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Why Do Movie Germans Have British Accents?

November 30th, 2005

HBO’s current series, Rome, of course has to be broadcast in English for its American audience (god forbid we should have to read subtitles). But one question some have asked is, why do the Romans speak with British accents?

This is a common phenomenon, it seems–remember all those WWII films you saw where the Germans also spoke with British accents? It seems that whenever Hollywood has a large number of cast members supposedly speaking some European language, they’ve gotta have Brit accents. Maybe the idea is that if a European person were to study English, they’d learn from a Briton, and therefore they’d have a British accent. Or maybe the producers just think it sounds classy. But it still comes across as strange, when you think about it.

A similar question is why actors can’t be cast correctly in terms of ethnicity. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen supposedly Japanese characters on TV shows portrayed by people who don’t know any Japanese, and use incorrect accents. It can’t be that hard to find actors who actually speak the language, can it?

Geisha-Poster1One example is the new film, Memoirs of a Geisha, which has stirred some controversy in Asia because it uses Chinese actors to fill Japanese roles. Some Japanese are upset that Japanese actors were not used for the film, shot in California. But some Chinese are even angrier, some suggesting violence against the Chinese stars for having sold out and taken roles representing China’s former imperial oppressors, from their point of view. One Chinese blogger even said, “She’s sold her soul and betrayed her country. Hacking her to death would not be good enough.” Well, isn’t that special?

On the one hand, I suppose it’s not such a big deal, and seems more than a little territorial: after all, no one would even blink if an actor of German descent played the role of a Russian, so long as they could play the role well enough. Peter Sellers played American, British, and German parts in Dr. Strangelove, and pulled it off with aplomb (though I’m not sure what native Germans might have thought of his performance). There must be countless times when European actors crossed ethnic lines, like a French actor playing an Italian (Gérard Depardieu played the Italian Columbus–though that may be a bad example), or an Italian actor playing a Spanish role, and so on and so on. So why should a Chinese actor playing a Japanese character be a problem, so long as they don’t sound funny?

On the other hand, why not use actors of the right ethnicity? It can come across as the filmmakers being lazy, not caring, or even as insulting–as if, for example, Japanese actors with enough skill to play the roles could not be found.

What I’m waiting for is a movie set in Japan, filmed with a fully bilingual cast; they could shoot the film in English and Japanese (a few extra takes for dialog scenes being all that is required), and release the film in both languages without the need for dubbing or subtitles. Does anyone know if that’s been done before?

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  1. November 30th, 2005 at 01:56 | #1

    In the case of Rome, the Romans have British accents because it’s a joint production of HBO and BBC and was made in Europe (at Cinecitta Studios just outside of Rome) with British (rather than Hollywood) actors.

  2. Luis
    November 30th, 2005 at 02:02 | #2

    Well, okay, I’ll give you that. But still, why not use accents more appropriate to the language? Yes, because of distaste for subtitles, the language is not the one used by the people portrayed, but if there’s to be an accent, why not one fitting to the scene? How much money is spent to make costumes, sets, props, everything look authentic, and then just completely ignore the spoken language in the same context?

  3. Tim Kane
    November 30th, 2005 at 04:04 | #3

    This was a good topic to bring up. I think if you have to “anglisize” foreigners do it the way Hogan’s Heroes did it, with foreign accents. To me the most lamentable version of English English accents was in “Enemy at the Gates”.

    This movie takes a look at the battle of Stalingrad from the Russian perspective. It was a war fought by the Russia Soviet Government which fed Russia’s enormous working class and peasant stock into the gristmill that was the battle of Stalingrad.

    Somehow all the Russians have English accents. And not just English accents, but largely the proper Queens accent and much of the queens sense of manners and propriety too. That just gets on my nerves.

    That battle was fought and won by working class and peasants and should be represented as much as possible in that light if for no other reason than to honor their efforts and give them credit where it is long overdue. Furthermore “Enemy at the Gates” has Joseph Fiennes of “Shakespeare In Love” fame in a prominent role and he always comes accross as just all so pompous, self centered and self ingratiating. I wish he’d find another line of work other than mucking up otherwise fine films.

    I don’t care if they used English actors, they haed to portray working class people and instead they portrayed upper class people in working class situations. I would have prefered fake Russian accents. To quote Sargent Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes “I hear nothing”.

  4. Paul
    November 30th, 2005 at 06:18 | #4

    Actually, it strikes me as a bit silly to worry about the accent that someone speaks with if they’re not speaking the language that their character would be speaking.

