No other city has quite mastered the art of the comeback like Berlin. It was the epicentre of evil not 100 years ago and literally split in two not 35 years ago. Today, Berlin is one of the most efficient, multicultural and thriving cities on the planet. Berlin is killing it. No one would question why there are so many amazing films set in Berlin. It’s a very creative city with a rich, cinematic heritage stemming back to the dawn of motion pictures. And Berlin’s exhaustive history and fascinating residents offer inexhaustive possibilities for stories to be told onscreen about Germany’s metropolitan capital city.
I’ve visited Berlin on two occasions so far, both in February for the Berlinale film festival in 2012 and again in 2016. It’s the biggest public-attending film festival in the world which in itself proves just how important Berlin is in World Cinema. The films shot in Berlin cover the events of WWII, the Cold War and the aftermath as well as offering glimpses into the fascinating lives of enigmatic Berliners.
The calibre of films set in Berlin is off the charts. I cannot believe how many masterpieces have emerged from the loins of this city and I couldn’t include them all! So here are just some of the best films set in Berlin that will make you want to book a trip!
Best Films set in Berlin
1. People on Sunday (1930) dir. Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer
Language: Silent Run time: 73m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
I rarely include silent cinema in my film recommendations as, realistically, not many people like watching this kind of film. And they’re not widely available on streaming services, etc. anyway. But Germany has SO many AMAZING silent films from the 1920s and 1930s that one had to make my list of films set in Berlin. Since it’s the most wanderlust-inspiring, I chose People on Sunday. Yes, Fritz Lang’s M (1931) made the shortlist but that film has more of a ‘let’s kill lots of small children’ vibe whereas People on Sunday has a more ‘let’s chill at the beach’ vibe.
This film is a love letter to lazy summer weekends spent catching up with friends at parks and beaches to escape the 9-5 grind. Non-professional filmmakers are behind People on Sunday who literally shot it around their working week. It’s a fantastic slice of life between the wars before Adolf Hitler rose to power. And it’s kind of refreshing that life today isn’t too different and we still appreciate the simple things. They shot the film on location in and around Berlin including Strandbad Wannsee beach. So, don’t knock People on Sunday just because it’s a silent film! Fun Fact: Billy Wilder was momentarily involved with the script before he made a name for himself in Hollywood.
2. Germany, Year Zero (1948) dir. Roberto Rossellini
Languages: German, English, French Run time: 78m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
Skipping ahead 18 years to Germany, Year Zero and I don’t think I have to explain why Germany didn’t produce much cinema in the intervening years! But this film is actually by an Italian, coveted filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, and is the final movie in his unofficial War Trilogy after Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisà (1946). As was common of Rossellini films, he used non-professional actors and authentic locations in and around Berlin to heighten the realism of his work. Hence the bombed-out buildings and utter devastation evident in Germany, Year Zero.
The film follows a 12-year-old boy as he attempts to navigate life and help his struggling family in life after WWII. Not only is poverty and crime rife, but some are still sympathetic to the Nazi cause. It’s a fascinating time in history and this is one of the few films to tell a story about the innocent Germans around this time.
As I said, Germany, Year Zero filmed entirely in Berlin including the vast Tiergarten city park. You can spot the New Reich Chancellery building (which has since, rightfully, been destroyed) in the film, too.
3. One, Two, Three (1961) dir. Billy Wilder
Languages: English, German, Russian Run time: 104m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
Billy Wilder did (intermittently) return to Berlin and made some cracking films – A Foreign Affair (1948) and One, Two, Three. The first is still a fantastic film starring Marlene Dietrich that you should absolutely check out, but I’ve chosen One, Two, Three to highlight here. It’s set in West Berlin just before the existence of the Berlin Wall. James Cagney stars as a bigwig at Coca-Cola who is tasked with looking after a boss’ impulsive and unruly daughter when she visits Berlin.
It’s a brilliant comedy which wonderfully showcases many different areas of Berlin. Of course, the Berlin of today looks a lot different from the Berlin of the 1950s! Nevertheless, you can see Brandenburg Gate, the Charlottenburg neighbourhood and even a Western European branch of the Coca-Cola office.
