14 Best Movies to Watch From ZDF/Arte

Staff & contributors

Transit is based on a WWII novel — though you wouldn’t be able to tell from first glance. While the characters talk of German fascists occupying France, anachronistic details (like modern technology and clothing) suggest we haven’t gone back in time at all. Director Christian Petzold isn’t trying to confuse us: by blurring the backdrop, he’s making the terror and the desperation of the story more immediate — removing the distance that might have prevented us from really feeling what happens.

The uncanny historical echo effect works as intended, because the parallels Transit subtly draws between the past and today are horribly clear. What’s more, the movie’s intentionally ambiguous framing suffuses the plot with an otherworldly sense of mystery, a quality that gradually intensifies as Georg (Franz Rogowski) desperately searches for a one-way ticket out of hellish bureaucratic limbo before he finds himself waylaid by that most mysterious emotion of all: love. Unshakably haunting and undeniably poignant, this is a movie that will live under your skin.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Àlex Brendemühl, Antoine Oppenheim, Barbara Auer, Emilie de Preissac, Franz Rogowski, Godehard Giese, Grégoire Monsaingeon, Justus von Dohnányi, Lilien Batman, Louison Tresallet, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brandt, Paula Beer, Ronald Kukulies, Sebastian Hülk, Trystan Putter

Director: Christian Petzold

Quaint and quirky, Le Havre is a beautiful and heartwarming story about the power of compassion and the importance of community. It tells the story of a shoeshiner who tries to save an immigrant child in the French port city of Le Havre. The charming characters are easy to root for as this community of everyday people bands together to help this young boy reunite with his mother. Even as the film rejects the unempathetic responses to the refugee crisis, it utilizes gentle humor and a light cadence to invoke empathy for others that should exist.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: André Wilms, Corinne Belet, Elina Salo, Evelyne Didi, Ilkka Koivula, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Kati Outinen, Patrick Bonnel, Pierre Étaix

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

This Oscar-nominated drama tells the story of the events leading up to the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8372 Bosnian Muslims were killed. It focuses on one U.N. worker who was caught between trying to protect her family, herself, and helping people in need.

The film is as horrific as it is relevant: up until the actual killing starts, people are constantly being assured that everything is under control and that there is no reason to panic. This gives an eerie feeling of resemblance to the tone many minorities in distress receive nowadays.

Still, Quo Vadis, Aida? stops at depicting any of the acts that were committed that day. Instead, it focuses on Aida’s unrelenting race against the clock to save whatever she can.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alban Ukaj, Boris Isaković, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrović, Dražen Pavlović, Emina Muftić, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Ermin Bravo, Ermin Sijamija, Izudin Bajrović, Jasna Đuričić, Job Raaijmakers, Joes Brauers, Johan Heldenbergh, Juda Goslinga, Micha Hulshof, Raymond Thiry, Reinout Bussemaker, Rijad Gvozden, Sanne den Hartogh, Sol Vinken, Teun Luijkx

Director: Jasmila Žbanić

Five orphaned sisters are put under house arrest by their uncle and grandmother after they are seen horsing around with local boys from school. While their actions were purely innocent, their behavior is viewed as scandalous and shameful by the conservative elders in their small Turkish village. After this incident, their grandmother turns her attention towards marrying off her granddaughters. Each of the five sisters rebel in their own way, but it is the youngest and rowdiest sister, Lale, who is the central protagonist of the film. She watches helplessly as each of her older sisters is married off with an increasing sense of dread and desperation. While this may sound hopelessly depressing, the movie is equal parts beautiful and tragic and floats across the screen in a dreamlike manner. Not all of the sisters escape their oppressive surroundings or their assigned fate, but the message is clear: it’s crucial to try.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoğlu, Bahar Kerimoğlu, Burak Yiğit, Burak Yigit, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Erol Afsin, Güneş Nezihe Şensoy, Günes Sensoy, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal Koldaş, Nihal Koldaş, Tugba Sunguroglu

Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Rating: PG-13

The magic of this movie — and every other one directed by Aki Kaurismäki — is in the way it inspires so much hope despite the darkness of its subject. When a man (Markku Peltola) is beaten and robbed one night, he wakes up without any memory of who he is. Forced to start life all over again, he’s subjected to yet more cruelty at the hands of a greedy slum landlord and callous authorities, but finds sympathy and support from his equally downtrodden neighbors. Though the street thugs have emptied his wallet, the unquestioning generosity of the people around him suggests he’s now richer than he was at the film’s outset — as does the sweetly simple romance he strikes up with a lonely Salvation Army worker (Kati Outinen). 

