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Film dubbing as high art in Germany

Emily Manthei
May 24, 2019

Last night’s German Dubbing Awards ceremony honored the star voices behind foreign films dubbed into German. But what makes a nation full of polyglots so attached to watching films in their native language?

Deutschland Berlin - Deutscher Synchronpreis
Image: Emily Manthei

Hundreds gathered on May 23 for a black tie event inside Tipi am Kanzleramt in Berlin. There were no limousines or entourages, and to the casual observer, no celebrities. But the shadows of the stars were everywhere.

Germany's dubbing industry celebrated its annual awards ceremony by honoring the best film and television series dubbed into German. The voices of Robert DeNiro, Cameron Diaz, Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Robert Duvall all shared time in the spotlight — Christian Brückner, the German voice of Robert DeNiro, and Katrin Fröhlich, the voice of Cameron Diaz, joined to present a best dubbing jury award (pictured above). 

For these shadow stars, the German Dubbing Awards celebrate an art form that's hidden in plain sight. "Everybody says they prefer the original version, but 90% of people in Germany like to watch dubbed films,” announced Gayle Tufts, the ceremony's host, to erupting applause.

No wonder that voice actors like Christian Brückner are big stars in Germany, he having lent his voice to Robert De Niro for some 35 years.

A man and women stand in the snow wearing fur
Game of Thrones has also inevitably been dubbed into German, with the voice team honored at the 2019 German Dubbing Awards Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Sky

Dubbing as censorship

The preference for dubbing doesn't come from a linguistic deficiency. In 2016, 78.7% of Germans aged 25-64 said they knew one or more foreign language, according to a Eurostat survey. So why the mania for voice overs?

Uniformly German-speaking cinema can be traced back to the 1930s, when the Nazi regime used dubbing of foreign media to control anything negative coming from abroad. But the practice continued in the postwar period as a form of historical censorship. 

"After the war," explains Tobias Jahn, dubbing production manager at Berliner Synchron, "sometimes the scripts were changed to reflect less about the German past."

Casablanca, the 1942 American film about European refugees escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe, was not released in Germany until 1952. Through the magic of voice dubbing, one of the main characters transformed from an anti-fascist Czech resistance fighter on the run from the Nazis into a Swedish scientist fleeing Interpol.

Since reunification, Germany has become much more open to cinema about its own history. Meanwhile, the ease of access to information and original-language material has required dubbing to be much more accurate.

Christian Brückner
Christian Brückner, the German voice of Robert de Niro, has dubbed the lines of the Hollywood star in everything from "Taxi Driver" (1976) to the "The Godfather" Mafia trilogy and "The Good Shepherd" (2006) Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

But some subtitlers disagree. Lisa Voigt, who translates and subtitles in German for Subtext Translations, points out that dubbing can still change the script.

"Dubbing translations can stray a lot more from the original, because the original script is hidden underneath, so to speak," she says. "Subtitles need to be able to stand comparison to what's actually being said, especially English language films that most audiences understand at least partly and are often under heavy scrutiny.”

Lip synching

The dubbing industry also prides itself on the accuracy of lip movements, sometimes to the detriment of the film's original dialogue. The authors of dubbing scripts work to phrase dialogues to match the length and pronunciation of the original footage. In studio, actors further modify the text or pronunciation during a process that demands compromise. 

"Sometimes you have to make a decision, to stick as close to the original, translation-wise," notes voice actor Jörn Linnenbröker, who has been heard in shows like Mr. Robot and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and most recently as the voice of Adam DeVine in Isn’t it Romantic

"Or do you see it's a labial (closed mouth sound) and we don't have a labial sound in the exact translation. Then you change the translation a little bit to have a good sync look. Of course we want it to be as original as possible, but it always should look great too. That’s the conflict."

A man in a suite and bow ties smiles into the camera
Voice actor Jörn Linnenbröker, here at the 2019 German Dubbing Awards, says that voice actors must compromise in the search for perfectionImage: Emily Manthei

Emerging from the shadows

A foreign-language film dubbed into German is made possible by the effort of dozens of people working on short deadlines to get films into theaters on, or near, the international release date.

As dubbing teams for The Death of Stalin, A Star is Born and Game of Thrones filed onstage to receive their acoldes at the German Dubbing Awards on May 23, their invisible work is finally revealed before they disappear once again into the shadows.