21 Best Movies to Watch From ZDF

Staff & contributors
While quite testing for viewers, this is one of the craziest, most high-energy movies you'll ever watch. In this incredible German drama, child actor Helena Zengel plays Bernadette aka Benni, a traumatized 9-year-old child who tends to lash out and has been repeatedly suspended from every school she went to. Benni is a so-called “Systemsprenger” (which is the original German title). A system crasher is a child so uncontrollable and aggressive that, over time, she falls through the grid of special schools, foster care, and social work facilities. Despite the best efforts of her designated social worker, Frau Bafané, played by Gabriela Maria Schmeide, she is turned down by everyone, testing the patience of her surroundings, wherever she goes. A trip with Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a tough boxer and anger-management trainer, turns out to be the last resort. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt, System Crasher is intense, punky, and wild with an almost eerie sense of authenticity. Its devastating effect is helped along by its unique, hyperactive camerawork. Much like the social workers themselves, you might have a hard time keeping professional distance to all this. This intense drama will stay with you for a long time.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Albrecht Schuch, Axel Werner, Barbara Philipp, Bärbel Schwarz, Bruno Thiel, Cederic Mardon, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Gisa Flake, Helena Zengel, Imke Büchel, Jana Julia Roth, Julia Becker, Lisa Hagmeister, Louis von Klipstein, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brenner, Melanie Straub, Moritz Thiel, Peter Schneider, Roland Bonjour, Steffi Kuhnert, Tedros Teclebrhan, Till Butterbach, Victoria Trauttmansdorff

Director: Nora Fingscheidt

Rating: 12

This tender, autobiographical coming-of-age story about a working class family in post-war Liverpool is Terence Davies’ masterpiece—evoking memories through a series of loosely connected scenes that highlight the joys and woes of growing up. It is comprised of two films shot two years apart. The first details the tribulations of a young family surviving an abusive father in the ‘40s. The second part follows the kids grown up and finding their way in the ‘50s, and the influence of music and cinema on their lives. Davies uses a series of beautifully composed tableaux to tell the tale, which bring the setting and the characters intimately to life. Distant Voices, Still Lives is regarded as one of the greatest British films of all-time.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Alan Bird, Andrew Schofield, Angela Walsh, Anne Dyson, Bill Moores, Carl Chase, Dean Williams, Freda Dowie, Ina Clough, Jean Boht, John Michie, Lorraine Ashbourne, Matthew Long, Michael Starke, Nathan Walsh, Pauline Quirke, Pete Postlethwaite, Roy Ford, Sally Davies, Susan Flanagan

Director: Terence Davies

The Teacher’s Lounge is one of those movies where a simple misunderstanding is blown out of proportion, so much so that it causes the fabric of a community to unravel into chaos. Aided by a precise score, it ticks like a timebomb, with every second filled with so much dread and anxiety you have to remind yourself to breathe. It’s an impeccable and taut thriller, but it also works as an allegory about modern-day surveillance and authority. Director İlker Çatak gives the Gen-Z students and their much older teachers a level field where they struggle for control, and the result is both bleak and funny. It’s often said that schools are a microcosm of the real world, but nowhere is that more apparent than here. 

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Antonia Luise Krämer, Eva Löbau, Katharina M. Schubert, Kathrin Wehlisch, Katinka Auberger, Leonard Stettnisch, Leonie Benesch, Lisa Marie Trense, Michael Klammer, Özgür Karadeniz, Rafael Stachowiak, Sarah Bauerett, Uygar Tamer

Director: İlker Çatak

Rating: PG-13

The original Swedish mystery thriller that was later remade by David Fincher. It's the same story of a wealthy man hiring a journalist and scrappy hacker to solver a murder, but told better. This version is slower, has more attention to detail and pace. In casting, authenticity triumphs over good looks. In staging, aesthetics are given as much importance as thrills. And in the story, intelligence wins over plot. This gives the main character of Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace) better space to deploy her full mysticism and enigmatic nature. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev masterfully brings everything together to make for a movie that will forever be remembered.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alexandra Pascalidou, Annika Hallin, Barbro Enberg, Bjorn Granath, Christian Fiedler, Daniel Abreu, David Dencik, Emil Almén, Ewa Fröling, Fredrik Ohlsson, Georgi Staykov, Gösta Bredefeldt, Gunnel Lindblom, Henrik Knutsson, Henrik Kvarnlöt, Ingvar Hirdwall, Jacob Ericksson, Jan Mybrand, Jannike Grut, Julia Sporre, Kalled Mustonen, Lena Endre, Lennart R. Svensson, Louise Ryme, Margareta Stone, Marika Lagercrantz, Michael Nyqvist, Michalis Koutsogiannakis, Mikael Rahm, Nina Norén, Noomi Rapace, Pale Olofsson, Peter Andersson, Peter Haber, Reuben Sallmander, Sofia Ledarp, Sovi Rydén, Stefan Sauk, Sven-Bertil Taube, Tehilla Blad, Tomas Köhler, Willie Andréason, Yasmine Garbi

