What are the best movies set in Berlin? From Cold War spies to counter culture: tutors, students and staff from the Catalyst community share their all-time favourites.
There’s nothing like a good film to make you desperately want to move to Berlin. Ask our students and staff what inspired them to relocate – other than joining Catalyst– and many of them will cite exactly that! Up against other European capitals, Berlin doesn’t win any beauty contests – not least because its face is always changing – but the city’s wealth of history, diversity of culture and electrifying atmosphere make it one of the richest. From Cold War spies to counter culture, ‘20s frivolities to GDR comedies, and countless modern-day curiosities, Berlin is not only a great filming location, but a treasure trove of stories.
What are our favourite films set in Berlin? Scroll down for our community’s top 20.
Berlin Bouncer, 2019
How to get into Berghain. We’ve all seen the forums, articles, memes and detailed analyses. Wear all black, look modest – solemn even – and don’t speak unless it’s in German. Such a code of behaviour seems more befitting to a temple than a nightclub. For those rejected by Berlin’s famous gatekeepers, it feels totally absurd – but then again, institutions like Berghain aren’t just clubs, they’re churches of techno. Berlin Bouncer explores how a reunified city became the perfect breeding ground for a unique kind of hedonism – and with it, an unlikely class of celebrity. “Given the hype around some of our favourite clubs in the city, a movie spotlighting the gatekeepers of the scene was long overdue,” says storytelling lead Christina Gaither.
Atomic Blonde, 2017
After playing a war captain in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Charlize Theron kept the heat on for this fierce spy thriller. Think Bond, Bourne or John Wick but as an even more badass woman. Atomic Blonde, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, centres around a top-level MI6 spy tasked with taking down a ruthless espionage ring on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Electronic Music Production & Performance tutor Stefan Knauthe called the movie “surprisingly entertaining,” and the critics agree: just the right amount of action, impressive stunts and a whole lot of style.
The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula), 1973
Probably the most popular GDR production of all time, The Legend of Paul and Paula drew over 3.25 million viewers after its 1973 release – especially surprising since, due to its political overtones, it almost never saw the screen. Paul and Paula have more than their names in common; both victims to their fair share of romantic disasters, the pair fall in love after a chance encounter in a nightclub. A passionate, yet troublesome, relationship ensues. Pay attention to the boat scene; the film’s enduring popularity led to a nearby waterfront of Berlin’s Rummelsburger See (Rummelsburg Lake) to be renamed Paul und Paula-Ufer (Paul And Paula Shore).
Bornholmer Straße, 2014
As Michael Meyer wrote in his New York Times op-ed, the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall “played out almost as farce.” Having just returned from holiday, the new face of the Communist Party made a critical press-release blunder that would lead a tidal wave of people to the Wall to claim their freedom “ab sofort.” With no official instructions on what to do, the guards shrugged and threw open the gates. Parodying this serendipitous case of official incompetence, tragicomedy Bornholmer Straße tells the story from the point of view of a confused group of guards at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing. Click here to watch a snippet of how the scene played out in real life.
Berlin Calling, 2008
Producer and live act Paul Kalkbrenner had just released his album Self in 2004 when he was approached by film director Hannes Stöhr. A longtime fan, Stöhr wanted him to create the soundtrack for his gritty movie about a 2000s Berlin DJ who gets institutionalised for drug abuse. However, it soon became clear that Kalkbrenner himself would be perfect for the starring role – despite not having any previous acting experience. “Berlin Calling made our former neighbour a superstar DJ,” recalls Electronic Music Production & Performance tutor Stefan Knauthe. In fact, Kalkbrenner’s single ‘Sky and Sand,’ from the film’s soundtrack, went platinum and set a German record for a whopping 121 consecutive weeks in the German singles charts.
The Baader Meinhof Complex, 2008
Film Production Certificate lead Malachi Rempen strongly recommends this film about a lesser-known conflict in Germany’s recent history. Based on the 1985 bestselling non-fiction book of the same name, The Baader Meinhof Complex retells the story of the early years (1967-1977) of the West German far-left terrorist organisation the Red Army Faction. The movie follows popular journalist Ulrike Meinhof who, outraged by the killing of an unarmed protester, gives up family life for radical anarchy. Disrupting what they believed to be an increasingly fascist state, the group engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police. You can watch the full film with English subtitles here.
