Am I mistaken or is this a reasonable description of the last – say – thirty years in cinema.
A generation ago, you could do a film about foreigners in a normal English speaking accent. The Sound of Music was done in a mix of fairly unobtrusive (to us) English accents (the adults) and American accents (the kids). Some of the baddies spoke with a German accent. (OK so the Sound of Music was forty years ago. No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition). In Casablanca too, the Germans speak with a German accent I think, whilst Claude Rains has a kind of clear generalised international English speaking accent – I don’t think he tried to sound very French, although where people were to be presented with some ethnicity, they spoke English with an ethnic accent.
Anyway all this became decidedly non-U. It signified that the film wasn’t ‘realistic’ and as film sets were turfed out and we went ‘on location’ wherever and whenever, realism in the way people spoke became valued. So gradually accents came to be seen as corny, and where films involved interspersed scenes with different communities speaking languages other than English original languages were spoken and English subtitles were provided. Thus (IIRC) Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence would have had the Japanese speaking Japanese with subtitles. Even Tora Tora Tora did this I think – and that was 1968 (again from memory).
Anyway this spell seems to have been broken. There are now a whole bunch of films on the screens that seem to take us back to the production mores of the past – of The Sound of Music. In The Reader they put on German accents. In Valkirie they don’t bother. The German high command spend a lot of their time discussing tactics in all sorts of mainly British accents.
Anyway, for my taste I don’t mind translating other languages into English in a film – it makes it easier to watch. But I don’t like delivering that English in recognisable accents associated with other places and styles. Accents are very powerful things which body forth all sorts of implicit assertions about character. Imagine Hitler delivering a speech with a soft Irish accent or an Aussie accent or Mao with an upper class English accent. Of course you could say that playing Hitler or any other German as a person who speaks English with a German accent is just engaging in stereotyping. But for my money if you’re going to speak English, the only way to convey the German-ness of a person linguistically is with some kind of German accent (and of course there are lots of English speaking German accents to choose from – one can presumably make the accent quite lifelike if one goes to sufficient trouble.) I think Kate Winslett did this well in The Reader, even if I kept thinking how English she nevertheless seemed.
Anyway I wonder what others think about this burning issue of our time.