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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Should cinematic Nazis speak English?

As BBC News noted this weekend, the recent films The Reader and Valkyrie have raised some questions about how accents should be handled on film, particularly by how these two films handle the same matter very differently. In The Reader, German characters who are supposedly speaking German to one another speak English with German accents. (Kate Winslet speaks in her native tongue with a put-on accent; native German speaker David Cross learned English for the role, but speaks it with a German accent.) But in Valkyrie — in which again all the characters are presumed to be speaking German to one another — everyone speaks in English with their own native accents, with many different English accents plus one American, one Dutch, and one German accent each among the main cast.

The issue of accents on film is far ranging one, so let’s limit this question to just instances such as these two films raise: Should cinematic Nazis speak English? If so, should they speak it with a German accent?

I’m in agreement with the BBC News piece, that it all depends on the context. I think both films work just fine in how they deal with the matter. What’s more, unless we insist that all movies actually be produced in the language they’re supposedly occuring in, it’s absurd for anyone to get upset about what accent an actor uses. Ragging on a bad performance of an accent is fine: but complaining that no actor, no matter how well she pulls off a nonnative accent, should be using a nonnative accent in whatever particular circumstance the complainer is complaining about, is ridiculous.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • bitchen frizzy

    What German accent should be used?

    Schwabian? Austrian? Prussian?

    Should each actor be required to learn the accent of his or her character’s region so that they have the right German accent?

    The articles don’t address this crucial point. All war movies will suck until Hollywood gets this right.

  • Mischief Maker

    Two Words:

    Robin Hood.

  • JoshDM

    I wonder what accent the characters in D0D SN0 use.

    Probably “murrrrrhhrhrhrhrhrhrhrh!!!!!!”. :)

  • Jan Willem

    Recent developments in the Roman Catholic church appear to suggest that an English accent is more suitable than ever for Nazis.

  • If a film works, with whatever accents, than I really don’t care. Off the topic of Nazis, but an example of a WTF moment with accent – Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October. I really liked that for the first few minutes everyone spoke Russian and than after an extreme closeup the camera pulls back and it’s all English – a mix of accents, including Connery’s Scottish/Russian whatever that was. But the movie the worked, so it didn’t matter.

  • JoshB

    I think it would be pretty distracting to hear a Nazi officer speak with a thick southern accent.

    I guess it depends on the audience. For a native German any English accent is probably unacceptable.

  • JasonJ

    I don’t know. The German language is very distinct and aggressive. I think that a movie that is dealing with the Holocaust would be more credible if German is spoken and English is subtitled. If everyone is speaking English, it would seem like it would soften the Nazis. That aggressive language is part and parcel to the experience. I am okay with movies like Valkyrie, but if they were all speaking German, it would bring it to the next level. Maybe too, because I lived in Germany, I like hearing the language even if it isn’t the most attractive.

  • Chris

    I think it rather depends on how we as the audience are supposed to feel about the characters, according to the filmmakers. If the Germans (or whatever non-Murikin group) are “bad,” then subtitles might bring that out more. Speaking in English gives American audiences more common ground with the “others” being presented.

    Personally, I’m fine with all subtitles. I don’t even notice them half the time, after watching so many non-English films, but other people are more picky.

  • Paul

    I like movies with characters speaking the language of the characters, too, but America doesn’t have enough bilingual actors to make this a viable option. Sure, in LotR they learned a little elvish, but they didn’t try spending all their time in it.

    I’ve heard that in the show “Frasier,” all of Daphene’s relatives speak with a different “English” accent: Manchester, Scottish, etc.

  • Mischief Maker (Mon Feb 02 09, 11:21AM):

    Two Words: Robin Hood.

    And Kevin Costner proved to us why it was a good idea in Thirteen Days. His Bostonian accent there was just about the most god-awful thing in the history of talkies.

  • English with a educated English accent — if it’s good enough for the Evil Galactic Empire, it’s good enough for me!

  • drew ryce

    WW2 era Germans in wide opening films should all speak English. Sub-titles mean that I will have to listen to everybody in the audience telling their companions what was just said.


    “Good” upper class Germans should sound like James Mason.
    “Bad” nazi type Germans should sound like Goldfinger.
    Apolitical lower class type Germans should sound like German immmigrants that have been living in Wisconson for 30 years.

  • Pat Mustard

    Apropos of nothing much; just watched Les Femmes de L’ombre (has the more prosaic title of ‘Female Agents’ in English).

    The actor, Moritz Bleibtreu – who plays a Nazi colonel at the webcenter of rather complicated plotting in and around Paris just before D-Day – seems to have no problem speaking German to his colleagues, French to the French (he is in Paris, after all) & English when appropriate (interrogating a British agent).

    Can’t comment vis-a-vis regional accents, but it all sounded pretty fluent. Bleibtreu’s German – wonder if that’s something to do with his lingustic abilities?

    Iikewise, the actor playing his opposite number in British Intelligence seemed to be able to switch between speaking French and English with relative ease…

  • MaSch

    JoshB: For *this* German native, any fake German accent would be quite unacceptable, and I don’t have an ear for the subtle nuances of English accents (cockney excluded). For most other German natives, they will see the film dubbed into German, so you don’t have to worry about what Germans feel about English accents.

    Oh, exception: Chaplin’s fake German accent was great.

  • german girl

    In this movie the whole cast were Germans except for Kate Winslet and Ralph Finnes. It was probably easier to make these two fake a German accent than for everybody else to fake an English or American accent… BTW: I watched the movie trailer and Kate Winslet’s and Ralph Finnes’ fake German accent was great!

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