The problem of accents in films

In watching the film A Most Wanted Man, the issue of accents in films once again entered my mind. The film takes place in Germany and almost all the main characters are supposed to be German. Germans taking to other Germans in Germany would naturally speak German. So the natural thing would be to have the film in German with English subtitles.

But for some reason, subtitles are disliked by many viewers, and are seen as box-office poison. Subtitles do not bother me and I actually prefer it rather that have people speaking in English when it would not be normal to do so. For example, the film The Lives of Others (2006) was made in German with English subtitles and it was excellent. But given the supposed dislike of subtitles by English-speaking audiences, this is a recurring problem with English-language films that have foreign characters. To emphasize that they are foreign they are given an accent.

Since A Most Wanted Man is an American-made film done in English for English-speaking audiences and the actors in the films playing these roles (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel MacAdams, and Willem Dafoe) are all Americans, the film makers did what they usually do in such situations and that is to have the characters speak in English with what is supposed to be a German accent. These big-budget films usually hire voice and accent coaches to help the actors sound authentic but people who are native speakers of that region usually say that even the best actors with the best coaches do not capture the accents accurately, even when it comes to Americans speaking in regional accents within the US. In this film, the speakers drift in and out of the German accent but for me the main problem I had to overcome was not whether the way they spoke was how a German would speak English, but that a German in that situation would not be speaking in English at all.

I noticed that in The Grand Budapest Hotel, that takes place in some fictional European country between World Wars I and II, the filmmakers had each character speak however was native to them and did not bother to try and achieve uniformity in accent, even though the people were all supposed to be from the same country.

Fake accents can add value to a film is when carried to the extreme for comedic purposes. I am thinking of Peter Sellers speaking English with an outrageous French accent in the Pink Panther series or with an equally exaggerated Indian accent in The Party as in the trailers below.


  1. JPS says

    Two things: Film language, and TV show accents.
    I saw the 1981 Das Boot in our small town’s local theater. It was in German with subtitles. Later I caught a bit of it on TV and it was dubbed. I asked the theater manager about that, he said that he thought that the town’s mostly college-oriented audience would rather the subtitles. He said he thought that he’d obtained the only subtitled print in the US.
    Often when a TV documentary has a foreign language speaker on camera the speaker’s words are interpreted* into English; the English is accented in the foreign language. I had a chance to work an international conference providing interpretation systems, among other things. I was told by the interpreters that they almost always work from what is for them a foreign language into their native language. The interpretations are not accented.
    * I understand that “translation” is working with written documents and “interpretation” is verbal.

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    So the natural thing would be to have the film in German with English subtitles.

    …and the book the film is based on should have been written in German.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    So the natural thing would be to have the film in German with English subtitles.

    Sorry, I don’t get this. Should Ben Hur have been done in Aramaic and Latin? Troy in Mycenaean Greek? If people speaking language A make a film about people speaking language B, for an audience speaking language A, and with stars known to Aphones, it would be silly to go to the extraordinary length of filming it in language B. Audiences generally accept this.

    I agree on subtitles; dubbing is an abomination. I’ve seen a version of Gregory’s Girl which was dubbed into “generic” Scottish, and it was unwatchable.

  4. mnb0 says

    This non-problem has been solved at least 50 years ago – by Italian movie makers. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly can be watched in two languages: English (the story takes place in the USA) and Italian (for the home audience). Of course it depends on the budget, but the results can be excellent. And like I wrote – that was 50 years ago.
    What they do is shoot the movie without sound and add it later. Don’t tell me that that is impossible with modern technology, given CGI.
    Movies are fake anyway. So why should actors have their own voices? In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly only the three American actors have.
    So in my opinion A Most Wanted Man should have two versions – one in English language and one in overdubbed German plus subtitles. I would prefer the latter, but others might disagree.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I am not suggesting that the films have to be made in the natural language of the context, especially if the films are being made for an English-speaking audience.

    What I don’t understand is why they have the actors speak English with foreign accents. The Grand Budapest Hotel works as well without it.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    What I don’t understand is why they have the actors speak English with foreign accents.

    Ah! Agreed. I should read more carefully.

  7. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    I’ve always wondered why actors in period dramas set in ancient Greece and Rome always seem to speak in posh British accents. Common soldiers and peasants, meanwhile, usually speak in lower class or Cockney accents, sometimes Irish or Cornish accents as well. Think of “I, Claudius” as a good example of this. I’ve never seen anyone comment on the British class hierarchy being reflected in the choice of accents in these dramas.

    I have been watching “Borgia,” a European television series about the Renaissance Italian family. There is a huge controversy over the fact that the actor who plays the family patriarch Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI is played by American John Doman who speaks with an “American” accent in the role. He is not the only actor in the series to do so.

    Many people who are apparently used to posh Brit accents in these roles are put off by Doman’s American accent, seeing it as completely out of place for the period.