People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), 1930
If former Catalyst Music tutor Brian Ledwidge Flynn's description doesn’t make you want to watch this charming interwar drama, we don’t know what will: “I saw a terrific silent movie recently about three young people going to Wannsee on a Sunday in 1929. They even bring the ‘bluetooth speaker’ of their day, a portable gramophone, so that’s not a new annoyance after all.” Considered a work of genius, the lightly scripted, low-budget production was pivotal in the development of German cinema – and Hollywood. That’s pretty incredible considering the actors were all amateurs whose real day jobs were shown in the film. Crucially, People on Sunday portrays daily life in Berlin shortly before Adolf Hitler became chancellor. To escape Nazi Germany, the movie’s director Billy Wilder subsequently moved to America. Watch the full film here.
Downfall (Der Untergang), 2004
Using eyewitness accounts, survivors’ memoirs, and other historical sources, director Oliver Hirschbiegel reconstructs the look and atmosphere of 1940s Berlin in this gripping drama about the final days of World War II in the capital. “Bruno Ganz is incredible as Hitler,” says Film Production Certificate lead Malachi Rempen. In order to prepare for the role, Ganz conducted four months of research, including closely studying a recording to properly mimic Hitler’s conversational voice and Austrian dialect. Unsurprisingly, when Ganz was originally offered the role, many of his friends advised him against taking it. Indeed, for some critics, Downfall’s portrayal of the dictator’s more human side takes the realism a little too far.
A classic murder thriller that absolutely holds up today, with some critics even crediting it as the birth of the genre. In Fritz Lang’s M, a serial child killer is subjected to a huge police manhunt in Berlin. Disgusted by his crimes, even the criminal underworld find themselves in pursuit. Perhaps the reason this film is so timeless is its believability. In a 1963 interview with film historian Gero Gandert, Lang revealed that “at the time [he] decided to use the subject matter of M, there were many serial killers terrorising Germany.” Lang even met some of them when, for research, he spent eight days inside a mental institution. What’s more, he cast real criminals as extras, 25 of whom ended up getting arrested during the film’s shooting at a studio just outside Berlin.
Bridge of Spies, 2015
When a movie is shot at the Funkhaus – the historic GDR radio station now home to Catalyst, MONOM and more – you know it’s going to be a good one. For once we’re not talking about our Film and Acting students’ amazing work, but this Hollywood Cold War thriller, which was partially shot there. A little bit of Bridge of Spies trivia from Electronic Music Production & Performance tutor Stefan Knauthe: “they transformed the street between Block A and the Shed Hall at the Funkhaus into a street in East Berlin.” In the American-German co-production, Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a lawyer who was entrusted with negotiating the exchange of two convicted spies: a U.S. Air Force pilot and a member of the Soviet KGB. The bridge where the exchange took place, referred to in the title, is the Glienicke Bridge.
“Cabaret is so great; I love that film,” says Visual Effects lead Matthieu Schmit. “Cabaret is a winner!” adds former Music production tutor Brian Ledwidge Flynn. And Screen Acting tutor Sarah Bleasdale agrees, crediting the “absolutely stellar style of Bob Fosse’s unique direction and choreography!” It only took a mention of this stylish musical drama starring Liza Minnelli to bring joy to our resident film experts staff. Based loosely on the Broadway musical of the same name, the movie is set in the bohemian nightlife of 1931 Berlin. However, the bright lights begin to dim in the face of the violent and all-pervading Nazi rise. Minnelli won an Oscar for her performance as a fancy-free cabaret singer who finds herself in a love triangle with a sexually fluid teacher and a wealthy young baron.
Christiane F., 1981
They experience the sky; they experience hell; alcohol and hash at 12; heroin at 13; at 14, on the street; they are still children; and have already lost their future; the shocking story of Christiane F.; we kids from the Zoo train station.
A harrowing biographical storyline complete with David Bowie as both himself and the soundtrack composer; even the trailer for cult drama Christiane F. is hard to look away from. Based on the non-fiction book, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the movie tells the story of troubled teenager Christiane Felscherinow, who fell into the West Berlin drug scene in the ‘70s. Nearly 40 years after the release, the once rundown filming locations have either been demolished or completely remodelled; a stark reminder of the changing face of the city. Now 57 years old, Felscherinow released a new autobiography in 2013.
