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Annual review
2020: The year in German cinema

Paula Beer in the German film "Undine"
Paula Beer in the German film "Undine" | © Christian Schulz/Schramm Film

The year 2020 has been unlike any other in recent cinema history. Our Kino in Oz reviewer Sarah Ward looks back at German cinema’s past 12 months and picks the year’s standout films.

By Sarah Ward

In 2019, in a year that Avengers: Endgame topped the German box office overall, Das perfekte Geheimnis was the country’s biggest homegrown hit. Sitting in fifth spot, it took home more than $43 million to achieve that status — which, coming in behind The Lion King, Frozen II and Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker as well, is no small feat.
In 2020, Das perfekte Geheimnis added an extra $7 million to its box office tally. That made it this year’s 12th biggest cinema drawcard and, after rom-com Nightlife, the second highest-grossing German movie of the past 12 months. There’s an obvious reason for this situation, and it speaks volumes about 2020 — aka the year that cinemas worldwide, including in Germany, were shuttered for months.
Movie-going is currently off the agenda again in Germany; however, although 2020 has delivered challenges like never before, that doesn’t mean that the country’s cinema industry didn’t experience any highlights. The hustle, bustle, big screen glow and busy crowds of this year’s Berlinale now feels like years and even decades ago, rather than a mere 11 months. With 2021’s event not guaranteed to go ahead in its usual guise, it feels like the remnants of the last big German film festival, in fact. Still, that beloved celebration of cinema was responsible for the bulk of 2020’s best German fare. Franz Rogowski in a scene from the German film "Undine" Franz Rogowski plays Undine's love interest in the Christoph Petzold film "Undine" | © Hans Fromm / Schramm Film

The latest gift from a cinematic master

A modernised version of the romantic German myth of the same name, Undine is slippery and haunting by design. The original story tells of a water sprite who becomes human when she falls in love, but must kill the object of her affection when he betrays her — so the fact that this alluring film often feels as if it’s tumbling across the screen like a waterfall, then lingering like the pool at the bottom, couldn’t be more fitting. Christian Petzold’s movies have that effect. They ripple with emotion that refuses to be pinned down, but never fades away either. And they’re so richly drawn that feeling what their characters feel has become a foregone conclusion.
Petzold’s magic doesn’t waver in Undine, even as he flirts with fantastical territory. His take on the titular character (played by Transit’s Paula Beer) is grounded in modern-day Berlin, but still evokes an ethereal sensation. After Undine’s romance with Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) comes to an end, she meets industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski). While she’s able to move on quickly, her past isn’t easily shaken. Petzold makes that statement count, not only regarding Undine’s journey, but Berlin’s and Germany’s as well. Beer rightly won this year’s Berlinale Best Actress prize, as well as Best European Actress at the Europe Film Awards — and, as this year’s best German film, the feature itself deserves the same amount of acclaim.

Exploring the immigrant experience

Also premiering at this year’s Berlinale: two movies that ponder a common topic in recent German cinema, but do so in their own distinctive and engaging way. In No Hard Feelings (German title: Futur Drei) Parvis Joon (Benny Radjaipour) is an Iranian in Lower Saxony. The queer young man was born and raised in Germany, but to parents who left their life in the Middle East behind to give their children a better future. As a result, he is constantly considered a foreigner by those around him, including his Grindr dates. Completing court-mandated community service at a refugee shelter, he’s given an insight into the immigrant experience — and the parallels with his own struggles are pronounced. Faraz Shariat’s semi-autobiographical feature debut is potent on many levels, including tackling race and sexuality, and it’s as evocative as it is heartfelt.
Operating on a much grimmer level is Exile, a drama submerged in the paranoia of a Kosovo-born pharmaceutical engineer who finds German suburbia unwelcoming. Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) is certain that his colleagues are keeping him out of the loop at work, and that they’ve left a dead rat hanging from his home mailbox; however, his local-born wife Nora (Sandra Hüller) thinks he is overreacting, and that his claims of xenophobia are misplaced. Filmmaker Visar Morina also hails from Kosovo and, while Exile is often icy to the point of recalling Michael Haneke, it’s also perceptively idiosyncratic in a manner akin to Yorgos Lanthimos’ films, as probing as Ruben Ostlund’s best, and always feels steeped in truth. In other words, as anchored by Matičević’s exceptional performance, it cuts hard and deep as it ponders the treatment of German’s migrant population. Lena Watson in "The Trouble with Being Born" The film was dropped by Melbourne International Film Festival after negative media coverage | © The Trouble with Being Born

Getting Topical

When The Trouble with Being Born also bowed at the Berlinale, it did so to little attention — even as it collected the festival’s Special Jury Prize in its new Encounters strand. In Australia, it became headline fodder six months later when it was selected for the online-only version of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, only to be dropped after objections to the movie’s content. The silver lining of the latter experience is that a wider audience heard about this confronting-by-design Austrian/German co-production. Jumping forward to a not-too-distant future where android children can be programmed to their owner’s specifications, writer/director Sandra Wollner wades into complex territory and asks difficult questions. But, with a purposefully unsettling air, she delivers the kind of challenge that the best cinema always should.
Topical in a different way, And Tomorrow the Entire World also jostles its audience out of their comfort zone. Debuting at this year’s Venice Film Festival — not Berlinale — it follows 20-year-old law student Luisa (Mala Emde), who hails from a comfortable background, moves in with an anti-fascist commune, then becomes one of its most active members. Writer/director Julia von Heinz’s allegiance with the cause is evident, as it should be. Still, she’s committed to interrogating how crusading for such a worthy cause isn’t clearcut or easy, even given Germany’s 20th-century history and the fact that extreme-right ideology has begun to find a new place in the 21st century. The result is a gripping drama, as well a worthy choice by Germany to represent the country in the Best International Feature Film category at next year's Oscars.