    What amazes me is how people cannot see the irony of seeing an American accent as out of place in a drama set in Renaissance Italy while a British accent is just fine, even when contrasted with the Italian actors in the series who look Italian and speak with Italian accents.

    There was a similar controversy with Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” where the refined Greeks spoke with a posh British accent but the presumably cruder Macedonians spoke with Irish accents, with people finding the one acceptable while rejecting the other, again ignoring the class dynamics in the choice.

  8. smrnda says

    To me, this is a problem that you need a solution for, and there is no one solution that will work for all movies.

    Grand Budapest Hotel is somewhat absurd, and the lack of consistent accent (to me) helps drill that point home. It’s not pretending to be accurate, and like theater, gets away from the conventions of strict realism. Nobody is going to take the film to task in the least for accuracy in any way.

    In other situations, you are, effectively, translating. Upper class Romans and common people may have spoke differently – how would this affect be achieved best? Sometimes the limitation is the actors; if a few major players aren’t going to be able to fake accents well, it’s better not to do it.

    I myself find fake accents annoying, perhaps since I’ve spoken with enough say, Germans that the fake “German” accent I hear isn’t even remotely related to how Germans pronounce anything. (On top of that, many Germans only sound slightly British, having learned UK English fluently.)

    Though at times I think I’ve noticed that, in a film where it doesn’t look intentional, actors end up drifting towards using an accent when they seem to think they should. I once saw a modern day adaptation of Dostoyevksy’s “Notes from underground” set in the US, and it seemed the actors were faking sounding Russian regardless.

  9. Reptile Dysfunction says

    I seem to recall that in The Hunt for Red October, the director had the actors (or anyway, a subset of them) speak Russian at first, then did some sort of camera trick (I think he moved in close to the document that the actor was supposedly reading from) & when the camera moved back, the actors were all speaking the traditional Hollywood Russian-accented English, except for Sean Connery, who always sounds the same.

  10. says

    @ Reptile, I seem to remember a similar thing in the film of “Eaters of the Dead” (“The 13th Warrior”) where, as Ibn Fadlan gradually learns Norse, his companions start speaking English. Best thing about the movie…

  11. astrosmash says

    The one solid exception (actor-wise) I can think of is Tom Wilkinson… It was YEARS before I discovered he is an ENGLISH actor…There is ZERO accent overlap in his roles as an american…Hugh Laurie is a close second, but I can still hear an occasional lapse and the SLIGHTEST ‘overemphasis’ on what are seen as american phonemes…However it is solid enough that It is not disconcerting in the least

  12. Dunc says

    Of course, the single greatest moment for surreal accents in films is the scene in Highlander where the French-accented Christopher Lambert (playing a Scotsman) has to explain to the heavily Scots-accented Sean Connery (playing an Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard) what a haggis is. It’s positively Pythonesque.

  13. chigau (違う) says

    Long ago, I heard a review of Conan the Barbarian that was critical of Sandal Bergman’s California accent. But not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent.
    I guess his was more like a Hyborian accent.

  14. Francisco Bacopa says

    I am reminded of one of my favorite Britcoms Allo, Allo. In that show, when characters spoke with a fake French accent, it meant they were speaking French. German accents meant the characters were speaking German. English accents meant they were speaking English. But there were exceptions, when Germans spoke to French characters, they retained their German accents to show they were speaking French badly. One character, a British spy, spoke with a completely over the top fake French accent to show that he had a poor command of French.

  15. kyoseki says

    What they do is shoot the movie without sound and add it later. Don’t tell me that that is impossible with modern technology, given CGI.

    This is technically doable, but it would be prohibitively expensive.
    You could use a similar technique for the face replacement in The Social Network, but you’d have to effectively have each actor deliver their lines twice, once on set and then once in a light stage and have their face tracked onto the body in the original plate.

  16. Trebuchet says

    We’ve been watching Gracepoint, a Fox remake of Broadchurch, with the David Tennant role played by David Tennant. His American accent in the first couple of episodes is almost hilariously bad. And it’s being filmed in Canada, eh?

  17. chigau (違う) says

    There is a current Japanese TV drama ( featuring an American actress playing a Scottish woman in early 20th century Japan.
    The actress speaks Japanese with an American accent and English with a fake-Scottish accent (intermittently).
    The version I’m watching has Japanese sub-titles for the English dialog and occasionally for the Japanese with regional dialects.
    Plus an optional overlay of English sub-titles for Japanese dialog.

  18. kyoseki says

    We’ve been watching Gracepoint, a Fox remake of Broadchurch, with the David Tennant role played by David Tennant. His American accent in the first couple of episodes is almost hilariously bad. And it’s being filmed in Canada, eh?

    Lots of shit set in the US gets filmed in Canada because of subsidies, if you shoot in BC, you get roughly a quarter of your costs paid for by the BC & Canadian governments.

    California lost so much work to places like BC & Louisiana that they just passed a $330m annual film subsidy bill to try to buy the work back.

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