“Say I love you to someone, but say it in German because life is confusing and scary,” goes one version of this popular meme. Life, emotions, and the question of how to express deeply felt sentiments are fraught with options. And surprising as it may sound, German songs are the best when it comes to expressing the emotion of love.
The Italians might make dramatic declarations (they are, after all, inventors of the opera), and the English might have catchy lyrics (“please love me do, I know I love you”), but the Germans capture the reality of love with direct precision. Of course, kitschy pop songs and sentimental ballads exist in every language — just listen to Helene Fischer — but the best German love songs contain a particular quality. It is one that mixes realism with authentic emotion, giving these songs a deep, sincere tone that resonates.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of the best German love songs that you may or may not have heard about (shout out to the early 2000s)!
Mensch, by Herbert Grönemeyer
Mensch (Human) is the title song of the album that Herbert Grönemeyer released after the death of his wife, actress Anna Henkel-Grönemeyer. The pair were together for 20 years, had two children, and were seen as the perfect showbiz couple in the German-speaking world.
But instead of grieving his wife’s passing by wailing, “Can’t live if living is without you” (I’m looking at you Celine Dion), Mensch hits a more sober, down-to-earth note.
The first line of the chorus simply states, “Und es ist, es ist okay” (And it is, it is okay). He paints a picture of his days as “unbeschwert und frei” (carefree and light) — a surprising choice of words. As the song progresses, descriptions of the sun versus the cloudless skies contribute to a mood of disconnection. The singer is lost, “Ohne Plan, ohne Geleit” (without a plan, without guidance). His telephone bills remain unpaid, and it hurts.
Life’s momentum forces him forward. As he points out in the song, “Mensch ist Mensch” (humans are human), because they remember and they fight, they hope and love, they laugh and they live. The last line of the chorus brings us back to the initial grief, stating, “Du fehlst” (You are missing).
It’s not so much “I can’t live without you,” as “life is going on, but without you” which is altogether more realistic. The single was a number-one hit in Germany, and Grönemeyer went on to collaborate with U2 to create an English rendition of the song. However, some of the subtleties of language and wordplay were lost in translation.
An interesting counterpoint to this song is “Anna,” a track that Grönemeyer wrote when his wife was still alive. Here again, there is a juxtaposition between realism and emotion. He describes her as not very friendly on one hand, but on the other hand, admits that he needs her.
Am Ende denk ich immer nur an Dich, by Element Of Crime
How do you express the emotion of love without using those three words “I love you”? The phrase is so overused in love songs that it no longer touches us. Enter master lyricist Sven Regener of Element Of Crime.
He starts this song by painting a street scene; a parked car, a child playing on the swings, the child’s mother watching nearby. Into this reality, Regener weaves in lines of love. In what may be the most German automobile-obsessed line ever, he compares the metallic brown of the car to the hair of the person on his mind. It may be a pedestrian simile, but it also recalls the title of the song: Am Ende denk ich immer nur an Dich (In the end, I always only think of you).
The scene progresses and the lyrics loop around each other, lacing everything with love. By the time he paints a scene of a child eating ice cream, inquiring how many strawberry ice creams it takes to decide that you’re in favour of them, we no longer know whether he is talking about ice cream or committing to one you love. As listeners, we begin to experience what the singer is experiencing: In the end, no matter what he’s actually experiencing, he is always thinking about his love.
Sven Regener is the Leonard Cohen of the German-speaking world — in fact, he even wrote literature like Cohen did. Other songs that convey the feeling of longing and being in love include Seit der Himmel (Since Heaven) or Und du Wartes (And you wait).
Du hast den farbfilm Vegessen, Nina Hagen
This one always compels some debate, but what are discussions about favourite songs without a little controversy?
Welcome, the formidable Nina Hagen, who, if we return to the meme at the beginning of this post, brings the “scary and confusing” aspect to the topic of love. In this song, she rages at her boyfriend Micha for forgetting to bring colour film on holiday.
In a single instance, the singer conveys the absence of resilience felt at the end of a relationship, when every single annoyance feels magnified. But there’s more to it.
In a wider context, the lack of coloured film represents the end of the honeymoon phase, when everything feels lighter and more saturated with life. It also expresses the particular frustration of living in East Germany, where everything was grey, restricted to black and white, and where colour film was literally in short supply.
Grounded in both analogy and reality, the anger and frustration in Nina’s voice spoke to many people when it was released in 1974, making it a top hit in East Germany.
Other songs that mix the personal and the political and were born out of the Cold War include Udo Lindenberg’s “Mädchen aus Ostberlin” (Girl from East Berlin). The song is about a guy meets a girl on a trip to the East, but has to cut their love story short because they live on different sides of the wall.
As you can see, all of these songs present a realistic, multi-dimensional picture of love. Contemporary German artists who continue this tradition of examining love in all its complexity include Jasmin Stocker, otherwise known as Mine, who tackles love with a philosophical bent. Her album “Klebstoff” (Glue) is sticky with intelligent love songs. For a more moody take, try Larissa Sirah Herden, or Lary, who combines the passion and melancholy of love in her aptly named album “Hart-Fragil” (Hard-Fragile).
If a simple “I love you” does not speak to you any longer, it might be time to delve into German love songs like these.