4. Cabaret (1972) dir. Bob Fosse
Languages: English, German Run time: 124m 95% Rotten Tomatoes
Can you believe I’ve still not seen Cabaret?! I’m such a phoney. Over here claiming to be a film fan but I’ve not seen one of the most beloved, showbizzy, Oscar-winning films of all time. Based on the novel The Berlin Stories (a book I desperately want to read), Liza Minnelli plays the incomparable Sally Bowles, a club performer who has relations with a British academic and a wealthy upper-class gentleman in the early 1930s as the Nazis are growing in power. For a ’70s film set in Berlin during the ’30s, it’s daring, evocative and an absolute thrill ride. So they tell me. Again, I can’t believe I’ve still not seen Cabaret.
Cabaret is definitely one of the best films set in Berlin that will make you want to visit. It’s highly entertaining plus it filmed on location aaall over West Berlin. Honestly, there are tonnes of Berlin filming locations in this movie. Some of the stand-outs are in the Charlottenburg neighbourhood, Tiergarten and the Tempelhof district. Sadly, the Kit Kat Club scenes were shot in a studio in Munich and it never existed in real life!
5. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) dir. Reiner Werner Fassbinder
Languages: German, English Run time: 120m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
The 1970s was a fantastic period for German film, partly in thanks to Reiner Werner Fassbinder, one of Germany’s most renowned filmmakers during the New German Cinema movement. Not unlike Cabaret, films in this era were much more daring in terms of graphic content and didn’t shy away from exploring female sexual promiscuity. The Marriage of Maria Braun focuses on the titular character who is kept apart from her new husband due to the events of WWII.
Granted, it’s not the most ‘wanderlust-inspiring’ of films set in Berlin, but isn’t it refreshing to have a woman’s perspective on anything to do with WWII? Even if it’s just her experiences of the aftermath? It’s no wonder that my favourite filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar was influenced by Fassbinder’s work considering he told many female-led stories in his post-dictatorship movies set in Spain.
6. Octopussy (1983) dir. John Glen
Language: English Run time: 131m 41% Rotten Tomatoes
Ahhh, James Bond. I can’t seem to write any film recommendation list without him showing his greasy, smug face. Even though Octopussy is one of the lesser Bond films and Roger Moore is the worst Bond (in my opinion), I feel compelled to include it. After all, the James Bond franchise is one of the most extensive, globe-trotting film franchises out there and so many people are inspired to visit places after seeing them immortalised in these movies. Heck, I visited James Bond Island in Thailand after watching The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)!
Octopussy has an overly complicated plot, like many of the other Bond films. Bond discovers a jewel-smuggling operation across Rajasthan, India, London and Berlin via a circus troop. And whilst in Berlin, he crosses from East Berlin to West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie which is now a major tourist hotspot in Berlin. Potsdamer Platz and the Spandau district also feature in Octopussy. So it’s not a masterpiece, but as long as you don’t care too much about plot its a great travel-inspiring film to watch before your trip to Berlin!
7. Wings of Desire (1987) dir. Wim Wenders
Languages: German, English, French, Hebrew, Turkish, Spanish Run time: 127m 98% Rotten Tomatoes
But do you know which film is a Berlin-set masterpiece? This film right here pals, Wings of Desire. It’s a romantic fantasy film that feels very much like a spiritual sequel to A Matter of Life and Death (1946) directed by Powell and Pressburger and one of my all-time favourite films. Wings of Desire is about two angels who watch over the city and its citizens, as they have forever. One of the angels becomes fed up of being merely a spectator when he falls in love with a mortal Berliner.
It’s just a gorgeous film, one of the best films of the 1980s let alone one of the top films set in Berlin. And it takes place at such a significant time for Berlin, too, with the end of the Cold War drawing nearer. And as you would imagine, in a film with lots of birds-eye-view shots of Berlin, Wings of Desire shot entirely on location. Some notable places that appear in the film include the ICC, Tiergarten, a destroyed Potsdamer Platz, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and Cinema Paris in Charlottenburg.
8. Run Lola Run (1998) dir. Tom Tykwer
Language: German Run time: 80m 93% Rotten Tomatoes
For years, I thought that Run Lola Run was a weird, obscure film that German teachers played for the class when they couldn’t be arsed teaching before the Christmas and summer breaks. I didn’t know that it’s actually a highly-regarded thriller! And a fantastic film to watch before your trip to Berlin.
