What’s with accents?

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.

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Down and Out of Saigon
Down and Out of Saigon
12 years ago

But for my money if youre 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.)

When Hitler was orating, he could change his accent to match his audience. The default (according to this Antimoon thread) “was a sort of synthetic concoction, mixing some sort of Bavarian assertiveness with a deliberate imitation of Prussian harshness”. In private, it was some sort of “lower-class” Austrian.

Hypothetically, if one was doing yet, yet another film about Hitler without the corny German accents, he wouldn’t be delivering a speech “with a soft Irish accent or an Aussie accent”. It would be trans-Atlantic English; he wanted to connect to as many people as possible, and trans-Atlantic is probably the closest equivalent.

But if the film depictedHitler in private, his accent would depend on how much a nasty smartarse the director was, where (s)he was from, and level of snobbery. Ocker Strine? Newfie? Glaswegian? Appalachian? Liverpuddlian? Belfast Irish? The possibilities are endless and horrendous.

Kevin Rennie
12 years ago

One of the best things about Good is the lack of German accents. I suppose the Germans cinemagoers who don’t speak English (are there any?)will need sub-titles.

Nabakov
Nabakov
12 years ago

According to some elderly Ukrainians I once got pissed with, Stalin on the radio came across as just a bit too Deep Southern folksy in both accent and idiom – not unlike a Georgian version of LBJ or Dubya style Texian y’all.

In the US film industry, a RADA-style accent equals serious “cultured” acting. Therefore casting suchlike emoters as villains means they’re hoping a “name” accent will add complexity and character to otherwise one-dimensional scriptwriting.

“yes, but what’s his motivation?”
“He’s an upper class English prick.”
“Aha! I wonder if Jeremy Irons is working again.”

And Hitler was Austrian. The Germans apparently regard the Austrian accent as a bit smartarse provincial. Not unlike Southern England’s view of “eeh bah gom” Lancashire comics.

Nabakov
Nabakov
12 years ago

I’m reminded now of that sardonic German one-liner about Austria.

“The place’s greatest achievement was convincing the world Mozart was an Austrian and Hitler a German.”

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

I think using regional English accents often works when you’re making a movie about foreigners and want to convey that some characters come from different and particular background. A generalised German accent in English doesn’t convey that Hitler was an self-educated person from the boondocks who would try and shape his accent according to his audience – but you could convey that with the right choice of English accents. Like other ways of dubbing, this can of course be done badly or well.

It’s a technique George Bernard Shaw used in St Joan. His Joan had a thick Geordie accent that contrasted with the RP of her persecutors.