    Okay, that might not make any sense. Let me start anew. :)

    If I’m watching a film set, say, in World War II, the German characters should probably be speaking… German. I mean, I seriously doubt that a meeting of the German high command would be standing around their map table, pushing little tanks here and there, but speaking in English.

    So if we shoot the film in English (which makes sense if it’s being made by and for English-speaking people), why on earth does it seem “more authentic” if the German dudes are speaking with a German accent?

    The very fact that they’re speaking *English* pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? What’s the difference if they speak it with an American accent, an English accent, a German accent, or a Russian accent? They’re saying ENGLISH words- obviously they’re Germans, they wouldn’t be speaking English, so why should it matter what accent they speak in?

    And yet… somehow it DOES matter! It just seems better if they’re speaking with a German accent.

    Beats me why. :)

    Personally, I don’t mind subtitles, but I read fast enough that I can zip down, scan ’em, and get back up to the screen fast enough to catch the emotions on the actors’ faces.

    But I can totally understand why people who don’t read that quickly (I’m not a speed reader or anything, but I do read pretty dang fast) would find subtitled movies less preferable to dubbed ones, or movies simply shot in the viewer’s language.

    Still, for me, just as somehow watching German guys speak English in a British accent loses something over if they spoke English in a German accent, I think a movie set in a foreign land or language loses something if the characters don’t speak that language. I prefer subtitled movies.

    For example, I have the DVD of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and I tried watching the English-dubbed version. It was awful. You can get used to the fact that the words don’t match the movements of the characters’ mouths, but somehow watching that movie subtitled works a lot better for me.

    I am afraid, though, Luis, those of us who prefer realistic-language movies with subtitles are just screwed, at least when it comes to their theater and TV releases. The economics of it work out in such a way that most of the time, they’re going to do dubs or accented-English, because that’s just how the majority of the viewing public prefers it.

    Fortunately, DVDs are here, with their multiple-language and multiple-subtitle capabilities, and hopefully we’ll have more and more movies shot as you describe- in various versions that make sense and give more options to the viewing audience.

    Now, about ethnicity. Depending on the part, the character’s ethnicity might or might not matter. For example, the character of Lincoln Rhyme, the paralyzed criminalist genius who solves crimes from his bed or wheelchair, was (to my recollection) never written to be a black guy.

    (And perhaps it says something about me and my prejudices that when I first read the books by Jeffery Deaver, I pictured Rhyme as a white guy- as though a paralyzed brainiac can’t be a black guy?)

    But when they made a movie, they cast Denzel Washington as Rhyme… and it made no difference. The character could be black or white, either way. He could have been Asian, for all that it matters, although “Lincoln Rhyme” is a name that wouldn’t work too well for an Asian dude.

    (And now when I read the books, I picture a black guy… I picture Denzel, actually. And for Sachs, I picture Angelina Jolie, but I try not to do that too much, because then I lose my place in the book and my train of thought. Mmmm, Angelina… sorry, what was I saying?)

    Turning our attention to this issue in an Asian context… to be frank, to the vast, vast majority of the North American audience, Asians pretty much look the same.

    IIRC, this is even true when the person doing the looking is *Asian*, at least according to the stats on a pretty fascinating web site called “ALL LOOK SAME” (at http://www.alllooksame.com). (If you visit, click on the little black pencil where it says “take the test” to.. well, take the test.)

    The site presents the viewer with several pictures of random Asian people, and the viewer has to guess whether the person pictured is Korean, Chinese, or Japanese. Guess what? Asian people, for the most part, don’t do any better than white people at telling which nationality other Asian people are. (They don’t seem to have the stats up right now, but that’s what I remember when I did see them.)

    Now, it seems to me that this tends to hold true for regional groupings. For example, I believe (and it seems personal experience shows) that I can tend to discern when someone is more of a “southern” Asian, like a Vietnamese or Thai, as opposed to a more “northern” Asian, like a Chinese or Japanese or Korean.

    I would be interested to see how Asian people *in Asia* did on this test. My thinking is that for the most part it would be hard to tell the folks apart, even for those who live there.

    If that’s the case, then to me it doesn’t (shouldn’t) make much difference if a Chinese person took the part of a Japanese character. If they more or less look the same and they’re both speaking English, does it really matter that they’re not actually ethnically Japanese?

    Of course, then we get to the whole accent thing again- now that I’ve spent more time among Asian people, I can tell the various accents when they speak English, so that gets back to the first point. But again, the vast majority of the North American viewing audience isn’t going to know- any Asian speaking English sounds accented, but they don’t know a Japanese accent from a Chinese accent.

