The 7 most famous German film directors of all time
Published on September 13, 2023
German cinema has had a turbulent history. A market collapse and industry turmoil in the 1960s even led several German filmmakers and writers to pen a 1962 manifesto declaring the death of German cinema. However, in both the pre- and post-war periods, German film directors have made their mark on world cinema and show no signs of stopping.
Watching German films is an excellent way to learn German or better understand the culture. From F. W. Murnau in the early days of German cinema to Roland Emmerich making modern classics, here are seven of the best German directors you need to know.
Several of the directors in this list were part of the New German Cinema movement of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. This movement was a reaction against the low-quality films produced in West Germany in the 1950s, which led to 26 filmmakers declaring the death of German cinema in the aforementioned manifesto. Films of the New German Cinema are characteristically diverse in their themes but tend to explore issues in contemporary society.
Notable films: Nosferatu (1922), Tabu (1931)
Let’s start in the 1920s with Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the director known colloquially as F. W. Murnau. One of Murnau’s most famous films is Nosferatu, a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that critics and audiences loved. Murnau began making Hollywood films in English in the late 1920s. In 1931, he released his most successful film, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, set in the South Pacific.
Notable films: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Werner Herzog was a leader in the postwar New German Cinema movement, and he remains a singular and unconventional director. One of his most famous films, Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), is a story about explorers navigating the treacherous Amazonian jungle. To prepare for the film and ensure the best performances possible, Herzog required his actors to spend time in difficult conditions in the South American rainforest ahead of filming. Herzog is also a renowned documentary maker and has acted in several movies, including 2012’s Jack Reacher.
Notable Films: Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979), Angst essen Seele auf (1974)
Born in 1945, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was another key figure in the New German Cinema movement. He was a prolific director who made over 40 films before his death at the age of 37. Fassbinder is known for exploring social and political issues in his films, which often provoked controversy upon their release.
Fassbinder’s most successful movie was Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun), a powerful examination of women in post-war Germany. 1974’s Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats Soul) was his first internationally successful film.
Notable films: The American Friend (1977), Paris Texas (1985)
Rounding off our trio of male New German Cinema directors is Wim Wenders. In 1977, he was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film The American Friend; he later went on to win the Palme d’Or and a BAFTA for 1985’s Paris, Texas. Wenders has also directed several documentaries, including 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club, which helped to resurrect the now-famous troupe’s career. Today, Wenders is widely considered one of the best German directors of all time.
Notable films: Männer… (1985), Kirschblüten (2008)
Doris Dörrie is a native of Hannover and began her career making documentary films. Her first international success came with the comedy Männer… (Men…) in 1985, and she has continued to make films exploring the complexities of human relationships. Many of her more recent films, including Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossoms) and Fukushima, mon Amour, the latter released in 2016, are set in Japan.
Notable films: Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Hannah Arendt (2012)
Margarethe von Trotta is another highly respected German female film director. She was an integral part of the New German Cinema movement. She co-wrote and co-directed several films in the mid-1970s and then solo-directed The Second Awakening of Christa Klages in 1978. She has made films about strong female figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt.
Notable films: Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998)
Though Emmerich began his career in Germany, he is now a firm fixture in Hollywood. Born in Stuttgart, Emmerich studied film in Munich before moving to the United States in the 1990s. He soon went on to direct action-packed blockbusters like Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich’s films generally don’t garner critical acclaim but tend to do very well at the box office.
Each of these German film directors has a unique voice and approach to filmmaking. From the haunting tales of Murnau to the potent narratives of Fassbinder and the blockbuster spectacles of Emmerich, these seven directors show the range and depth of German cinematic talent. If you’re planning a trip to Germany or simply want to learn more about the German arts scene, check out some of the directors and films on this list.