German films at the Oscars Shining brightly on the world stage

Actor Ulrich Mühe
Actor Ulrich Mühe | © The Lives of Others

Every year, the announcement of a fresh batch of Academy Award nominees sparks a fresh round of shock and surprise. Some films are overlooked, despite picking up prizes elsewhere. Others receive recognition, including some considered an outside chance. When the 2018 nominations were revealed, Germany’s ‘In the Fade’ fell into the first camp. After receiving the best actress prize for star Diane Kruger at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and then the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, it was expected to make the final Oscar contenders. Indeed, in December, from the 92 features submitted from around the world, it had progressed to the nine-title shortlist.

While Fatih Akin’s film didn’t earn a nod, Germany is still represented among the 2018 Oscar nominees. Composer Hans Zimmer received his eleventh nomination for his work on Dunkirk’s score, and German filmmakers earned spots in two of the short film fields: Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh for Revolting Rhymes in the animated category, and Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen for Watu Wote: All of Us in the live-action camp. They help build upon the country’s considerable history at the Academy Awards — including winning the first-ever Oscar.


When the Academy Awards debuted on May 16, 1929, film history was made. When the first trophy was handed out at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, German film history as well. Emil Jannings was in the winner’s seat, receiving the first Oscar statuette at the initial ceremony. Anointed the year’s best actor for his work in The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, he’s still the only actor from Germany to win in that field nearly 90 years later.

On the set On the set | © The Last Command Despite working in the industry for the next 16 years, Jannings would never pick up another nomination. In the nine decades since his win, however, others have followed in his footsteps in other categories. Luise Rainer received back-to-back best actress statuettes in 1937 and 1938, for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, while Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz won the best supporting actor prize not once but twice, for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and 2012’s Django Unchained. German-born Mike Nichols won best director for 1968’s The Graduate, accumulating three other nominations across his career. In the same field, Wolfgang Petersen ranked among the 1983 contenders for Das Boot, and Michael Haneke did the same in 2013 with Amour.


Das Boot and Amour’s inclusion among the best director candidates were significant achievements, with films in languages other than English rarely garnering nods beyond the foreign-language film category. Both titles picked up several nominations — six in total for Das Boot (including cinematography, editing, sound, sound effects editing and adapted screenplay), and five for Amour (including best picture, actress, original screenplay and foreign-language film, the latter of which it won).

Production photograph Production photograph | © Das Boot Elsewhere, Germany has fared well in the documentary field, winning in 1959 for Serengeti Shall Not Die, and receiving a number of other nominations over the past five decades. Highlights include Chariots of the Gods, Battle of Berlin, The Yellow Star – The Persecution of the Jews in Europe 1933–45 and Citizenfour, as well as Maximilian Schell’s Marlene, and Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club and Pina.


Of course, when it comes to the main category that recognises foreign-language filmmaking, Germany has flown its flag quite prominently since the field’s inception in 1956. During its divided status, West Germany picked up one win and seven further nominations, while East Germany earned one nomination. Since 1990, the unified country has amassed two more wins, eight other nominations, and four spots on the shortlist. It ranks among the top ten recipients, though Italy and France lead the way with 14 and 12 trophies respectively.
As for the recognised titles themselves, if the German features winners and nominees were to comprise their own film festival strand, they’d make for quite the exceptional array of viewing. The nation’s most recent nominee, Toni Erdmann, is also one of the best, though its strong 2000s run that — including winners Nowhere in Africa and The Lives of Others, plus nominees Downfall, Sophie Scholl — The Final Days, The Baader Meinhoff Complex and The White Ribbon — provides a stirring snapshot of modern German cinema.

Actor Peter Simonischek Actor Peter Simonischek | © Toni Erdmann And while Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum is the only other effort to receive a statuette, the list of pre-1990 nominees highlights the variety of the nation’s output, though war and politics remain popular topics. Still, though united in theme, imposter effort The Captain from Köpenick, serial killer film The Devil Strikes at Night, and the war criminal-focused Pedestrian favour vastly different approaches, as do Frank Beyer’s Jacob the Liar and Agnieszka Holland’s Angry Harvest.