    So the objections to a Chinese person playing a Japanese part are more about politics than whether it serves to help or hinder the “willing suspension of disbelief”.

    I mean, it’d be awfully tough for a male to successfully play the part of Juliet; it’d require a LOT of suspension of disbelief for the audience. (They managed in Shakespeare’s time, though.) But, putting aside the language bit, it’s not too big a stretch to see Lucy Liu play a Japanese character.

    Where I’m going with all this (there was a theme in my head when I started writing) is that what it’s mostly about is the audience’s ability to accept a person in a given role, and how much “work” is required of an audience member to do so.

    When Denzel Washington plays Lincoln Rhyme, it’s no trouble at all- his character’s ethnicity isn’t important and it’s an American speaking American English.

    To me, as a general rule, a Chinese actor playing a Japanese character isn’t really any trouble. For the most part, I can’t really tell Chinese people from Japanese people, even though I *think* I can. I really can’t, though. :)

    But to someone who is Chinese and who gets extremely upset by the happenings in WWII, if they know that a Chinese person is playing a Japanese part, they might not be able to suspend their disbelief. They simply cannot accept the actor in the role, because their emotions get in the way.

    Depending on each viewer’s own prejudices, and to some extent the actor’s ability to play a part, the casting of a movie might make a big difference and it might make no difference at all.

    What really matters, in the end, is the quality of the viewing experience- and the filmmakers cannot, unfortunately, be all things to all people. If 95% of the North American viewing audience can handle a black actor playing the part of Lincoln Rhyme, the filmmakers made a good call in casting Denzel- they’ll give up the 5% of people who’re too racist to accept a black dude as a genius criminologist.

    So the filmmakers have to make these choices. All we can hope is that someone occasionally challenges the status quo IF the status quo is wrong. For example, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” cleaned up at the American box office, making over 100 million dollars at the box office- and it was primarily shown in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles!

    Hopefully that will make it more likely that more films will be presented that way, instead of dubbed.

    But ultimately the studios and filmmakers are going to do what they think will SELL best, and even though it stinks that’s just how it is.

    Seattle, WA

  5. JM
    November 30th, 2005 at 12:46 | #5

    The way I see it, Memoirs of a Geisha, in whatever artistic form, is an American product. The novel was designed for English speakers, and the movie has been as well. Fine.

  6. Paul
    December 1st, 2005 at 03:32 | #6

    I forgot to mention that any movie with Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh is a FINE, FINE movie for me. In fact, they could pretty much film two hours of them walking around the mall and I’d pay to go see it.


    Seattle, WA

  7. Paul
    December 1st, 2005 at 06:12 | #7

    Okay, after viewing the “Memoirs of a Geisha” trailer in HD, I gotta question the blue eyes. They just don’t look right. In the poster, I figured it was done for artistic effect, but it appears that the character in the movie supposedly has blue eyes? WTF? On an Asian girl?

    Sigh. It’s a tad silly. It’s kind of like Asians that bleach out their hair- sorry, folks, but it rarely looks right.

    I guess my willing suspension of disbelief has a limit! :)

    Seattle, WA

  8. Me
    December 5th, 2005 at 09:22 | #8

    It seems to me suggesting every role should in general be limited to the precise group for whom it’s written is pretty dangerous territory. It’s not even really followed elsewhere — how many Italian-Americans has Aussie Anthony LaPaglia played? There aren’t many ethnic groups Cate Blanchett hasn’t tackled.

    And, whatever happened to non-traditional casting? 10-15 years ago, people were advocating casting black actors in Elizabethan roles, for example (see Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing), and we’ve grown used to seeing every ethnic group represented in period pieces without any regard to verisimilitude. I know, there’s a difference. That was a noble effort to open up roles to denied minorities. But just because that’s no longer an issue, why should we suddenly become so much more stringent on the topic? It seems to me too many people are altering their principles to suit the goal of the particular moment.

  9. Rebecca
    November 7th, 2006 at 08:00 | #9

    Commenting about a year later…

    Memoirs of a Geisha is a movie about a Japanese girl played by a Chinese actress, based on a book about a Japanese girl, written by an American man in the first person. That’s got issues all over the place. But the casting thing seems to be a bigger problem, it seems silly and lazy that they didn’t give a Japanese actress a chance to break into American cinema. There are plenty of good actresses out there, and they chose to go with someone already established, who would bring the money in. It seems like they didn’t want to take any chances. And although I do agree that roles should not be limited to race, a story so culturally centred presented a great opportunity to allow a Japanese actress to break into the mainstream of American cinema.

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