Kaurismäki doesn’t just make films about the disenfranchised for the sake of it: he shows us how easy — and yet momentous — acts of human kindness and solidarity can be, how radical they are in a bleak world. It’s not often a movie can so persuasively reassure us of people’s inherent goodness, but it’s even rarer still for it to be done with as much deceptive, charming simplicity as here.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Aarre Karén, Aino Seppo, Andrey Chernyshov, Anneli Sauli, Antti Reini, Elina Salo, Esko Nikkari, Janne Hyytiäinen, Juhani Niemelä, Kaija Pakarinen, Kati Outinen, Liisa Mustonen, Markku Peltola, Olli Varja, Outi Mäenpää, Panu Vauhkonen, Pentti Auer, Pertti Sveholm, Sakari Kuosmanen, Silu Seppälä, Sulevi Peltola, Vesa Mäkelä

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

As a crime thriller, Holy Spider is taut and terrifying, a modern noir that manages to unnerve despite the familiar moves it employs. The cat and mouse chase between serial killer and investigative reporter, for instance, is a classic tale, but that doesn’t make Holy Spider any less gripping. The film benefits from artful camerawork, considered acting (as the daring journalist Rahimi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi nabbed the Best Actress award at Cannes), and most of all a nuanced take on the situation in Iran. 

Despite having a clear stance against violence and corruption, nothing in Holy Spider is black and white. Contradictions abound, and even when presented with brief moments of justice, we’re left scratching our heads looking for more. Such is the case when the system, and not just an individual, is the true pest. 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Alice Rahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Ariane Naziri, Majd Eid, Mehdi Bajestani, Nima Akbarpour, Sara Fazilat, Sina Parvaneh, Zar Amir Ebrahimi

Director: Ali Abbasi

The Square is a peculiar movie about a respected contemporary art museum curator as he goes through a few very specific events. He loses his wallet, his children fight, the art he oversees is does not make sense to an interviewer... Each one of these events would usually require a precise response but all they do is bring out his insecurities and his illusions about life. These reactions lead him to very unusual situations. A thought-provoking and incredibly intelligent film that's just a treat to watch. If you liked Force Majeure by the same director, The Square is even better!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anna-Stina Malmborg, Annica Liljeblad, Christopher Læssø, Christopher Laesso, Claes Bang, Daniel Hallberg, Denise Wessman, Dominic West, Elijandro Edouard, Elisabeth Moss, Emelie Beckius, Geica Pruteanu, Jan Lindwall, Johan Jonason, John Nordling, Julia Sporre, Lilianne Mardon, Linda Anborg, Lise Stephenson Engström, Lise Stephenson Engström, Madeleine Barwén Trollvik, Marina Schiptjenko, Martin Sooder, Moa Enqvist Stefansdotter, Nicki Dar, Pauline Hansson, Peter Vitanen, Sarah Giercksky, Sofie Hamilton, Stefan Godicke, Terry Notary

Director: Ruben Östlund

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

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

The film for which Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win the César Award. The Twilight star turned indie prodigy plays next to another award favorite, Juliette Binoche, as her assistant. When rehearsing for the play that launched her career many years earlier, Binoche's character, Maria, blurs the line between fiction and reality, her old age and her assistant's young demeanor, and the romance story portrayed in the play and her own life. The movie itself is stylized as a play, adding another interesting layer of artistic creativity to the complex plot line. A film for film lovers.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aljoscha Stadelmann, Angela Winkler, Ben Posener, Benoit Peverelli, Brady Corbet, Caroline De Maigret, Chloë Grace Moretz, Claire Tran, Gilles Tschudi, Hanns Zischler, Jakob Köhn, Jerry Kwarteng, Johnny Flynn, Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Luise Berndt, Nora von Waldstätten, Nora Waldstätten, Ricardia Bramley, Sean McDonagh, Steffen Mennekes, Stuart Manashil

Director: Olivier Assayas

Rating: R

, 2004

Director Wong Kar-Wai made this loose sequel to one of the best films ever made, his 2000 classic In the Mood for Love. Much of the story is set around Christmas eve.