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Rating: R

La Cérémonie is the kind of thriller you can watch repeatedly and glean new insight from each time. Right from its first scene, there’s something puzzling about the buttoned-up Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) that narrows your focus and pulls you in. What’s remarkable is that, even after the secret Sophie's keeping that seems to explain her strangeness is revealed, our intrigue never dips. Director Claude Chabrol and his cast construct a gripping twin character study and biting social commentary around that initial hook, as Sophie finds a kindred spirit in the equally uncanny Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who opens her eyes to the slyly patronizing way Sophie’s employers treat her.

The film’s study of class relations is always subtle, never veering into over-pronounced territory. That much is clear from the fact that, although some of Sophie’s employer’s family are quite likable, you still understand the ways they’re inextricably embroiled in the film’s quiet indictment of the power dynamics that rule this lofty mansion. More nuance comes by way of the strikingly nonchalant ways evil is depicted in La Cérémonie — just another example of the movie turning something expected (violence is foreshadowed early on) into something that remains viscerally shocking, no matter how many times you watch it.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Christophe Lemoine, David Gabison, Dominique Frot, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-François Perrier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Julien Rochefort, Sandrine Bonnaire, Valentin Merlet, Virginie Ledoyen, Yves Verhoeven

Director: Claude Chabrol

Rating: NR

Barbara (Petzold regular Nina Hoss) has fallen from grace, at least by the standards of 1980s Germany. A renowned doctor at a prestigious East Berlin hospital, she has been demoted to a paediatrician at a tiny town on the Baltic coast: a punishment for daring to try and leave the DDR. The Stasi spy on her, threaten her, and on occasion, abuse her. But Barbara does not give up in her attempts to establish a better life for herself, if only she could cross the sea and dock in Denmark. With such a politically-conscious premise, Christian Petzold's sixth film became a hit on the European scene and transformed his relatively modest career into something more transnational. Even if Barbara feels very local—the way in which Germany's divide conditions every movement and gesture of its characters—the tropes of a spy thriller come to the fore and make a legible, rewarding viewing out of something one may deem too particular. The film owes a lot to its lead, Hoss, who has become a staple of Petzold's career, with her stoicism and towering presence as Barbara – a symbol of obstructed mobility.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alicia von Rittberg, Christina Hecke, Christoph Krix, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Irene Rindje, Jannik Schümann, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Jens Okking, Kirsten Block, Mark Waschke, Nina Hoss, Peter Benedict, Rainer Bock, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rosa Enskat, Susanne Bormann, Thomas Bading, Thomas Neumann

Director: Christian Petzold

Sometimes you can just tell a movie means way too much to the people who made it. That makes me want to watch it more than once, which is what I wanted to do with The Tale. But while I think it's such an amazing movie and everyone should watch it, I don't think I can stomach a second watch.. It is based on the director/writer Jennifer Fox's own story - recounting her first sexual experience at a very young age. It's about the stories we tell ourselves to deal with trauma, and in that sense, and with utmost honesty, it invites grief and closure for similar experiences. A powerful movie led by a powerful performance by Laura Dern as Jennifer.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, TV Movie

Actor: Chelsea Alden, Common, Daniel Berson, Deana Deatherage, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Emily Sandifer, Frances Conroy, Grant James, Gretchen Koerner, Isabella Amara, Isabelle Nélisse, Jaqueline Fleming, Jason Ritter, Jenson Cheng, Jered Meeks, Jessica Sarah Flaum, Jodi Long, John Heard, Juli Erickson, Katie Fairbanks, Laura Allen, Laura Dern, Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., Madara Jayasena, Madison David, Matthew Rauch, Mobin Khan, Noah Lomax, Paul Riley Fox, Pixie Hankins, Rebecca Chulew, Ricki Bhullar, Russell Bradley Fenton, Scott Takeda, Tarek Bishara, Thom Bishops, Tina Parker, Vincent Washington

