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 actors in Hollywood 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.
Updated on January 22nd, 2022 by Kayleena Pierce-Bohen: Some of the most famous German actors in Hollywood may not claim starring roles, but their supporting performances bring depth to films that rely on their international appeal.
German actors like Til Schweiger and Armin Meuller-Stahl may be known for playing villains in America, but they’ve won some of Germany’s top acting prizes for a wide variety of roles. Some German actors like Conrad Veidt can even be credited with defining Batman’s nemesis The Joker, upon which many American actors have based their performances.
The Blue Angel (1930)
• The Blue Angel is available on Tubi
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.
Inglourious Basterds (2008), Hunger (2008)
• Inglorious Basterds is available on Starz and Hunger is available on Tubi
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.
Troy (2004), Inglourious Basterds (2008)
• Troy is available on Netflix and Inglorious Basterds is available on Starz
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.
Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982)
• Nosterfatu the Vampyre and Fitzcarraldo are both available on Tubi
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.
Run Lola Run (1998), The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
• Run Lola Run is available to purchase on Prime Video and both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy are available on HBO Max
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.
Inglourious Basterds (2008), Rush (2013), Captain America: Civil War (2016)
• Inglorious Basterds is available on Starz, Rush is available on Netflix, and Captain America: Civil War is available on Disney+
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.
Das Boot (1981), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
• Das Boot is available on The Roku Channel and Beverly Hills Cop II is available on HBO Max
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.
• Barbara is available on Tubi
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.
Inglourious Basterds (2008), Django Unchained (2012)
• Inglorious Basterds is available on Starz and Django Unchained is available on Netflix
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. When the German actor, who was born in Vienna but holds dual Austrian-German citizenship, suddenly appeared on America’s radar in 2009, he’d 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 that 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.
Before The Fall (2004)
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.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle Of Life (2002), Keinohrhasen (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2008)
• Lara Croft: Tom Raider – The Cradle of Life is available on Paramount+ and Inglorious Basterds is available on Starz
Often cast as a malicious villain in the early ’00s, blockbusters like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life and King Arthur nevertheless made American audiences take notice of Til Schweiger, who is known throughout Germany as a prestigious actor, producer, and director. He agreed to don a Nazi uniform for Inglourious Basterds only because his character was killing Nazis.
Keinohrhasen (Rabbit Without Ears), a romantic comedy that he wrote, produced, and directed, is one of the highest-grossing German movies of all time. It follows a tabloid writer who must commit to 300 hours of community service at a kindergarten, eventually falling in love with its director. The talented German actor has a total of five Bambi Awards (the German equivalent of the Oscar) and has begun writing, directing, and producing the television series Tatort.
Shine (1996), Eastern Promises (2007)
• Shine is available on Max Go and Eastern Promises is available for purchase on Prime Video
A prolific German actor with decades of work to his name, Armin Mueller-Stahl became known to American audiences by collaborating with some of the country’s most acclaimed directors including Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, and David Cronenberg.
For playing the abusive father of a pianist in Shine, Mueller-Stahl was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In Cronenberg’s atmospheric thriller Eastern Promises, he played the sadistic Semyon opposite Viggo Mortensen.
The Man Who Laughs (1928), Casablanca (1942)
• Casablanca is available on HBO Max
A German actor who transitioned from the silent era into “talkies”, Conrad Veidt was known for using his considerable experience in German Expressionist cinema to play antagonists in two of the most important movies in American cinema — The Man Who Laughs and Casablanca.
In The Man Who Laughs, a movie that inspired Todd Phillips’ Joker, Veidt played a circus performer who suffered a horrific facial wound that caused his mouth to be cut into a permanent grin, providing the basis for Batman’s arch-nemesis. In Casablanca, he played the epitome of Nazi evil as the indefatigable Major Strasser.
Blood for Dracula (1974), Blade (1998), Swan Song (2021)
• Blood for Dracula is available on Vudu, Blade is available on Tubi, and Swan Song is available on AppleTV
With over 220 credits to his name, German actor Udo Kier seems to pop up everywhere. With his otherworldly appearance, it’s not surprising that he’s often been called upon to play characters who aren’t altogether human. He first donned the black cape to play the Prince of Darkness in Blood for Dracula, which saw the godfather of vampires lead a desultory and lonely life, full of heartbreak. Later, he appeared in Blade as a member of the vampire High Council.
His latest movie Swan Song, about a hairdresser coming out of retirement in a nursing home to groom a socialite for her funeral, has been praised as one of the best performances of his long career.
Schtonk! (1992), The Superwife (1996), Klimt (2006)
With a career spanning several decades, Veronica Ferres is a German actress who always adds credibility to roles that often focus on her physical beauty. German movies like Schtonk!, about the since-refuted Hitler diaries, and romantic comedies like The Superwife made her a household name in Germany, but Klimt introduced her to American audiences.
Opposite John Malkovich, who plays famous Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, Ferres embodies the lover of the impressionist who embodies the idealized beauty of the female form.
Thor (2011), Army of Thieves (2021), Army of the Dead (2021)
• Thor is available on Disney+ and both Army of the Dead and Army of Thieves are available on Netflix
When German actor and director Matthias Schweighöfer signed on to join the ensemble cast of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, playing one of the horror movie’s most memorable protagonists Ludwig Dieter, he could never have anticipated that the safecracker would eventually star in his own prequel Army of Thieves.
Though some fans might have remembered him from a supporting role in Thor, Army of Thieves allowed him to work on an original story with Snyder entirely focused on his character. Schweighöfer set the heist comedy before the terrifying events of Army of the Dead, with Dieter leading a group of shrewd thieves on a secret mission, giving audiences a chance to see how the lovable burglar got his start.
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