With a landscape offering miles of dense forest, long winding rivers, cute medievalesque villages and castles and many modern metropolises (and even beaches to rival the French Riviera), Germany is a fantastic holiday destination for every type of adventure. Logistically, it’s also an easy country for international travellers to navigate with their efficient and affordable modes of transport and a high percentage of English-speakers. If that’s not enough to encourage you to book a trip to Germany, then maybe one of these top movies set in Germany will do the trick.
So far, I’ve only visited Berlin (twice) and the Hamburg Christmas markets. Next on the list is the cinematic border town of Görlitz in Saxony, Postdam which is a UNESCO City of Film, Munich for Oktoberfest and the Baroque city of Heidelberg. I best get cracking! But for now, here are some fantastic films set in Germany to inspire wanderlust. Some are set in Hamburg, others in Bavaria, Saxony and elsewhere in Germany covering a range of historical events and time periods.
I have written a separate blog post about the best films set in Berlin already, so you won’t find too many of those here. Let’s check out some great movies set in Germany to inspire you to visit!
Best Movies set in Germany
1. The Bridge (1959)
Director: Bernhard Wicki Languages: German, English Run time: 105m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
Okay, so movies about Nazi Germany aren’t really that wanderlust-inspiring. I know. But, you are aware that so many of the best German films are about the events surrounding the second world war, right? There’s no escaping it! Plus, I think it’s beneficial to have an idea of a country’s history, even if it’s just from fictional films before you visit. Plus, The Bridge is a phenomenal, if bleak, film that was even nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. So there. I’m going to stop justifying my choice now.
Set in a small Bavarian town at the backend of WWII, the US Army is approaching. And with all the able-bodied grown men already out fighting, seven 16-year-old boys conscript unaware of the dangers ahead of them. Though it is quite a depressing film, it’s somewhat refreshing to watch WWII films from a German perspective and not an American one which usually writes off all Germans as the Führer’s evil minions. The Bridge shot on location in the Bavarian Cham district.
2. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Language: German Run time: 93m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
I couldn’t create a list of best German-language movies without at least one addition from Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He’s one of the most influential German filmmakers of all time and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one of his best.
In Munich, a 60-year-old widow falls in love with a Moroccan migrant who is over 20 years younger her junior. When they marry, the loved-up couple face discrimination and rejection from family members and their local community. I really love a good ‘together against all odds’ love story. Especially when the central characters aren’t white, young, pretty people. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul isn’t one of the most dreamy and wistful romantic films out there, but it feels raw, human and relatable. Fassbinder shot the entire film where it is set, in Munich and some of the locations include Mariahilfplatz and Schellingstraße.
3. Taking Sides (2001)
Director: István Szabó Languages: English, German Run time: 105m 73% Rotten Tomatoes
This is our first (primarily) English-language film on the list! I like to include a mix of English and local languages in my film recommendations so you can decide what kind of film you’re in the mood for. Next up is Taking Sides which I think is something of a forgotten film. It stars notable actors like Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård but I’d never heard it before researching this blog post.
Taking Sides is set in Berlin and Dresden (a city in the Saxony region) and is based on a true story. Skarsgård plays a top musical conductor in the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra accused of having sympathetic Nazi-leanings during a time when Germany was purging itself of that wretched ideology. It’s a somewhat confusing film and you’re often not left knowing who you’re supposed to be siding with (when really it should be obvious! The side that isn’t the Nazis!) but an interesting film to watch before you visit Germany nonetheless.
4. Head-On (2004)
Director: Faith Akin Languages: German, Turkish, English Run time: 121m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
The first of two films directed by Faith Akin on this list, Head-On follows the relationship between two Turkish Germans who are perfect strangers until they agree to marry to get one away from their abusive family. Both have severely troublesome demons that take them on a journey from a marriage of convenience back to Turkey via prison.
One aspect of Germany I admire considerably is their attitude towards immigrants; it’s not a homogeneous country and neither is German culture. It’s not all lederhosen and sauerkraut, you know. Though Head-On is another bleak film (sorry but most of these films are! That’s German cinema for you.), it’s a super fascinating, globe-spanning movie. The German parts of the film are set in and around the dockside city of Hamburg.
5. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)
Director: Marc Rothemund Language: German Run time: 117m 87% Rotten Tomatoes
Most WWII movies from Germany are set in Berlin. In fact, most German films are set in Berlin with considerably few taking place in other cities and towns in the rest of the country, which is a real shame. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is based on a true story set and shot entirely in Munich. She was a member of the White Rose, a student organisation part of the wider German Resistance. When her group’s anti-Nazi leaflets are found, she takes full responsibility and is inevitably sentenced to death for treason. That’s not really much of a spoiler when the film is titled ‘the final days’ is it?
It’s very inspirational watching someone so young admit to acts that will inevitably lead to their execution, and it’s astounding that there were so many amazing German individuals willing to die for their beliefs. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a great example of women doing amazing things in WWII too because it often feels like only men were involved in the world wars. Some of the Munich filming locations include Ludwig Maximilian University, New City Hall and Prielmayerstraße.
6. The Edge of Heaven (2007)
Director: Faith Akin Languages: German, Turkish, English Run time: 122m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
Like Head-On, the first film on this list directed by Faith Akin, The Edge of Heaven explores the lives of Turkish immigrants in Germany, this time in the city of Bremen. Ali lives with his son Nejat in an apartment and invites Yeter, a prostitute, to move in with them to protect her. When Yeter dies, Nejat travels to Istanbul to search for her daughter. The film hops between Istanbul and Bremen and contends with detainment, more deaths and deportations.
So yeah, another not-so-happy story! But a really beautiful movie with some gorgeous German filming locations. Bremen doesn’t feature that often in German films, it seems. Some of the Bremen scenes shot in Bremen and Hamburg (like the Golden Pudel Club) and the Turkey scenes shot in Trabzon on the Black Sea and Istanbul.
7. The Reader (2008)
Director: Stephen Daldry Languages: English, German, Greek Run time: 124m 63% Rotten Tomatoes
The Reader is one of the best films set in Germany to watch if a) you’d prefer an English-language movie set in Germany (I’m not judging!) b) want to watch a film with tonnes of filming locations all over Germany and c) you’re a Kate Winslet fan. Set in the late 1950s (though there are lots of flashbacks/flashforwards), a young man begins an affair with an older woman who likes him to read to her. Years later, the young man becomes a lawyer and is reunited with the older woman who is now on trial for her actions as a Nazi prison guard.
It’s a perfectly serviceable romantic period drama and it did really well during Awards season. Winslet even won the Academy Award for best actress, and she’s certainly fantastic in this role. The Reader is partially set in Berlin and Heidelberg with a few flashbacks to the concentration camps in Poland. Filming locations are spread out all over Germany and Poland including Kirnitzschtal and Görlitz in Saxony, Cologne, Brandenburg, Zehlendorf and Charlottenburg in Berlin and Lublin in Poland. The perfect wanderlust-inspiring film if you don’t know where to visit in Germany!
8. The White Ribbon (2009)
Director: Michael Haneke Language: German Run time: 144m 86% Rotten Tomatoes
This was one of the first German-language films I ever watched. The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and should have won the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars that year (it was nominated, at least). It’s one of the best German movies ever. Wanderlust-inspiring? Not really, it’s creepy but cool AF. The cinematography is gorgeous (and black and white) like a dream unfolding in front of you. Or, given the plot, a nightmare.
The White Ribbon is set in a small German village at the turn of the century before WWI. It’s a very religious farming community where the authoritative men regularly abuse the women and children and there are several mysterious, unexplained occurrences throughout the film.
9. Lore (2012)
Director: Cate Shortland Languages: German, English Run time: 109m 94% Rotten Tomatoes
Did anyone else think that ‘black forest’ was just a soggy, rich cake eaten at buffets in polystyrene bowls for way longer than they’d like to admit? Just me? Well, if you too are a geographically-challenged child of the 1990s, the Black Forest is also a dense, moody mountain range in Southwest Germany and the apt setting for the 2012 German-language movie Lore.
Taking place right after the fall of Adolf Hitler, five children are abandoned by their Nazi parents who are probably going to be arrested. They’re forced to trek from their hideout in the Black Forest to their grandmother’s house through the Jutland Peninsula. It’s a story of strength, survival and unlikely camaraderies. It’s one of the best movies set in Germany to watch for countryside vistas. Lore shot in the cities and countryside surrounding Görlitz in Saxony and Hamburg, as well as other parts of Germany.
