may know as Nazi killing aficionado Hugo Stiglitz from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, this film was a huge success in Germany.
Ludo (Schweiger), a yellow press reporter, is sentenced to 300 hours of community service at a daycare centre, where he encounters an old acquaintance, Anna, who he used to tease while growing up. With the relative power structure being reversed, she begins to take revenge on him giving and he has no choice but to do whatever she asks. Nevertheless, romantic tension builds up between the two in parallel with their other romantic pursuits and surrounded by the children they work with…classic romcom stuff!
It’s 1989 and The Hoff - David Hasselhoff that is - has just brought down the Berlin wall with his hit single Looking for Freedom (that might be an overstatement!).
Two friends from East Germany, Veith and Tom decide to enjoy their newfound freedom by travelling to the “westernmost point in the world”, according to Veith, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough money for a flight to the West Coast, so they fly to New York instead, landing there with only a little money and without a clue. This sets up a fun story of friendship as the two try to cross the U.S and the real reason for Veith wanting to go to San Francisco is revealed.
Based on the novel by Sven Regener, Herr Lehmann tells the story of West Berlin resident Frank Lehmann, a barkeeper who is about to turn thirty known as Herr Lehmann (Mr Lehman) by his friends.
Herr Lehmann doesn’t quite have his life together and tries to take each day as it comes. He is independent but essentially broke; he has romantic relationships that don’t take him anywhere, and he drinks. He is a bit apathetic about life outside of his immediate circle in general but this is crumbling around him. On his thirtieth birthday, the Berlin Wall falls. It’s time for Herr Lehmann to turn his life around.
A history teacher, Rainer Wenger, begins an experiment to show his students how easily the masses can be manipulated so that they understand how fascism arose and they learn how easily it could happen again. As the students get caught up in the wave as they have called the “movement”, Wenger loses control…
Based on a real social experiment conducted by a teacher in California in the 1967s and a novel about it by Todd Strasser, this political thriller is a warning about the dangers of populism in a country marked by its fascist past.
A similar warning to the above but in a humorous tone, Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) is a 2015 comedy film about a time travelling Adolph Hitler that lands in 2014 Berlin. After getting over the shock of what Germany has become, he sets about using modern technology and touring the country in an effort to win back influence and eventually, power. With everyone assuming (as they would) that he is just an actor impersonating Hitler, he gains notoriety and fame and becomes a leader of the German right with his populist, anti-pc culture and xenophobic discourse. Ring any bells?
Das Leben der Anderen is an insight into what life was like in communist East Germany, where citizens were often under surveillance by the secret police, the Staatssicherheitsdienst, more commonly known as the Stasi.
During surveillance on the playwright Georg Dreyman, Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler becomes personally involved in the case after learning that the only reason Dreyman is under surveillance is because of a love triangle and begins to only selectively report his activities to his superiors. Critically acclaimed, this movie is about hidden thoughts and desires with a suspense filled plot meticulously set in a dark period of German history.
Finally, if you’re looking to get a little bit of an ego boost as a result of watching a film in German, but you want one with not that much dialogue to make what might be your first experience a little less traumatic (some might call that cheating but we’re not going to split hairs here), and you like electronic music, this might be the right film for you. Featuring drug abuse and the trouble that it causes in a tragicomic way, this film is notable for its techno soundtrack and insight into Berlin’s nightlife.
The list above could have obviously been a very long one, but the idea was to give a small selection so as to not be overwhelming. For a more comprehensive list of films along with their genre, sorted by year, Wikipedia is a great resource. If you’re in a German speaking country, pop over to your local cinema and watch a film. Whether a German language flick or a foreign one, it will most likely be screened in German. If you choose to watch a foreign film, get ready for the shock of hearing your favourite actor speaking in a voice that is not theirs! Don’t worry though, you’ll get used to it surprisingly quickly as you get into the movie.
If you feel that a whole film is a bit too much for you right now, you might find that the short curated clips available in our media selection might be a good place to start as well. Grab some snacks and make yourself comfortable! Learning was never this easy ;)