Forget Holocaust guilt, traffic-light prudence and a heavy reliance on medicinal suppositories. The biggest culture-shock that Anglophone expats have to face in this country is the German love of dubbed films. Ben Knight meets the purveyors of the understated art of dubbing and asks, why do Germans like it so easy?
Nothing maddens the foreign movie purist more than the thought of a whole civilised country getting into James Bond without once hearing Sean Connery’s thick-lisped accent, or audiences being charmed by The Seven Year Itch without ever appreciating Marilyn Monroe’s smoky intonations. But the Germans can match this nostalgia with their own. Their love of old movie-stars is no smaller for being filtered through displaced voices – instead Germans reserve a quantum of extra patriotic sentiment for that unseen German actor in the studio. By tradition and practice, German audiences have been primed to conflate a separate voice and face into a single person.
And for many Germans, subtitles are the more imperfect way to translate a film. “I don’t go to the cinema to read!” one film-fan and dubbing-script writer said, “Film is a visual art-form – the cinematography has been carefully composed. Those big fat white letters on the screen are a lot more destructive than a foreign voice. Besides, for reasons of space, a subtitle-script has to be a lot shorter than a dubbing-script, so you lose a lot with subtitles.”
To enhance recognisability and to fortify the dubbing-illusion, it has long been standard practice to get the same German voice to shadow an American actor from film to film. And so whole German careers rise and fall on the backs of their Hollywood originals. Christian Brückner has built an illustrious four-decade career on being the German voice of Robert De Niro since 1974’s The Godfather II. While his ability to keep the voice is based on his own considerable power as a voice-actor, De Niro’s prolific career clearly helped him achieved this status.
Not everyone can pull this off – Al Pacino has been dubbed by at least seven different actors over the years – but Klaus Bauschulte, head of production at Berliner Synchron, a major German dubbing studio, is candid about the role that chance plays, “The actor who gets the voice of Brad Pitt or Leonardo diCaprio has won the lottery, obviously.” So spare a thought for Dietmar Schönherr, the original and only voice of James Dean.
The identification of a Hollywood face with a certain German voice is so ingrained that when a well-recognised voice is suddenly switched, swathes of the German audience tune out – confused, bored, feeling cheated. The only American analogy could be the poignant episode of the Muppet Show that followed Jim Henson’s death. Kermit just wasn’t Kermit anymore.
The emotional indignation among audiences can get particularly heavy when a voice is changed for any reason other than death or serious illness. When the voice of Robert Redford was switched for the 2007 film Lions For Lambs because Redford’s regular German speaker Rolf Schult was reckoned as past it (he was 80, Redford 71), internet forums erupted with outrage. There was a homely affection for the ‘German’ Robert Redford, and the anger was exacerbated when word got out that the decision had been made by a representative of the film’s American production company.
Officially titled ‘creative supervisors,’ these representatives are sent to oversee the dubbing of foreign versions of films, and their input is not always appreciated by the public: “So once again someone has decided they have a clue when they don’t… it’s enough to drive you up the wall!” said one disgruntled forum user. Another chatter gave a more sober judgement: “I hate supervisors. I want continuity.”
The figure of a dark corporate drone being sent from the USA to interfere and make decisions that rob German audiences of their beloved voices hangs over the entire German dubbing industry. But it is not especially accurate. The supervisors are always proficient in the target language, native in the original language, and they are often close to the post-production teams of the original films, and so have some insight into the creative intentions involved.
Alexander Löwe, a prominent dubbing-script writer, says, “I’ve never understood colleagues who complain about the creative supervisors’ influence. For me, they are always a help. That’s what they are there for. It doesn’t matter how well I speak English, there will always be things I don’t understand. As for Robert Redford in Lions for Lambs, I swear no-one could really tell the difference.”
But Löwe has seen a pernicious American influence coming from another source: the director. Löwe still rankles when he thinks of how Wolfgang Petersen, one of the major German directors in Hollywood, decided to choose a new German voice for Brad Pitt in Troy. “It was a crime against the German audience. It was totally unnecessary,” he says.
