People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), Curt and Robert Siodmak, 1930
Silent cinema flourished in Germany during the Weimar years, and Berlin was immortalised in two particularly brilliant impressionist tributes: Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and People on Sunday, which aimed to create a patchwork of ordinary Berliners’ lives. This film, with its cast of non-professional actors and hidden camera, gets the pick – partly because of its extraordinary writing and directing credit roll. Virtually everyone—including Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmak—went on to make a name for themselves in Hollywood, after being forced out of Germany during the Nazi era.
Features: Bahnhof Zoo; Nikolassee
The Bourne Supremacy, Paul Greengrass, 2004
Hollywood came to Berlin in a big way with the sequel to The Bourne Identity; director Paul Greengrass was no doubt paying homage to Berlin’s Cold War past. The convoluted plot has Bourne (Matt Damon) showing up in Berlin to try to reconnect the threads of his past: modern Berlin makes a big shiny backdrop for the high-octane shenanigans. Added to which, Berlin doubles for other stops in Bourne’s globetrotting—notably, a building at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds becomes a customs office in Naples.
Features: Exhibition Grounds, Messedamm; Alexanderplatz; Friedrichstrasse bridge; Ostbahnhof
Germany Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini, 1948
As a record of the rubble-strewn state of the city immediately after the second world war, Roberto Rossellini’s film is hard to beat. Rossellini had made his name as a neo-realist in Rome, filming while the Germans were pulling out; he turned his lens on Germany itself shortly afterwards. Germany Year Zero is ostensibly about a 13-year-old scrabbling to survive in the chaos of defeated Germany, but it’s the ruined city itself, with broken buildings and dubious denizens, that is the real subject.
Features: Neptune fountain, Alexanderplatz; Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker, Vossstrasse (now demolished)
Christiane F – We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, Uli Edel, 1981
In the late 70s and early 80s, West Berlin‘s reputation for radicalism and experimentation made it a mecca for youth at the time: but there was a dark side, encapsulated in this notorious film about a drug-addicted prostitute. Based on her memoir, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, Uli Edel’s film is the last word in Berlin misery, with the David Bowie soundtrack providing a patina of cold-as-ice glamour. Bahnhof Zoo was West Berlin’s biggest rail station at the time, and the film-makers also shot extensively in Christiane‘s home district of Gropiusstadt, the southern suburb designed by the Bauhaus founder.
Features: Gropiusstadt; Bahnhof Zoo
Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders, 1987
Arguably the finest film about the divided city was made by Wim Wenders in 1987—a fable about angels floating over a traumatised Berlin, listening to its inhabitants’ thoughts, and attempting, in different ways, to heal their pain. The Wall itself was reconstructed in a studio, but Wenders made extensive use of the city’s landmarks, including an extended tour of the modernist Berlin State Library, designed by Hans Scharoun.
Features: Berlin State Library House 2, Potsdamerstrasse; Friedrichstrasse; Gedächtniskirche, Kurfürstendamm
The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006
Perhaps the most eye-opening film to have come out of contemporary German cinema’s interest in raking over the communist era, this insight into the Stasi-ridden world of 1980s East Germany took advantage of the relatively unreconstructed Soviet chunk of the city. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck managed to gain permission to film in the Stasi archives (now a museum), as well as stage a dance performance at the Volksbühne theatre.
Features: Stasi Zentrale, Ruschestrasse; Volksbühne, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer, 1998
Sprinting through the reunited city in the late 1990s, Franka Potente’s Lola swiftly became an international symbol of Germany’s new dynamism. Director Tom Tykwer hurled her pell-mell around Berlin, picking locations from east and west in a thriller that plays out three times, with three different outcomes. The film is very much a what-might-have-been story, with a happy ending, which is perhaps what we want to feel about Berlin itself.
Features: Oberbaumbrücke; Deutsche Oper U-Bahn; Tauroggenerstrasse
Goodbye, Lenin! Wolfgang Becker, 2003
A much-liked film that cleverly tackles the issues surrounding German unification—by ignoring them. A fervent East German socialist misses the Wende (reunification) as she’s in a coma; on her recovery, and to spare her further shock, her son goes to elaborate lengths to maintain the fiction that East Germany is still in existence. Almost all the film was shot in the former East Berlin, including shots of lead Daniel Brühl speeding past celebrating football fans on the monumental Karl-Marx-Allee.
Aeon Flux, Karyn Kusama, 2005
Though it never found much favour with critics or audiences, this sci-fi thriller made superb use of Berlin’s modernist buildings to evoke a post-apocalyptic society in the 25th century. One unlikely architectural spectacular after another was press-ganged into service. The Bauhaus Archiv doubled as an apartment block, the Hall of Condolence at the Krematorium Baumschulenweg was used for political meetings, and the Tierheim animal shelter became the setting for the government HQ.
Features: Bauhaus Archiv, Klingelhöferstrasse; Krematorium Baumschulenweg, Kiefholzstrasse; Tierheim Berlin, Hausvaterweg
One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder, 1961
Shot before the Berlin Wall went up, but released after, Billy Wilder’s scabrous political satire pitched itself into the clash of ideologies that the city symbolised. Wilder, of course, had left Germany in 1934 after the Nazis took power, his first film credit being People on Sunday (see above). Returning as a successful Hollywood film director, Wilder cast Jimmy Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive looking after his boss’s teenage daughter. The film certainly hit a nerve, as Wilder intended it should.
Features: Brandenburg Gate; Gedächtniskirche, Kurfürstendamm; Tempelhof airport