Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Tales from the Tower of Babel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th July, 2013

Marlene Dietrich performs in her famous role as LolaGeoff BrownAlmost 75 years ago, when talkies were taking the cinema world by storm but dubbing techniques had not yet been finessed, there was a period in which film companies made several versions of the same movie, shot with dialogue in different languages, sometimes using the same actors (with varying degrees of linguistic ability) but often employing completely different casts. The Ufa studio outside Berlin, with its distinctive four wings, became a veritable multi-lingual film factory in the early 1930s; German, English and French versions of the same scene in the same sets would be shot before everyone moved round to the next wing and carried on with the next. It was a cumbersome process, but better than trying to make do with the title cards that had been feasible in the days of silent movies. This evening, at Europe House in Westminster, the British film historian Geoff Brown gave a fascinating illustrated talk on that brief period of multi-lingual film-making, including some hilarious shots of Laurel and Hardy hamming it up in Spanish and a revealing comparison of the German and English versions of Marlene Dietrich singing in the seedy Blue Angel nightclub. As became clear, there were sometimes cultural differences that had to be catered for, the Anglo-Saxon world in general being far more prudish than the continental Europeans. And when completely different actors were used in effect two quite different films emerged. I particularly savoured a clip of the German version of Anna Christie (1930), in which Greta Garbo vamps it up with my old friend Salka Viertel in a cameo role as a drunken older woman; the two actresses later became bosom pals in Santa Monica. Geoff Brown’s enthusiasm for the period and the multi-lingual film phenomenon was infectious and his particular style of lecturing, during which his slender frame seemed at times to wish to clamber up the metal latticed lectern, inimitable. It was perhaps tempting fate to hold an event called Tales from the Tower of Babel in the London headquarters of the European Commission, as there are now (with last week’s entry of Croatia) no fewer than 24 official languages in the EU. But as the EU’s Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou has pointed out, it is the richness of the linguistic diversity of Europe and the growing mutli-lingualism of its citizenry that is one of the greatest joys of the European Union.

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