With a plethora of films about Nazi Germany released in the past few months, a curious problem has once again presented itself. How do you present, to American audiences, the language of the characters in a story that is set in a foreign country? How should the conversation between two Germans or two Frenchman sound?
Historically, there have been three solutions:
- they speak plain English to each other, as if it were their native tongue.
- they speak the foreign language and the English translation is offered in subtitles along the bottom of the screen
- they speak in English but with an accent
- they speak English but with varying accents, dependent upon their social status or ethnicity within the larger language group.
Here are some salient points:
1. people do not talk with an “accent” when speaking to each other in their native tongue. They don’t sound to each other like immigrants. They don’t sound somewhat comical to each other.
2. …but people do have accents– peculiarities of pronunciation and rhythms native to a particular region– even when speaking their native tongues. So, in one sense, people do talk to each other with accents, but not in a language foreign to their ethnicity
3. in the 1960’s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”, Schultz and Klink talked to each other with thick, comical German accents– the same way they talked to the English speaking prisoners. The purpose of this was obviously to ridicule the Germans.
4. Many people don’t like subtitles and won’t see a movie that has them.
5. People like me despise “dubbing”– badly matched spoken English recorded over top of the native language spoken by the actors. It looks and sounds ridiculous because, for one thing, it is almost impossible to synchronize perfectly, and, for another, the characteristics of the studio audio are obviously different from the room in which the actors are filmed.
6. Some films have actually been shot twice: once in French or German or whatever, and once in English.
The best solution by a large margin is for actors to speak in the native tongue of the characters they are playing with subtitles. The second best option is to speak plain, fluent English, as in “Downfall”:
How the Problem Has
Been Handled in the Past:
- Night of the Generals: the characters speak normal, fluent English to each other
- Night of the Long Knives: Can’t find this one anywhere.
- Downfall: the characters all speak fluent German — subtitles in English.
- Last 10 Days of Hitler (Alec Guinness) : Fluent English.
- The Bunker (Anthony Hopkins): fluent English with a slight guttural edge.
- Schindler’s List: the characters speak fluent English.
- The Pianist: the main characters (Polish Jews) all speak fluent English– the Germans speak German (with subtitles). This works very well.
- Is Paris Burning? I can’t figure it out. Some characters have a thick accent, but others speak fluent English, with a kind of heavy, guttural spin to it. You tell me. Maybe the director left it up to each actor to solve his own accent problem.