Director: Jennifer Fox

Rating: Not Rated

Taking place entirely on beachside farmlands in Denmark, Land of Mine takes a particularly intimate—and visually distinct—approach to war. The fighting may be over, but the film remains a tense and emotionally distressing, with all the pain and violence being carried over onto these German boys being forced to clear the beaches of live explosives with their bare hands. The relationship between these young men and their vengeful Danish commanding officer may progress a little quickly for some, but their volatile bond only emphasizes that rage isn't meant to be felt forever, and that war is a destructive cycle that eventually needs to come to an end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: August Carter, Emil Belton, Joel Basman, Johnny Melville, Karl Alexander Seidel, Laura Bro, Leon Seidel, Levin Henning, Louis Hofmann, Mads Riisom, Magnus Bruun, Maximilian Beck, Mette Lysdahl, Michael Asmussen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Oskar Belton, Oskar Bökelmann, Roland Møller, Roland Moller

Director: Martin Zandvliet

Rating: R

Among the sea of class satires released in the last year, Triangle of Sadness is one of the better ones. Directed by Ruben Östlund (The Square, Force Majeure), the film follows an ultra-rich group of people who get stranded on an island after their luxury cruise ship sinks. The social pyramid that has long favored them suddenly turns upside down when a crew member (a glowing Dolly de Leon) effectively runs the group of sheltered castaways.

Triangle of Sadness may not be as sharp as Östlund’s previous work, and it may not add anything particularly new to the saturated discussions of social class, but it remains a darkly humorous and engaging watch, masterfully helmed by a strong script and ensemble.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alex Schulman, Alicia Eriksson, Amanda Schulman, Amanda Walker, Arvin Kananian, Beata Borelius, Camilla Läckberg, Carolina Gynning, Charlbi Dean, Christina Saliba, Dolly de Leon, Emma Warg, Fredrik Quinones, Fredrik Wikingsson, Hanna Oldenburg, Harris Dickinson, Hedda Rehnberg, Henrik Dorsin, Iris Berben, Jean-Christophe Folly, Karin Myrenberg, Linda Anborg, Malte Gårdinger, Nana Manu, Oliver Ford Davies, Ralph Schicha, Shaniaz Hama Ali, Stefan Godicke, Sunnyi Melles, Vicki Berlin, Woody Harrelson, Zlatko Burić

Director: Ruben Östlund

Rating: R

As heartbroken as you will be after watching this movie, you will feel nothing but triumph in the main actor's debut role. This movie has very little hope to offer the viewer, except the small amount felt every time the main character, Marina, gets up again to fight another day. This film depicts grief in such a profound and personal way within a character who must remain relatively silent and alone most of the movie. You will quickly know why the film is called "A Fantastic Woman".

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alejandro Goic, Aline Kuppenheim, Amparo Noguera, Antonia Zegers, Bárbara Mundt, Cristián Chaparro, Daniela Vega, Eduardo Paxeco, Erto Pantoja, Fabiola Zamora, Francisco González Hermosilla, Francisco Reyes, José Antonio Raffo, Loreto Leonvendagar, Luis Gnecco, Marcial Tagle, Moisés Angulo, Nestor Cantillana, Nicolas Saavedra, Pablo Cerda, Pablo Greene, Paola Lattus, Paulina Hunt, Roberto Farías, Sergio Hernández, Trinidad González

Director: Sebastián Lelio

Rating: 15, R

This slow Italian drama tells the true story of Mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta, who became the highest-profile Mafia informant at the time of his arrest in the 1980s.

Tommaso, while supervising a criminal network in Sicily, moved to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to attempt a more legal and quieter life. His role catches up with him and he is quickly arrested.

As a biopic, it rarely depicts violence or glorifies organized crime. Instead, it attempts to document the life of a Mafia boss more realistically: a life of always looking over one's shoulder and of constant loss. Eventually, the movie focuses on what it would take for a man like Tommaso to flip, and what that would cost him.

