Out of Sync

Dubbing into German has been very succesful, but how does it change the movies?

On The Town | Janima Nam | September 2013

Photo: Warner Bros.

With all the rave reviews, the film Brokeback Mountain had been a must-see when I finally caught a German-language version in a Vienna cinema. A German-dubbed western is an unsettling experience. Phrases like "I reckon", and "I just can’t quit you!" spoken in lazy western drawls are more than lost in translation; they are just lost. Fully traumatised, I went back the next day to see the original version in a different theatre.

According to a European study cited in Wikipedia, Austria holds the highest rejection rate for subtitles (70%), with Italy, Spain, and Germany trailing closely behind. So foreign films shown in these countries are usually dubbed. This is usually attributed to the size of Europe’s German-speaking population, allowing for higher box office returns than in the smaller countries of Scandinavia and the East, where the less expensive subtitling prevails.

But is this the only reason?

In the 1930s, at the height of the Hollywood studio system with sound coming into its own, the quest for an international market led to the "multiple language version" method, in which the same film was shot in more than one language with different casts (e.g., The Big Trail – English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian!). This was an expensive process, so the invention of a recording system that could sync audio and video (by Austrian physicist Jakob Karol) in 1930 introduced a more affordable solution.

The dubbing option came at a pivotal time politically. In fascist Italy, where foreign films were completely banned by Mussolini in 1930, dubbing became an effective form of translation in which foreign influences could be kept in check, or even manipulated. In Germany, the turn towards extreme nationalism also made dubbing an appealing option. In 1942, Casablanca was not only dubbed but also entirely re-edited to remove all Nazi references.

Thus wartime nationalism supported local languages and minimal foreign influence, making dubbing the norm. A thriving industry was born.

Today, dubbing houses in Germany are well-established and the actors providing the voices for certain Hollywood icons can be just as famous themselves locally, providing many careers and even influencing modern slang.

From an aesthetic standpoint, dubbing has not been looked upon favourably by a number of well-known filmmakers. Both David Lynch and Jean Renoir have stated in no uncertain terms that they "hate dubbing". Lynch feels that it not only "destroys the actor’s performance, it changes the balance of sound".

But in dubbing countries, mainstream audiences are accustomed to this format. After all, "film is a visual experience," says Klaus Bauschulte, head of production at the German dubbing house, Berliner Synchron. "Having to read subtitles distracts the viewer."

But the preference for dubbing is more than just a matter of cost, history, habit, or aesthetics. Since the end of WWII, Western Europe has also faced a complex struggle with U.S. cultural hegemony, leading filmmakers like German Wim Wenders to admit spending his entire career addressing the Yankee "colonisation of the European subconscious".

Film scholar Antje Ascheid identified the conflicting needs of a "target culture", which "neutralises foreign elements" vs. a "source culture", which "stresses the foreign nature" of a film. In this increasingly globalised world, though, I still want to hear Humphrey Bogart’s closing line in Casablanca in his own voice:

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship".

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