In the far future, people take a train to the world of 2046, where no sadness or sorrow can be experienced. No one has ever returned from that world except for a lonely Japanese writer, who narrates the first part of the film.

There are four acts to the story and as is common to Wong Kar-Wai, they are listed in non-chronological order. Not that you will care but 2046 is far from confusing. Instead, it functions as a dazzling visual poem on unreciprocated love.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction

Actor: Akina Hong, Akina Hong Wah, Ben Yuen, Ben Yuen Foo-Wah, Benz Kong To-Hoi, Berg Ng, Carina Lau, Chang Chen, Chen Chang, Ching Siu-Lung, Dong Jie, Farini Cheung, Farini Cheung Yui-Ling, Faye Wong, Gong Li, Jie Dong, Li Gong, Maggie Cheung, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Ping Lam Siu, Ronny Ching Siu-Lung, Siu Ping-lam, Takuya Kimura, Thongchai McIntyre, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Ziyi Zhang

Director: Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Rating: R

Incorporating traditional animation, Surrealist art style, and scenes from Luis Buñuel’s own films, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a portrait of a brilliant yet eccentric artist who is stubborn in his ideals. The film is a series of dreams—visions from a life often disrupted by war and ideology—but is more structured and coherent than its inspirations, and striking in the commentary it makes on art. Within the film's story, Buñuel's character initially takes on a documentary project through a more dramatic and staged approach that separates him from his crew and his producer Acín. However, his nightmares stemming from childhood trauma eventually lead him to focus on the people he’s filming and advocating for. Historical yet surreal, highly political yet personal, this film is an apt celebration of a divisive artist.

Genre: Animation, Drama, History

Actor: Fermín Núñez, Fernando Ramos, Gabriel Latorre, Javier Balas, Jorge Usón, Pepa Gracia, Rachel Lascar, Salvador Simó

Director: Salvador Simó

Rating: PG-13

A wonderful homage to the woman, actress, and mother based largely on her own archives and interviews with her four children. Bergman was an avid photographer, filmographer and letter writer. What emerges is a loving portrait of an adventurous, driven, complex, and loving woman. Not to be missed.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Alan Marshal, Alberto Sordi, Aldo Fabrizi, Alfred Hitchcock, Alicia Vikander, Alma Reville, Anatole Litvak, Anna Magnani, Anthony Perkins, Cary Grant, Cecil Parker, Clark Gable, Ed Sullivan, Ernest Borgnine, Fiorella Mariani, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Ingmar Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini, Isotta Rossellini, Jack Weston, Jean Renoir, Jeanine Basinger, Jennifer Jones, Liv Ullmann, Lyle Talbot, Mel Ferrer, Merv Griffin, Mervyn LeRoy, Pia Lindström, Roberto Rossellini, Sigourney Weaver, Spencer Tracy, Victor Fleming, Ward Bond, Yul Brynner

Director: Stig Björkman

Rating: Not Rated

, 2023

There's something rich at the heart of Afire that, whether intentionally or not, is kept at arm's length from the viewer. Over the course of Leon's (Thomas Schubert) quiet summer retreat to work on the manuscript for his second book, we come to understand his generally irritable nature as not just creative but existential. Through his eyes and writer-director Christian Petzold's expertly restrained sensibilities for drama, every moment becomes tinged with a vague jealousy—insecurity about other people leading satisfied lives, and his inability to let anything be without finding fault in it first. Leon is meant to be difficult to sympathize with, but at his core is an emptiness that comes with the acknowledgement of how limited one's future really is.

And on the opposite end is Nadja (Paula Beer), a woman who just happens to be staying at the same vacation home due to an overlap in booking, whom Leon sees as a reminder for everything he lacks: romance, thoughtful attentiveness, and a love of life that helps her to stop focusing on what she thinks she lacks. The film stops short of having these characters undergo change that feels truly meaningful, but just seeing them dance around each other with a sharpening tension is well worth the experience.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Enno Trebs, Esther Esche, Jennipher Antoni, Langston Uibel, Matthias Brandt, Paula Beer, Thomas Schubert

Director: Christian Petzold

Rating: NR