The Mafia topic might feel overdone, but watching this, it's startling to realize how few thorough character studies have come out in film.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Alessio Praticò, André Lamoglia, Antonio Orlando, Aurora Peres, Bebo Storti, Bruno Cariello, Cinzia Susino, Claudio Collovà, Dino Santoro, Domenico Gennaro, Edoardo Strano, Elia Schilton, Fabrizio Ferracane, Fabrizio Romano, Fausto Russo Alesi, Francesco Emanuele Chinnici, Giovanni Calcagno, Giovanni Vettorazzo, Goffredo Maria Bruno, Jonas Bloch, Leo Wainer, Luciano Quirino, Ludovico Caldarera, Luigi Lo Cascio, Marco Gambino, Maria Amato, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Michelangelo Cicirello, Nicola Calí​, Nicola Calì, Nicola Siri, Nunzia Lo Presti, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Pierfrancesco Favino, Pietro Pace, Raffaella D'Avella, Raffaella Lebboroni, Rainer Cadete, Sergio Pierattini, Tommaso Buscetta, Vincenzo Ferrera, Vincenzo Pirrotta

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Rating: R

Finnish director and megastar Aki Kaurismäki hits with yet another absurd but poignant movie. The Other Side of Hope is about a Syrian refugee and his journey across Finland, both the country and the culture, in hopes for a fresh start. It's a genuine and simple movie, played masterfully by a cast of newcomers. But in its simplicity, it elicits empathy on a subject that most of us choose not to dwell on nowadays. Aki Kaurismäki has the unbelievable skill of distilling tragic events into their humane component. A movie to give credit to, and to watch without any prior expectations - unless you're familiar with Aki Kaurismäki's previous work.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Antti Virmavirta, Atte Blom, Clas-Ove Bruun, Dome Karukoski, Elias Westerberg, Elina Knihtilä, Esa Pulliainen, Hannu Kivioja, Hannu Lauri, Hannu-Pekka Björkman, Harri Marstio, Ilkka Koivula, Janne Hyytiäinen, Jörn Donner, Juhani Niemelä, Juho Kuosmanen, Jukka Virtanen, Juuso Hirvikangas, Kaija Pakarinen, Kati Outinen, Lauri Untamo, Maria Järvenhelmi, Marko Haavisto, Matti Onnismaa, Milka Ahlroth, Mirja Oksanen, Niroz Haji, Nuppu Koivu, Olli Varja, Panu Vauhkonen, Puntti Valtonen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Sherwan Haji, Simon Al-Bazoon, Sulevi Peltola, Taneli Mäkelä, Timo Torikka, Tommi Eronen, Tommi Korpela, Tuomari Nurmio, Ville Virtanen

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Rating: Not Rated

This earnest documentary is about filmmaker and actress Maryam Zaree's journey to unravel the truth about her birth. Her parents are part of a generation of Iranian revolutionaries who were jailed, many executed, and now have taken exile in Europe. The torture and difficult prison conditions they experienced are cause for so much trauma that Maryam, born in prison, has not been told anything about her birth. Her mom, now Germany's first foreign-born mayor, cannot get past tears to tell a story that Maryam is determined to know. 

Her mom is not the only one who is unable to tell the story, as Maryam's quest uncovers more silence. In the end, Born in Evin is as much about the question of "is the truth worth getting told?" as it is about the truth itself. It's a heartfelt exploration of trauma, both for the generation that experienced it and for the generation that follows.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Marya Sirous, Maryam Zaree, Soraya Zangbari

Director: Maryam Zaree

Rating: Not Rated

Nisha, the daughter of conservative Pakistani immigrants in Oslo, finds ways to secretly go out with her Norwegian friends. She goes to parties, plays basketball, and dates.

One day, Nisha’s father catches her with a boy, bringing what he perceives as a great shame to the family. Nisha’s delicate balance is broken, and her family acts drastically: without telling her about their plans, they move her to Pakistan.

What Will People Say is based on its director and writer Iram Haq’s own experience being kidnapped to Pakistan and going back to Norway at age 16.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adil Hussain, Assad Siddique, Ekavali Khanna, Farrukh Jaffar, Jan Gunnar Røise, Jannat Zubair Rahmani, Kjersti Elvik, Lalit Parimoo, Maria Bock, Maria Mozhdah, Rohit Saraf, Sara Khorami, Sheeba Chaddha, Sunakshi Grover, Trine Wiggen

Director: Iram Haq

Rating: 12