One can never underestimate the importance of music when it comes to shaping young identities. But what happens when music is strictly controlled by the state? Set in ‘70s East Berlin, comedy film Sonnenallee revolves around a group of teenagers growing up near a lesser-known border crossing. Whether listening to banned pop music or smuggling contraband items, the clandestine activities of these kids, their families and West German visitors, illustrate the absurdity of life on Sonnenallee (Sun Alley) – and therefore East Germany as a whole. Film connoisseurs, see if you can spot the little The Legend of Paul and Paula easter egg.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), 2006
Former Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering tutor Ainsley Adams recommends this “great movie about life with the Stasi in East Berlin.” For the GDR’s secret police, suspicion was in the job description – and officer Gerd Wiesler takes his job seriously. Doubting that famous playwright Sebastian Koch is loyal to the Communist Party, Wiesler receives permission to spy on him and his actress lover. However, things get complicated when he grows unexpectedly fond of the couple. The film’s play on self-contradicting communist values was inspired by Lenin’s ambivalence about music. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck told the New York Times, “I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the [film] treatment.”
B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 (2015)
Travel back in time to the Wild Wild West. The chaotic West-Berlin of the ‘80s was a counter-cultural melting pot; avant-garde, arty, trashy, punky. It was the perfect place for young, British eccentric Mark Reeder to cut his teeth as a musician, sound engineer and much more. A favourite of Electronic Music Production & Performance tutor Philippa McIntyre, this archive-heavy cult documentary revisits the era through the lens of Reeder’s personal story; a captivating collage of mostly unreleased film and TV footage. For more, read Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering student Stas Gutnova’s reflections on Mark’s 2018 Guest Session, or watch our 2012 video interview, where he riffs on the evolution of Berlin, education and the future of music.
Run Lola Run, 1998
How many of the occurrences and opportunities in your life do you put down to pure chance? Are you a believer in free will or predetermined destiny? Can even the most random encounters affect the course of our lives? What about parallel universes? If you enjoy pondering on such philosophical questions – or you’re simply a sucker for fun, fast-paced thrillers – Run Lola Run is for you. After receiving a panicked phone call from her boyfriend Manni, who has lost his boss’ big bag of money, flame-haired Lola has 20 minutes to raise the amount herself and get to him before he robs the nearest store. Get ready for ‘90s nostalgia, iconic Berlin vistas and a pumping techno soundtrack.
Good Bye, Lenin!, 2003
“A very worthy contender for the top spot,” says Catalyst founder David Puttick. What would you do if you awoke from a coma and the world you had fought vehemently to preserve had dramatically changed? Good Bye, Lenin!’s protagonist does not want his mother to have to answer this question, for fear that the recent collapse of her beloved communist state will give her a fatal heart attack. Events spiral into absurdity as the young man does everything possible to pretend to her that nothing has changed. However, unwittingly mobilising the deceptive and manipulative agencies of the communist state, is he also acting out his own fantasy? A testament to the considerable transformation of former East Berlin, CGI was used extensively to “de-Westernise” shooting locations.
One, Two, Three (1961)
“Probably the funniest film about post-war events in Berlin. Nazis, communists, capitalists, Americans, Russians… they all get a slap in the face,” says Electronic Music Production & Performance tutor Stefan Knauthe. In West Berlin, during the Cold War, a Coca-Cola executive is tasked with looking after his boss’ chaotic socialite daughter – a duty that becomes even more unenviable when he learns she has secretly married a communist and plans to run away with him to Moskow. Billy Wilder was shooting the American political comedy when the Berlin Wall went up in August 1961, meaning that some of the film had to be shot in Munich.
Wings of Desire, 1987
Filmmaker approved: Wings of Desire fuelled film tech lead Rita Couto’s long-distance love affair with Berlin, while Film Production Certificate lead Malachi Rempen credits it as one of the movies that inspired him to become a filmmaker. Many of our students agree. Wim Wenders’ extraordinary 1987 romantic fantasy follows invisible angels who listen to the thoughts of Berlin’s divided inhabitants and attempt to heal their pain. A forbidden love transpires between one of the angels, played by Bruno Ganz, and a lonely trapeze artist, played by Solveig Dommartin. Although the Berlin Wall shown was in fact a studio reconstruction, Wings of Desire features many of the city’s landmarks, including the modernist Berlin State Library.
A crazy night in a new city. Neuberliners will find it easy to relate to the beginning of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria. But what starts as a Spanish party girl’s hedonistic 4am encounter with a group of local men quickly escalates into something terrifying. The heist thriller was filmed in one take, with raw and exhilarating chases reminiscent of Run Lola Run. “Maybe this movie made me start to love Berlin,” said one of our students. The beautiful score by Nils Frahm was also a big selling point for Screen Acting tutor Ariane Mason and another student, who remarked that “it made the movie 10 times better than it already was.” A solid favourite of the Catalyst community, Victoria is a must-watch.
Header image: a still from Run Lola Run at the corner of Behrenstraße in Mitte.