10. Barbara (2012)
Director: Christian Petzold Language: German Run time: 105m 94% Rotten Tomatoes
Another German film set in the countryside, Barbara is one of the best films about East Germany in the 1980s. The titular character is a doctor working in East Berlin who, upon filing to leave East Germany, is instead ousted to a small rural hospital on the Baltic Sea. Barbara is under constant surveillance and simultaneously attempts to build a new life while planning her escape.
Barbara is one of the only movies about East Germany that shines a light on how people in different circumstances coped in East Germany before the fall of communism. We’re so used to just watching movies set in the East Berlin bubble, it’s refreshing to step outside of those narratives. And we’re rewarded with some distinctive, unrefined natural German scenery. Barbara was largely shot in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania on the coast which looks like a gorgeous part of the country. No one pays enough attention to Germany’s coastline!
11. The Book Thief (2013)
Director: Brian Percival Languages: English, German Run time: 130m 47% Rotten Tomatoes
Like all bestsellers selling millions of copies around the globe, The Book Thief was inevitably adapted into a feature film. Though the movie seems to have had a lacklustre reception amongst film critics, it did extremely well at the box office. It’s one of the most easily-digestible and beguiling films about Nazi Germany in the English language so you may find it more wanderlust-inspiring than other movies set in Germany on this list. It’s a film about books from a child’s perspective, after all. Don’t expect Schindler’s List (1993).
The Book Thief follows young Liesel on the cusp of WWII. She’s an ordinary German girl adopted by an ordinary couple in Munich but she cannot read or write. After her adoptive father teaches her, she becomes obsessed with reading. The movie parallels Liesel’s almost harmless, light-fingered hobby with the events transpiring around her. Though set in Munich, The Book Thief primarily shot in Görlitz, Saxony. Most likely due to the period setting as I’m sure Munich has since developed in the last 80 years whereas Görlitz still boasts a charming, fairytale aesthetic.
12. A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Director: Anton Corbijn Language: English Run time: 122m 87% Rotten Tomatoes
Another novel adaptation, this time it’s a modern-day John le Carré thriller. So, it’s something a little bit different from most of the other films set in Germany I’ve featured so far. A Most Wanted Man is about a political refugee who arrives in Hamburg illegally and what follows is a game of cat and mouse between terrorists and the German Government.
A Most Wanted Man is one of the most prolific English-language films set in Hamburg. So despite thrillers usually being travel-inspiring (The Talented Mr Ripley (1990) is a notable exception), it’s the most ideal film to watch if you plan on heading north. And it’s one of the last films starring the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. A Most Wanted Man was filmed all over Hamburg, too, including places like Reeperbahn and the Empire Riverside Hotel in the St Pauli district so the locations are authentic to the film’s setting.
13. Toni Erdmann (2016)
Director: Maren Ade Languages: German, English, Romanian Run time: 162m 93% Rotten Tomatoes
I was DESPERATE to watch Toni Erdmann in cinemas but somehow it alluded me. I think the runtime put me off so I didn’t prioritise it even though the film was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars that year. Anyway, this is apparently one of the most bonkers, hilarious and endearing German movies out there so it needed to make the list. Despite the fact, a good chunk of the film is set in Romania. Don’t care. My list.
Toni Erdmann is about a divorced man from Aachen who is also a dedicated practical joker. In an attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter, he travels to her adopted home city of Bucharest and invents the persona ‘Toni Erdmann’, an eccentric life coach who keeps showing up wherever she goes. Yeah, it sounds weird. And I live for weird.
The Aachen scenes were faithfully shot in the North Rhine city of Aachen. So, if you’re heading to that part of Germany, definitely given Toni Erdmann a whirl!
Other movies set in Germany: The Devil Makes Three (1952), The Devil Strikes at Night (1957), The Damned (1969), Beyond Silence (1996), Nowhere in Africa (2001), Before The Fall (2004), Munich (2005), The Monuments Men (2014), In The Fade (2017)
And those are some of the best movies set in Germany to make you want to visit! Have you watched any of these movies about Germany or would you add any to the list? Let me know in the comments below!