European Silent Cinema Trailers

Or more precisely the case of the mute trailer.

The sad fact is that Brits, as a whole, can’t stand listening to foreign tongues. Much can be made of the abysmal standards of modern languages teaching in the British school system. Marry that with the ‘everyone speaks English, why bother’ attitude and you’ve got cause for the unashamed dislike of many things culturally ‘foreign’.

In film circles this manifests itself in the bizarre notion of someone being ‘not too keen on subtitles’. By extension of the same logic you should have audiences biased against films with a lot of red in them, as ‘it’s quite demanding of your attention’ and ‘you can’t really relax when watching a [red] film’. In reverse the liking of predominantly [red] films is seen as a pretentious affectation, and some of those who actively seek out [red] films wear it as some sort of badge of honour. ‘If you didn’t see the original [red] version then you may as not have seen the film. The Hollywood remake is far too bland and unimaginative, and it overlooks a side of the film which is inherently [red] y’know?’

But laboured analogies aside, and Cannes and Oscars gongs aside, Brits can very rarely be sold on foreign language films. [Try convincing a class of undergraduate students that an American film is actually foreign and you open a whole new tin of worms.]

How then do you sell a foreign language feature to this stubborn audience? Quite simple: you make it mute. Which is not to say that you hark back to the good old days of silent cinema, but that you keep all the characters in any trailer from actually saying a word. It’s absurd to think of it, but once you notice it you’ll quickly realise that no one ever says a word in foreign language trailers.

The story which first flagged the idea was when audiences apparently walked out of The Lives of Others precisely because it was full of foreign speak. The trailer had led them to believe that it was in English, and would the box office very kindly refund them as this was obviously cut and dry deception of the highest order. That anyone would assume that a film about the Gestapo could ever be in English makes you wonder how apocryphal the story actually is, but the point remains. The scary fact is that The Lives of Others presents a very clear example of the muting process in action.

US Trailer :

The film’s initial release in the US was two months before it came out in the UK. Looking at the US trailer we can see it is 1min49secs long. Look at the UK trailer and you can note is only 1min27secs long. The only difference is that the UK trailer as had every iota of dialogue snipped out of it.

UK trailer :

Dumbed down trailers are nothing new, but to think that the only way cinema advertisers can engage with British audiences is by actively deceiving them is a return to a very sorry standard. The boom of foreign language films in the UK and US through the fifties and sixties was of course fuelled by the now totemic work of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and de Sica. The dark underside to this was that these films were often actively marketed as seedy and salacious imported films for ADULTS ONLY. While the sexual/emotional frankness matched with the chance of seeing some boob kept the seedy cinemas of Soho filled with Bergman, one particularly noteworthy advert in the New York Post sold de Sica’s Bicycle Thief as a sexual film of transgressions. Social realism doesn’t sell. Sex does. Go figure.

Arguably the selling of The Lives of Others taps into that as well, with the American DVD cover showing the Gestapo’s auditory voyeur sensationally listening in on the saucy bohemian playwright making passionate love to his creative muse. That’s not really what the film’s about, but it gets the Dirty Mac Brigade in all of us to at least pick up the DVD and have a closer look at it.

The two strategies of obscuring a film’s nationality with overplaying its sexy-sexy foreignness is coming to a nadir with the English language release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish trailer released last year plays up to the film’s strong narrative pull, the slow uncovering of a grander conspiracy through hard-nosed investigation and archive sifting. The two main characters Lisbeth and Mikael get reasonably equal billing, and the trailer culminates in quick cut action. It’s pretty representative of the film as a whole.

Looking at the dubbed German trailer a lot is made of the original novel which was incredibly popular in Germany. Again the detective novel aspects of investigation, archive cracking and the unlocking of secret codes is foregrounded, culminating in some breathless but unexplained action.

Get to the UK trailer and the frying-pan-around-the-head bluntness starts with the bass-y voiceover of reckoning from the spirit of Don LaFontaine. ‘HER JOURNEY HAS BECOME AN INTERNATIONAL SENSATION. HER SECRETS HAVE CAPITAVTED MILLIONS. THIS YEAR…’

The whole film is about Lisbeth and her secret, and lots and LOTS of action. The British distributors have even acquired the domain for the film, just so we all know who the focus of the film is supposed to be. Poor acne scarred Mikael doesn’t get a look in, and heaven forefend if we should catch a glimpse of paper, or perhaps a file of archive materials.

And of course no one besides Hollywood -Voice-Over-Man gets a word in edgeways. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for the Hollywood remake that’s already being negotiated. Shame that they can’t highlight the film’s inherent [red]ness, and how like pretty much all modern films from [red]land, that it’s largely about the failing of the [red] social model. After all the original [red] title was Men Who Hate Women, but I guess that wouldn’t trip off Hollywood-Voice-Over-Man’s tongue so well. But what do I know, I’m just half [red] anyways.

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4 thoughts on “European Silent Cinema Trailers

  1. sbl says:

    … and all this time I would have sworn that this was a problem only in the US. We here on this side of the Atlantic tend to think that you’re all sophisticated and such, what with your fancy accents (and categorization as “European”), and thus it follows that you are far more interested in foreign language films. I guess that’s just not the case. My only explanation for the disparity in the THE LIVES OF OTHERS trailers is that by virtue of size, there just are more people here who are willing to see a German film; percentage-wise, who knows.

    I have to say I don’t really want to fathom the problem of explaining “American” as foreign, as far as films are concerned. This isn’t a problem in the reverse, as you might imagine, what with British movies usually having characters who [again] speak with your general affect, a characteristic that immediately tips off the audience to the film’s inherent erudite-ness and sophistication; of course it’s foreign.

    Generally, my assumption is that when there’s no dialogue in an [English language] film the movie itself is directionless and without merit. I can’t say I’ve really paid attention to how this plays out in foreign language trailers.

  2. Dai Marden says:

    “a film about the Gestapo”

    You mean “the Stasi”.

    A great piece.

    • burntretina says:

      It’s Muphrys law at it again, complain about ignorance and you’ll just wave a big old flag about your own ignorance. Duly corrected Mr Marden.

      And as for how the cookie crumbles on respective sides of the Atlantic I guess it’s hard to call. It all plays into a larger more complex matter of what a foreign film signifies, and that varies a hell of a lot even between European countries. Outside of childrens films subtitling is the absolute norm in Sweden, but in Germany (and the better part of continental Europe) dubbing is the norm. An explanation for the Swede’s natural gift for the English language? I vividly remember my 8 year old Swedish cousin burping lines of Joey-from-Friends at me when I was younger. He had next no idea what he was saying, but I feel it’s no accident that as an adult he can speak pitch perfect English.

      A funny follow-up from said Dragon Tattoo trailer, sitting through the trailers to A Single Man it popped up and I took the chance to ask a friend what she thought the film was about, and what language it was in, she pulled rather a large blank. I guess the whole ‘being a Swedish film about the inherent collapse of the Swedish model of a collective responsibility’ is a bit hard to get across in a trailer…

  3. Tara Judah says:

    Working in a rental store I am saddened daily at the ignorance of the general public when faced with the prospect of viewing a “foreign” film. Due to their intense apparent hatred for reading it is a requirement that we put stickers on these films’ display cases highlighting the “foreign language” they belong to. I recently overheard the following in the shop: “Crikey, they have Korean films. Are there a lot of Koreans in Bristol?”

    Whilst it may not be preferable to show silent trailers, I completely understand why they do it.

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