Many independent directors oversee the dubbing of their own pictures: Tom Tykwer directed the German track of his 2002 movie Heaven, Michael Haneke did the same for his 2001 film La Pianiste, substituting the regular voice of Isabelle Huppert along the way. If their German is not so expert, some suspicious auteurs, like Jim Jarmusch with his movie Broken Flowers, will have the translation of their script re-translated into English to check for errors.
Hollywood’s jealous concern for the foreign versions of its movies is as old as talking movies. In the 1930’s, Laurel and Hardy resorted to re-shooting entire movies in stumbling French and German for their overseas markets. But once technology had developed enough to allow separate sound and visual tracks to be recorded, the new dubbing industry was born. Shortly after World War II, when America’s influence in Europe was at its most benevolent culturally and most generous financially, film-dubbing boomed in Germany. Divining the potential market of a war-weary Germany, large Hollywood studios effectively established a kind of cultural Marshall Plan, and funded the creation of professional German dubbing studios. They also demanded that German stars speak the roles of American stars, and made credit sequences that credited them too.
Throughout the 50s and 60s German dubbing studios refined the art of dubbing – creating their own sound effects, experimenting with different soundstage constructions to achieve different voice effects – until the art of it became, in the unforgiving phrase of dubbing director Erik Paulsen, “totally abstract.”
Today, actors almost always record their roles on their own in a dark room, with the film on a screen in front of them, a cutter at their elbow checking synchronicity, and a director and a sound technician somewhere behind giving instructions through microphones and a pane of glass. The pleasure of acting with another actor – that is, recording dialogue simultaneously – is usually only a luxury the older ones remember. This is partly for technical reasons – if you have all the actors on separate tracks it is a lot easier to synchronise the voices to the lips – and partly the result of perceived time pressures on productions. But there are exceptions. Susanna Bonasewicz, dubbing director and regular voice of Isabelle Huppert (among many others), says she always prefers to have her actors recording together.
One dubbing scriptwriter speculates why: “I remember sitting in on a dubbing session of a film about the artist Modigliani – it was an emotional scene, a group of people around his deathbed – and I looked up and saw all the actors with their arms round each other crying. I just thought, you have to be able to hear that.”
PROFESSION: DUBBING ACTOR
Dubbing actors, unseen as they are, insist that what they do is real acting. There is a lot of technical skill required – speaking fast and clearly under pressure, synchronising, mimicking intonation patterns – but there is also emotional involvement. “You need good actors, you can’t just have good speakers, or you could get newsreaders to do it. Theoretically they have to be able to play the roles themselves,” says Bonasewicz.
Brückner, the voice of De Niro, is also sure that there is more to his peculiar expertise than a technical craft. “You have to be able to work fast and speak precisely, but you also have to be able to invest a lot of imagination in it, so that you don’t just convey the scene but the whole life and environment of the character.”
Brückner is credited with creating a new dubbing style in the early 70’s – one that was better suited to the new independent style of American film-making – the histrionic diction that grew out of German theatre was left behind, words were occasionally allowed to be slurred – in short, naturalism emerged.
PRESSURE ON THE DUBBING INDUSTRY
But since around that time, by Bonasewicz’s estimate, the meticulous energy invested in the illusion of dubbing is coming at a higher and higher cost. The avalanche of imported American TV shows has swelled the market for dubbing, but has increased the time and budget pressures on studios, and quality has suffered. While cinema releases still get high-standard dubbing, there is evidence that corners get cut here too. Visual dubbing, for instance, where onscreen letters or signs are re-made and re-shot in different languages, hardly ever gets done anymore.
Hollywood’s determination to beat online pirating of major films has resulted in global release dates, which means that foreign versions are sometimes made while the films are still in post-production. In extreme cases, translators wrestle with different versions of scripts, and new cuts of films have to be re-dubbed.
The defining intercultural tension of dubbing is also the main artistic one: the Hollywood studios, represented by their cultural supervisor, and the dubbing studios spend their time hammering out a compromise on what is authentic and what they think a German audience will accept. It is a perennial struggle to stop gaps and cheat the urge for perfection, but whatever compromises the two sides have to accept, for Germans, it will always be better than reading subtitles.
This article first appeared in EXBERLINER magazine in February 2009.