In the time it takes you to read a couple of books on Berlin you could probably watch all the documentaries on this list. They will not give you the in depth knowledge of one area that a book can, but they will give you information on a far broader scale. In a city like Berlin, whose museums and landmarks can drown its visitors on the details of its rich and varied history, that broad knowledge can prove indispensable.
Olympia (1938, Leni Riefenstahl)
It is a shame that two of the best and most influential documentaries ever made, both directed by Leni Riefenstahl, were Nazi propaganda films. The first one Triumph of the Will documented a famous political rally in Nuremberg. This second one is a documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Smash cuts, tracking cameras extreme closeups and slow motion – Riefenstal did it all here first, and with great style.
Degenerate Art: the Nazis vs Expressionism (1993, Daniel Grubin)
This documentary states that one reason Hitler disliked modern art so much was because it overshadowed his own career and preference for the traditional arts. The other reason of course is that the individualism such modernist movements as expressionism promoted was in direct conflict with the nationalistic policies enforced by the Third Reich.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993, Ray Muller)
The filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was a highly controversial personality in Germany, and seeing the director interview her in this documentary you can see why. Yes she admits she was friends with Hitler and Goebbels, and even that she had a good time in the Third Reich, but she denies that she ever knew anything about the holocaust. The only side of her personality you will find yourself truly believing in is her artistic side. The scenes shown from her films, and her photographs from her trips to Africa, prove that she not only remains one of the best female filmmakers that has ever lived, but a tragic waste of talent. In fifty years after the war she made only two more films.
Marlene (1984, Maxmillan Schell)
This award winning documentary combines never before seen footage of Marlene Dietrich’s life to eye opening interviews with the now 83 year old actress. Like her public persona she will comes across as mostly cold, until, when you least expect it, she will leave you speechless with a moment of pure vulnerability. Just look at her honest reaction when the interviewer reminds her of a song her mother used to sing to her as a child.
Nuremburg – Nazis on Trial – Albert Speer (2006, BBC)
Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and confidante, was another member of the Nazi party who admitted friendship with high ranking Nazi officers, but denied any knowledge of the holocaust. In fact many believe he only got away with the death sentence because the Americans found him so disarmingly charming. Certainly he put his jail term to good use. Among his achievements during his 20 year sentence was to redesign the prison garden and finish his memoirs.
24 Hour Berlin (2009, various)
Not even Andy Warhol had the gall to make a 24 documentary, but then he probably didn’t have hundreds of filmmakers, both amateur and professional willing to give the world a small glimpse into their lives Among the many vignettes is a birth and an interview with a man serving a life sentence.
If you can find them
Robert Frye’s documentaries on Berlin
Petra Tschörtner 2012 documentary on the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg in the 1990s