Run Lola Run is a race against time as Lola must retrieve 100,000 Deutschmarks that her boyfriend misplaced in a subway station and needs to hand over to his boss in 20 minutes. The film rewinds to see how events would unfold differently with alternative decisions. Since this is a film where the title character literally runs all over Berlin, there’s lots of Berlin to see! And it’s a more up-to-date, post-Cold War metropolitan Berlin that’s closer to how the city looks today. Lola’s house is on Albrechtstraße and some other locations also featured in Run Lola Run include Gendarmenmarkt square and Oberbaum bridge.
9. Good-Bye, Lenin! (2003) dir. Wolfgang Becker
Language: German Run time: 121m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
There are so many wonderful things to love about Good-Bye, Lenin!. Firstly, the film stars a young Daniel Brühl before he went over to the dark side (i.e. Hollywood). Secondly, it’s has a so-ridiculous-it’s genius plot that could only ever happen in Berlin. A socialist-leaning family have their lives turned upside down with the mother falls into a coma in late 1989. She awakens in summer 1990 after the borders reopen and the fall of communism. Concerned the shock of the news may kill her, the rest of the family must keep up the pretence that Germany hasn’t reunified and that Berlin is still a divided city.
Bloody hilarious, right? It’s also really interesting to learn more about this transitional time in Berlin, albeit through the guise of a fictional story. For example, changing currency, holding elections, all the multinational companies moving into the area, etc. Much of Good-Bye, Lenin! shot on and around Karl-Marx-Allee in the former East Berlin.
10. Downfall (2004) dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
Language: German Run time: 155m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
Adolf Hitler: Possibly the most dehumanised villain in recent memory? Unlike Frankenstein’s Monster or Moby Dick, he has zero redeeming qualities and is not multifaceted. He isn’t misunderstood, he is pure evil. Which is why few WWII films feature this horrific monstrosity of a man, even fewer make him the main character and fewer still do justice to the real-life events. One of those few films is Downfall.
Hitler’s last moments during the Battle of Berlin are depicted with as much authenticity and painstaking detail as possible in Downfall via photographs, memoirs, eyewitness accounts and other historical documents like the autobiographical works of Hitler’s private secretary, Traudl Junge. It’s definitely one of the best WWII films set in Berlin ever made. Obviously, the German capital looks completely different now than it did then (wreckage of rubble and destruction) so Downfall shot in Munich, St. Petersburg and in a studio as well as some minor on-location shooting in Berlin.
11. The Bourne Supremacy (2004) dir. Paul Greengrass
Languages: English, Italian, Russian, German Run time: 108m 81% Rotten Tomatoes
The second instalment of the country-hopping Bourne franchise, The Bourne Supremacy actually hits up similar locations to Octopussy: India and Berlin. Except instead of Rajasthan, Bourne is in Goa and he spends a lot more time running through the allees and straßes of Berlin than Bond. In this film, Matt Damon’s Bourne continues to seek more information about his life as a CIA assassin pre-amnesia while finding himself at the centre of a conspiracy theory.
Almost the entire second half of the film is set in Berlin and features locations like Alexanderplatz, Tempelhof Airport, Karl-Marx-Allee and the Zoo in Tiergarten. The Bourne films, while they fluctuate in quality, are generally pretty good wanderlust-inspiring films because they do feature tonnes of places all over the world! And The Bourne Supremacy will definitely make you want to book a trip to Berlin.
12. The Lives of Others (2006) dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Language: German Run time: 137m 93% Rotten Tomatoes
Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film is an exceptional achievement, considering just how many films are produced each year in each country. But The Lives of Others did it. I’ve always found voyeurism and gaze especially interesting in film because it realises a fantasy that many of us have but will not admit: that we would spy or seek to know more about certain people should we be given the opportunity.
In The Lives of Others, those ‘certain people’ are a writer and his lover living in East Berlin in 1984. A member of the secret police is spying on the couple and becomes increasingly engrossed in their lives. The film is incredibly authentic to the time period and it’s the director’s feature film debut, no less. Though he would go on to direct The Tourist (2010) so… Swings and roundabouts, I guess.
The Lives of Others shot entirely on location in Berlin. Some locations featured include a cinematic favourite, Karl-Marx-Allee, Hebbel-Theater, Frankfurter Tor and other areas of the former East Berlin.
