Five documentaries that will help you learn German

Want to broaden your culture and improve your speaking skills at the same time? You’re in good company. Hopefully this article will somehow address those desires. 

Watching documentaries in German will not only help you recognize the huge array of accents, dialects and registers the German language has to offer, but it will also help you improve your listening skills, and quite honestly it’s disgusting how many new vocabulary words you will add to your lexicon. Bear in mind that documentaries should be used with caution – they are supplemental and complementary to online German courses for example. Shameless, we know.

Without further ado, here are five German documentary films to help you master the dulcet tones of the German language (Warning: these films are in German):

Tanzträume (2010)

“And now, we dance”. Tanzträume (Dancing Dreams) is a 2010 German documentary directed by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffmann. The production spotlights world-famous dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch who, just a few months before her death, gathered 40 untrained German teenagers – aged between 14 to 18 – for a unique staging of one of her most iconic dance works, Kontakthof, created in 1978.

The film chronicles 10 months of a transformative rehearsal process, and delves into the lives of these young people and their first encounter with the world of dance. They soon discover themselves in a process which leads to great personal growth. The documentary also shows some of the last footage of Pina before she passed. Body language is at the heart of this film documentary, more so than dialogue. Throughout the movie, the dancers are interviewed and share their stories. If you find the speech rate is too fast, go for German subtitles.

Did you know? The producers of this movie went to great lengths to protect the teenage dancers’’ privacy. No photos or press articles we authorized during rehearsals.

Pianomania (2009)

Pianomania, Wildart Film, Oval Film, 2009

Whatever we do on the piano is a collection of illusions.” This next entry truly tickles the ivories. Pianomania is a German-Austrian documentary written and directed by Lilian Franck et Robert Cibis and released in 2009.

Pianomania takes viewers along on a humorous journey into a secret world of sounds,  following the adventures of piano technician Stefan Knüpfe who, over the course of a year, preps pianos for world-renowned pianists such as Alfred Brendel, Lang Lang and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

The producers chose highly technical musical terms in the movie, making it difficult to understand for beginning learners. Watching the movie with subtitles should come in handy, but don’t forget to appreciate the music.

Did you know? The film received many awards, including “Best Sound” at the 2011 German Film Awards. You can pick your jaw up off the floor now.

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Beuys (2017)

Released in the summer of 2017, the 100-minute documentary Beuys was directed by German filmmaker Andres Veiel, and won the award for “Best Documentary Film” at the 68th Deutscher Filmpreis ceremony in 2018. No, we’re not kidding.

It chronicles the life of legendary and controversial German artist Joseph Beuys, known for his drawings, sculptures, performances and happenings. Nicknamed “the man with the felt hat”, Beuys was one of the most influential personalities of 20th-century Germany, a key figure in the art world, and the first German artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But on his home turf in Germany, his work was once described as the “most expensive trash of all time”.

The director was keen to highlight the artist’s charisma and illuminate the substance beneath the spectacle. To achieve this, he featured unpublished audio and video footage of Joseph Beuys.

Did you know? Shortly before his death in 1986, Beuys consented to be photographed without his hat.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) is an avant-garde 1927 documentary from German cinematographer Walter Ruttmann and is a poetic take of the daily lives of Berliners during the interwar period.

Known as the first “total work of art” of the history of cinema, this documentary was based on the idea of Austrian playwright Carl Mayer, and features music composed by Austrian musician Edmund Meisel. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is a tribute to a typical day in Berlin during the Weinmar Republic. The movie starts at dawn, when the city slowly wakes. Viewers are soon rushed into the heart of Germany’s capital on a train, its rhythmic editing suggesting not only the speed of the train, but the hustle and bustle of the city itself. The director used innovative editing techniques similar to what we call time-lapse today. 

Did you know? When the film was first released, an orchestra of more than 70 musicians played Edmund Meisel’s score – a rare occurrence at the time because of the synchronisation it required to record.

Intelligente Bäume (2017)

Intelligente Bäume, Dorcon Film, 2017

Get back to your roots with Intelligente Bäume (Intelligent trees), produced by Julia Dordel et Guido Tölke in 2017. In a 45-minute timespan, scientists discover that trees are individual beings who have feelings, know friendship and can communicate with each other through an underground system. Featuring Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard and German forester Peter Wohlleben, Intelligent Trees reveals that there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

Viewers will discover that trees are much more than logs to light a bonfire; they are social beings who experience fear, help each other and take care of their young and/or ailing neighbors. 

Did you know? The documentary was shot in Germany and in Canada, in the forests of Hümmel (South of Cologne), Forst Rundshorn (North-East of Hanover) and Lighthouse Park (West Vancouver).

Bonus: Winter adé (1989)

We end our selection with Winter adé, a black-and-white documentary examining the role of women in East German society. From the old mining town of Zwickau, just off the Czech border, feminist and avant-guard film director Helke Misselwitz travels by train across East Germany and interviews women about their lives and aspirations along the way.

Misselwitz’s documentary film is one of the last feature-length movies produced by the DEFA film studio of East Germany. Winter Adé portrays a changing society and challenges the state’s official image of women.

Did you know? Winter Adé gets its title from a popular German children’s song. It means “goodbye winter” and is a celebration of the coming of spring.

Learning a language isn’t simply learning a list of words or a set of rules – language is also culture. If this documentary film marathon isn’t enough, why not try a 10-day free trial of our online German course Wunderbla? Short, fun and personalized lessons will brush up your German in no time.

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