From the onset of German expressionism in the ’20s that sought to emphasize an artist’s inner feelings to the robust crop of actors and actresses whose stirring performances resonate across oceans, Germany has been uniquely influential to cinema since its fledgling birth in the late 19th century. Where once German actors were confined to playing villains and megalomaniacs after World War II, American audiences have come to know them as capable of so much more.
In recent decades, the contribution of German performers cannot be understated. From the indefatigable German actress Marlene Dietrich, who shaped the foundation of Tinsel Town in the ’30s, to Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz, who has claimed some of its top accolades in the ’00s, these performers and their movies continue to have a lasting impact on cinema.
10 Marlene Dietrich – The Blue Angel
With her distinct fashion sense, husky voice, and abundant sex appeal, it was no wonder Marlene Dietrich became one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s. Dietrich stunned audiences with her empathetic, poignant, and gutsy characters, but none quite so salient as The Blue Angel.
Dietrich’s character gets courted by a man who becomes obsessed with her, and while their love is passionate, it’s entirely dependent on her being the unique, fascinating muse to his completely uncomplicated, milquetoast tourist. She pioneered the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope seen in so many romantic comedies that are used to make boring male characters – and their lives – more interesting, often at the expense of their agency.
9 Michael Fassbender – Inglourious Basterds, Hunger
While some fans might not know that Fassbender was born in Germany, or that he can speak German (if a little bit rusty in Inglourious Basterds), it’s his Irish heritage (he enjoys dual citizenship) that is part of one of his most important movies, Hunger.
The movie concerns the hunger strikes involving Republican prisoners that occurred in 1981 in Northern Ireland. Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, the first man to willingly starve himself to death in order to get Margaret Thatcher to recognize the “criminals” as political prisoners. In order to properly portray the real Sands, Fassbender went from 170 pounds down to 132.
8 Diane Kruger – Troy, Inglourious Basterds
Finding fame in sprawling ensemble movies like Troy and appearing alongside several soon-to-be-famous German actors in Inglourious Basterds, Diane Kruger managed to become one of America’s leading ladies as well as in her native Germany.
In the early ’00s, she starred as Dr. Abigail Chase in the wildly popular National Treasure series alongside Nicolas Cage, in which she helped him steal the Declaration of Independence and later hunt down the diary of John Wilkes Booth. There’s even been talk of a third movie in the trilogy, in which Kruger would most definitely star.
7 Klaus Kinski – Nosferatu The Vampyre, Fitzarraldo
Certainly one of Germany’s most prolific actors, Klaus Kinski has more than 130 movie credits to his name. He’s most often associated with famous German director Werner Herzog, who made Kinski a household name in movies like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck, Cobra Verde, and Fitzcarraldo.
Known for his explosive performances and maniacal characters, Kinski was a force of nature on and off-camera. Herzog even made a documentary about his longtime friend and collaborator appropriately entitled My Best Fiend, showcasing the volatile nature of the mad genius.
6 Franka Potente – Run Lola Run, Bourne Identity/Supremacy
With her bright red hair and bottomless perseverance, Franka Potente captured audiences everywhere in the arthouse movie Run Lola Run, in which she spent nearly the entire movie literally running in an effort to help her boyfriend come up with a large sum of lost funds.
The German actress became most well known to larger American audiences for portraying Marie Kreutz in both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, which capitalized on both her physical dynamism and her chemistry with Jason Bourne as his romantic interest.
5 Daniel Brühl – Captain America: Civil War, Inglourious Basterds, Rush
Like Christoph Waltz, Daniel Brühl made his big splash stateside in Inglourious Basterds, and later in a small role in Captain America: Civil War as Baron Zemo, but it would be his role in the sports movie Rush, the biopic centered on the rivalry between two Formula One drivers, that gave him the attention he deserved in a lead performance.
As Niki Lauda, one of the most famous drivers during the 1976 Formula 1 season besides British driver James Hunt, Brühl received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike, adding to the authenticity of the frenetic Ron Howard-directed picture.
4 Jürgen Prochnow – Das Boot, Beverly Hills Cop II
The famous West German war movie directed by Wolfgang Peterssen, Das Boot became an international sensation when it was released, and is considered one of the best WWII movies ever made. It takes place almost entirely on a German submarine during conflicts in the Atlantic Ocean in World War II.
As a war correspondent recounts the diurnal torpor aboard, he observes the struggles of the grizzled U-boat captain, played with authenticity by Prochnow. Despite intense violence from battles and storms, combined with morale dwindling along with supplies, the captain must keep the motivation of the men alive. Even given this sympathetic role, many American audiences most closely associate Prochnow with playing the villain in Beverly Hills Cop II, Maxwell Dent.
3 Nina Hoss – Barbara
An accomplished actress despite her young years, Nina Hoss gained notoriety in America for starring in Barbara, a Soviet-era movie that reveals what life was like behind the Iron-Curtain in 1980, specifically for a doctor who tried to apply for an exit visa and found herself exiled to the provinces.
Barbara simply wants to escape the Communist German Democratic Republic and live in America, but under constant surveillance from the GDR secret police, and subjected to humiliating strip searches, she begins to lose hope. Even those she befriends in the village are either GDR personnel or informants.
2 Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained
Christoph Waltz exploded into global consciousness when he played a menacing Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, which included several other notable German actors, including Michael Fassbender and Diane Kruger. Since the Austrian-German actor suddenly appeared on America’s radar in 2009, he’s already taken home two Academy Awards, one of which was for playing SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa.
Part of the reason why Quentin Tarantino’s movie was so acclaimed was because it applied a revisionist lens to history, turning a tragedy into something inspirational by allowing Jewish soldiers to enact cathartic vengeance. The other part was Waltz, whose villain was so urbane it made his senseless acts of callous violence all the more terrifying. He followed this movie with Tarantino’s Django Unchained, in which he played a heroic, kind-hearted dentist who becomes a bounty hunter.
1 Max Riemelt – Before The Fall
While he’s most recently been celebrated for Netflix’s cult series Sense8, Max Riemelt has been wowing audiences for nearly two decades. One of his most popular movies was 2004’s Before The Fall, which earned him international acclaim for portraying Friedrich Weimer, a young boxer whose skills land him a scholarship at the strict National Political Academy.
While there, he encounters incredibly cruel hazing and even death in a high school that is notorious for producing members of the Nazi elite. His battles in the ring, as well as in his mind as he struggles to combat the pervasiveness of Hitler’s ideology in 1942 made the movie a particularly brutal but necessary watch.
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