13. Hanna (2011) dir. Joe Wright
Languages: English, German, Spanish, French, Moroccan Arabic Run time: 111m 71% Rotten Tomatoes
I will always have a warm place in my heart for Hanna. Over 10 years ago, I auditioned for the title role of Hanna when I was a wannabe actor, though the role inevitably went to the incomparable Saorise Ronan. Who I think we can all agree, is one of the best actresses full stop, let alone of her generation. Hanna is about a young girl who was raised by her father to be an assassin. When she is captured by the CIA, she uses her special set of skills to escape and survive.
Hanna features so many wonderful filming locations including remote areas of Finland, the riads of Essaouira in Morocco and, of course, Berlin in the pivotal, final scenes. The prolific Messedamm Underpass is featured, as well as the abandoned Spreepark theme park which makes for an amazing stand-off location. I really love this film. I think it definitely deserves a watch before you visit Berlin!
14. Bridge of Spies (2015) dir. Steven Spielberg
Languages: English, German Run time: 141m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
Bridge of Spies is one of the only films on this list that actually deals with the Cold War in the thick of it, not immediately following WWII in 1945 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It’s based on a true story and is very typical Oscar-fodder but I can forgive that because it’s another one of Spielberg’s great movies and we all love Tom Hanks in literally anything he does. In Bridge of Spies, he stars as an American lawyer called James B. Donovan in 1957 representing an alleged Soviet Union spy. When a CIA pilot is shot down over Russia, Donovan negotiates and orchestrates a prisoner exchange with the Soviets in Berlin.
The ‘Bridge’ in question is the Glienicke Bridge which connects Berlin and Potsdam and I love that Bridge of Spies actually shot the prisoner swap scene on this bridge! The rest of the film shot everywhere from Brooklyn to California, Berlin to Wrocław in Poland. I actually visited Wrocław in March 2019 and snapped some photos of the filming locations used. Check out my post below if you’re interested!
15. Victoria (2015) dir. Sebastian Schipper
Languages: German, English Run time: 138m 82% Rotten Tomatoes
Victoria feels like a quintessential Berliner film to me. A young immigrant is the main character, it’s set at night which we all know is just as lively as the day in Berlin and it’s a literal one-take shot. Yes, that’s right my friends, Victoria is an honest-to-Goodness, one-shot film. No knitting the shots together seamlessly in the edit suite ala 1917 (2019) or Rope (1948), but the real deal.
Victoria is a Spanish woman working in a Berlin café. A night that started out as a get together amongst new friends and a potential romance turns into drug-fueled robbery, hostage and kidnapping. The film moves incredibly quickly and the drama is only heightened by the fact that we cannot look away from the events unfolding in front of us. It’s an incredibly confronting, fast-paced film and a must-watch for all cinema fans and will make you want to visit Berlin. Victoria shot in the Mitte and Kreuzberg neighbourhoods of Berlin.
16. Atomic Blonde (2017) dir. David Leitch
Language: English Run time: 115m 78% Rotten Tomatoes
We’ve reached the final (and my personal favourite) film set in Berlin! I wasn’t kidding when I said the calibre of Berlin-based films is phenomenal. Atomic Blonde is no Wings of Desire but it’s still a super-fun spy thriller starring the ever-evocative Charlize Theron as the titular blonde. Set in November 1989, Theron’s Lorraine Broughton travels to Berlin to recover a list of double agents that are being smuggled into West Berlin.
I’ve gotta say, the plot is a bit convoluted, especially towards the end. But the acting (by James McAvoy, too), and the action sequences, as well as the overall aesthetic of the film, won me over. I saw it in cinemas and I’ve seen it several times since… Atomic Blonde shot in Berlin and Budapest, with some scenes set in London, and I wrote an entire blog post about the Atomic Blonde filming locations in Berlin (including a map) if you fancy checking them all out!
Other films set in Berlin: Grand Hotel (1932), Murderers Among Us (1946), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Torn Curtain (1966), Funeral in Berlin (1966), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), Christiane F. (1981), Aimée & Jaguar (1999), Berlin Blues (2003), EuroTrip (2004), The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), A Woman in Berlin (2008), A Coffee in Berlin (2012), The Fifth Estate (2013)
And those are some of the best films set in Berlin to watch before you visit! Have you watched any of these films? Or would you add any to the list? Let me know in the comments below!