From Showgirls to Subcultures: The Best of Berlin on Film

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Cabaret, 1972(Filmstill)

As the spellbinding, one-take film Victoria nears its release, we consider other cinematic offerings that travel straight from the German capital to the silver screen

Much madness takes place in Berlin’s small hours, but mad, even by the city’s standards, was the shooting of Sebastian Schipper’s new arthouse heist in one nail-biting, non-interrupted take. Victoria is an exhilarating ride in real time through 22 locations as a night of clubbing leads on to a bank robbery for a Spanish ex-pat (Laia Costa), all soundtracked by Nils Frahm. It’s a vision of Berlin as a place of heightened, rootless existence. Here’s our pick of other unforgettable takes on the constantly mutating German capital on film, before Victoria’s April 1st UK release.

Possession (1981)
Berlin, with its Cold War dividing wall, has been the backdrop for numerous espionage thrillers. The mysteries of the late Andrzej Zulawski’s playful cinema of extremes aren’t decipherable by clues and cold logic, but he taps a tradition of paranoia in setting his cult horror Possession in 80s West Berlin, as spy Mark (Sam Neill) returns home from a mission to the breakdown of his marriage to Anna (Isabelle Adjani). Deranged hysteria holds sway as domestic unease merges into supernatural horror, occasioning cinema’s most iconic underground pass freak-out.

Cabaret (1972)
Berlin offered English writer Christopher Isherwood greater sexual freedom as a gay man, and the result, Goodbye to Berlin, is his semi-autobiographical novella about living there in the 30s, as rising fascism threatened that openness. Sally Bowles is the decadent cabaret singer he boards with, and is played by Liza Minnelli in Bob Fosse’s musical adaptation Cabaret. Watch it while you wait for the new take on Isherwood’s eternally inspirational book that’s in the works from Yony Leyser, who directed vibrant tour through Berlin subcultures Desire Will Set You Free.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
Cruel universes swayed by sexual obsession, money and power are the rule in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an auteur of intensity who mixed social comment with melodrama. In the first of his trilogy on post-war women Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries a soldier who immediately returns to the front. Her heart stays loyal – but life goes on. Bluntly honest, she uses other men as she propels herself to material independence, in a society rushing to forget its past and prosper.

Wings of Desire (1987)
An angel hears the thoughts of West Berlin’s isolated inhabitants as he moves through the city. He falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist who longs for grace, and sheds his immortality to experience life. They meet in a bar – where emblematic of ‘80s Berlin, Nick Cave is giving a torrid performance. Directed by Wim Wenders and inspired by Rilke’s poetry, Wings of Desire is a meditation on the city’s past and future just before the wall came down.

B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin (2015)
In 1978 Mark Reeder moved from Manchester to Berlin as a Factory Records rep. The city was in its hedonistic counterculture heyday, and he could squat in a sprawling apartment for free while diving into its New Wave and burgeoning electronic music scenes. This doc mines material from his extensive collection of raw, candid VHS footage. Reeder narrates us through this Berlin underground of legend, with appearances of friends from Blixa Bargeld to all-girl industrial band Malaria!

Phoenix (2015)
Nina Hoss stars as a Jewish nightclub singer in a bombed-out, haunted Berlin in Christian Petzold’s noir melodrama about post-war identity crisis and loss. Her face has been reconstructed after a bullet-wound, and her soul bears the scars of internment in a concentration camp. When she finds her former love in a smoky club he fails to recognise her, and she hits a wall in reclaiming her past. Her rendition of Speak Low will kill you.

Der Nachtmahr (2015)
Made on a micro-budget, Akiz’s Der Nachtmahr joins Victoria among current films that capture Berlin’s energy. It’s a club-scene film with dream logic and rare psychological depth, as a teen (Carolyn Genzkow) unravels over heavy nights out and visitations by a strange creature. It was shot in club Stattbad Wedding and outside Berghain, with Atari Teenage Riot, Oblast and Boys Noize on the heavy soundtrack, and Kim Gordon playing a teacher. The Old German title comes from a Swiss Romantic painting of a sleeping woman and an incubus.