Honestly, a television screen is not the ideal portal of introduction for this film

“Who you calling monkey, ya blonde ape?”
  • “Who you calling monkey, ya blonde ape?”

Streaming service Kanopy has teamed with the Goethe Institute to sponsor 48 films for the Wunderbar: A Celebration of German Films project. Visit kanopy.com/goethe throughout the month of October to watch any of the films for free. We submit three favorites for your approval.

The Blue Angel (1930)

The Blue Angel trailer

The first foreign language feature that I can recall sitting through was also Germany’s first talkie. There was more snow on the screen than outside the window that cold evening when eleven-year-old Scooter orchestrated the rabbit ears before snuggling up to the family Philco — an antique piece of furniture that lopped off the bottom row of subtitles — to watch an exceptional omnibus series called Film Odyssey. Even at its blown-up, washed out worst, it was hard not to notice Josef von Sternberg’s expressionistic explosion of style. Behind the scenes, the director and leading lady Marlene Dietrich were engaged in a torrid love affair that lasted, at least on von Sternberg’s part, through six more joint efforts. So flustered was co-star Emil Jannings by the amount of attention being heaped on her that his workday was frequently punctuated by fits of anger. Historians will want to track down the Kino DVD set that contains both the original German language version and its American counterpart.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God trailer

The first of their six collaborations finds Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (the hot headed actor the director would famously dub “My best fiend”) tackling as their subject nothing less than a fact-based expedition down the Amazon in search of the mythical El Dorado. The conquistadors never did happen upon the mythical kingdom, but that didn’t stop Herzog and his eight-person crew from striking cinematic gold. There are moments where you would swear you were watching documentary footage shot in 1560. Without benefit of a shooting script or storyboards, Herzog pretty much made it up as he went along. And the voice you hear barking orders does not belong to Kinski. The actor was such an inveterate putz that when the location recording proved to be inaudible, he refused to return to the studio to do any ADR work. The role was eventually dubbed by similar-sounding actor Gerd Martienzen. Honestly, a television screen is not the ideal portal of introduction for this film, but any port in a storm.

Barbara (2012)

Barbara trailer

Germany's entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards (it didn’t make the cut) is an unyielding Cold War drama set in East Germany, 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss), a capable young doctor, is sentenced to a small town clinic after an application for an exit visa results in her being booted from Berlin. No one except her West German lover (Mark Waschke) — they’re planning on defecting together — is to be trusted, not even a seemingly sincere co-worker (Ronald Zehrfeld), who could be compiling a file on her for the Stossi. Barbara is not another flimsily constructed propagandistic docudrama; director Christian Petzold (Jerichow) expertly concentrates on sustaining dramatic tension while smuggling in his political agenda. Hoss’s performance as the pent-up medico is a stunning exercise in self-control, and the clincher packs an electrifying wallop.

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Three great flicks. Dietrich as cabaret-singer in black-and-white "Blue Angel" with heavy eyelids and cigarettes in hand was great; "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," seems now to have been the model for Governor Jerry Brown's grandiose Central Valley bullet train and twin Sacramento Delta tunnel projects; "Barbara" is the most modern of the three movies, depicting stifling regimentation in East Germany before the Wall came down.

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