Mind Your Language

24 09 2009
Christoph Waltz in 'Inglourious Basterds'

Christoph Waltz in 'Inglourious Basterds'

There’s a nice moment early in the 1983 Mel Brooks film To Be or Not To Be when the dialogue suddenly switches from one language to another. Brooks and his co-stars play a troupe of Polish actors, caught in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. In the first scene, as the curtain of their theatre goes down after a performance, the actors hold a panicky behind-the-scenes conference in gabbled, subtitled Polish. “Can’t we just switch to English?” someone suggests. The actors sigh with relief and, for the rest of the film, everyone speaks in American-accented English.

It’s a good joke, and one that highlights a problem that English-speaking directors face when making films for English-speaking audiences about non-English-speaking people. Do you employ local actors and subtitle everything? Or do you throw realism to the wind and cast, say, Ray Winstone as a gondolier or Tom Cruise as a Nazi? 

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