A few months before the premiere of the Lumières’ first short-film, the brothers Max and Erwin Skladanowsky developed the “Bioscop”, an early form of cinema projection. Until the 1930s, Berlin was the centre of German cinema production. Germany’s early cinema output drew both the attention of a mass audience and the interest of intellectuals and pioneering cinema critics. For a while, German cinema – or, to be more precise, cinema from the Babelsberg studios in Berlin – was Hollywood’s toughest competitor. In the 1920s, German cinema created such legendary figures as Austrian-born director Fritz Lang, star actress Marlene Dietrich, or up-and-coming talents from Germany like the young screenwriter Samuel “Billy” Wilder.
However, with the takeover of the Nazi regime, German cinema suffered a “brain drain” of artistic talent that soon ended the country’s success story of cinema. Countless stars and big names of German cinema left the country to escape fascist and anti-Semitic persecution. Some emigrants from Germany – like Fritz Lang – never quite made it in Hollywood, while others – like Billy Wilder – became so famous that their earlier successes in Germany’s cinema productions were overshadowed.
After World War II, it would take several decades until German cinema regained its international recognition. The “New German Cinema” of directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, and Wim Wenders led to a renewed critical interest in German films during the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, Schlöndorff’s monumental screen adaptation of Günter Grass’s novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) won both the Golden Palm at Cannes and an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Movie in 1979.
Today, German cinema includes a mixture of independent films in the auteur tradition, sophisticated mainstream productions, and box-office hits with mass appeal. With movies such as Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa; 2002) and Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others; 2007), German directors Caroline Link and Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck pocketed another two Academy Awards. German-Turkish film-maker Fatih Akin, on the other hand, won the Berlinale Award in 2002, becoming the most widely-known voice of Germany’s new multi-cultural cinema.
Although going to the movies is still a popular leisure activity in Germany, the German cinema industry is struggling. With the competition from surround sound for the living-room and home cinema systems, luring your potential audience out of the house is no longer that easy. Big multiplex theaters which mostly show Hollywood blockbusters and national box-office successes often come out as the winner. However, there are still some small independent cinemas (Programmkinos) in Germany which show international arthouse productions, often in their original version with subtitles.
If your German language skills are limited or non-existent, you will be disappointed to discover that most movie theatres show only the dubbed German version of international films. However, in bigger cities, foreign-language cinemas (for Anglo-American movies) and subtitled versions are also quite popular. If you look up the cinema program in the local paper, or on the Internet, you should watch out for the abbreviations OmU (original with German subtitles) and OV (original version).
Unfortunately, such foreign-language films will mostly be Hollywood movies or European films. If you are looking for Turkish productions, Bollywood hits, or East Asian cinema, German mainstream shops should have a limited selection of these. Otherwise, expats might have to rely on mail-order DVDs from abroad and satellite TV in Germany.
More than 90 movie festivals in Germany provide plenty of opportunities to enjoy international film-making, though. The best-known among them is, of course, the Berlinale, where world-famous stars parade over the red carpet every year. But there are also other specialized, regional film festivals for German cinema buffs, such as:
Moreover, silent movies with live music are now a fixed point in the local event calendar of towns such as Bonn, Erlangen, and Regensburg. During the summer months, almost every German city hosts an open-air cinema festival. The atmosphere of watching a movie under the stars is just as important for the audience as the movie itself. Last but certainly not least, visiting the film studios in Babelsberg or Munich is a favorite activity for lots of families with children. Both studios offer guided tours where adults and kids alike can catch a brief glimpse behind the scenes of movie-making and cinematic history in Germany.
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