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Multilingualism in Film

Edited By Ralf Junkerjürgen and Gala Rebane

Multilingualism is a phenomenon that has become increasingly visible in popular cinema and thus is currently a very novel object of academic inquiry. The present volume is a cutting-edge collection of cross- and transdisciplinary takes on this phenomenon and its different aspects. Its topics range from translation theory to political and aesthetic quandaries of audiovisual translation and subtitling, to narratological function of multilingualism in fiction, to language ideologies and language poetics onscreen. Its authorship is a worldwide body of perspectives, whose contributions span a distinctive collection of international, national and regional film traditions.

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The limits of authenticity. On the flawless French of Germans in Merry Christmas and Un village français

Marie-Christine Scholz

The limits of authenticity. On the flawless French of Germans in Merry Christmas and Un village français

Abstract: Multilingualism in film can be interpreted as an attempt to let the narration appear more authentic to the spectator, but filmmakers usually fail to create an authentic image of characters speaking a foreign language, since linguistic mistakes are mostly unable to be found in their speech. The film Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noёl (2005) and the series Un village français (2009–2017) will hereby serve as prime examples to analyze this phenomenon.


When foreigners appear in movies (hispanics [sic] in particular) they seem to be able to speak perfect english [sic] without making one single mistake except it seems they NEVER manage to learn how to say ‘Sir’ or ‘Thank you’… they always say ‘Senor’ and ‘Gracias’1

This observation, posted on the internet website The Movie Clichés List, does not only apply to American films. If you look at European productions in which multilingual characters appear, in most cases, you will come to the same conclusion as the user of the Internet platform: If characters in films speak foreign languages, they do so flawlessly.

This phenomenon can be observed not only in characters who use English as their second language, but also in speakers of French. It seems that, on the big screen, error-free oral communication in a foreign language is not the exception but the rule. This phenomenon can be observed particularly ←93 | 94→well in films in which German characters interact with French ones. The thematic framework within which such encounters take place is often a historical one; the turbulent German-French history since World War I, in particular, offers many possibilities for screenwriters.

Therefore, numerous productions take the step towards multilingualism: allowing germanophone film characters to speak German and francophones to speak French, without synchronizing the dialogues for the audience. Despite this concession to the authenticity of the narrative, it can be generally observed that characters who perform code-switching into another language do so fluently and without any mistakes.

This divergence between the claim of authentic representation that films make and the unrealistic absence of mistakes in spoken foreign languages will be discussed in more detail in this article. Exemplified by Merry Christmas (2005) and the series Un village français (2009–2017), reasons for the divergence between the claim for authenticity and the absence of mistakes will be identified. These films will be examined with a focus on germanophone figures speaking French.

Interestingly enough, most viewers do not notice the lack of characters who make mistakes speaking foreign languages – the post in the Movie Clichés List is an exception. To prove this, internet forums that offer the opportunity to review the respective films will be analyzed below. The platforms were selected based on the number of comments that can be found in a given language. While allociné, a popular French platform, is available as a reliable source, the search for a German equivalent turns out to be more difficult. However, the sales page can at least serve as a guideline in this matter.

Multilingual films: authenticity for historical plots

Why, in fact, do filmmakers use multilingualism in their works (particularly in historical films), when this seems to be more difficult for all parties involved in the creation of the work? In an attempt to answer this, Bleichenbacher (2008: 26–30) discusses three functions of multilingualism in fictional texts and film: realism, social criticism, and humor.

The author defines the first aspect as follows: “In a straightforward manner, the notion of realism in representation means that multilingualism ←94 | 95→in the text is motivated by the desire to represent a situation of language contact in the story as faithfully as possible” (ibid.: 26). Adriana Şerban (2012: 44) also points to realism as a reason for multilingualism in films and even claims that it is the main one. This explains why especially films based on historical events are multilingual. Ralf Junkerjürgen (2019: 312) elaborates on this point that “le plurilinguisme est en règle générale une marque de réalisme, et un film sur un événement historique ne peut se passer d’être réaliste s’il ne veut pas perdre toute vraisemblance.” (“multilingualism is usually a token of realism, and a film about an historical event cannot but be realistic if it doesn’t want to lose all veracity.”). This function of multilingualism is particularly prominent in the films discussed in this article.

Regardless of the three features of multilingualism outlined above, Alison Smith (2010: 39) reminds that, particularly for the analysis of multilingual films, “film is a communication from filmmaker(s) to audience.” Multilingualism and its use, in particular with regard to the films analyzed below, can be understood not only as a concession by the filmmakers to the reality that the film seeks to portray, but also as a narrative tool that supports the creation of the characters’ personalities. Particularly interesting in the following chapters is an aspect that Smith (2010: 39) merely mentions in passing: “The film thus imposes, or at least proposes, a pattern of language presence, organizing the languages that we will hear – how much of each we will be exposed to and in what circumstances, […] what sort of characters will be allowed access to more than one language […].” The analysis of the film corpus aims at answering the following question: what sort of image do directors and scriptwriters aim to produce using characters speaking several languages, more specifically: germanophone characters speaking French?

Merry Christmas/Joyeux Noёl: error-free communication by ‘perfect Europeans’ fighting in World War I

At first glance, the film Merry Christmas or Joyeux Noël from 2005 might be deemed a successful example of a multilingual film. The fact that it is a Franco-British-Belgian-Romanian-German co-production already indicates that the project has tried to remove its national origin and ←95 | 96→reception limits. Based on real events, director and screenwriter Christian Carion tells the story of the fraternization of enemy troops in the First World War on Christmas in 1914.

The viewer sees characters of German, French and Scottish descent in the trenches in the first months of the war. On the German side are the soldiers Nikolaus Sprink, a famous Berlin tenor singer, and Lieutenant Colonel Horstmayer, a prima facie strict order-follower and commander. Sprink’s Danish singing and life partner Anna Sörensen comes to an agreement with the Prussian crown prince that she and her lover be allowed to give a small concert for the senior officers on the front in France on Christmas. After the performance, Sprink, accompanied by his partner, returns to the trenches to sing for his comrades.

His singing can be heard across the trenches – soon he is accompanied by a Scottish bagpipe player. Sprink climbs over the trench and walks towards the enemy line, still singing. The enthusiasm of the Scottish soldiers leads to a spontaneous meeting of the commanding lieutenants in no-man’s land: Horstmayer, Gordon, the Scotsman, and the French Audebert decide to bring together their combat units for Christmas – a fraternization that continues over several days.

What is so special about Merry Christmas is that every character in the film speaks his or her own language. As a result, the film features English, French and German, as well as Latin, which is used during the Christmas Mass. This has a special effect on the viewer, as they experience a rare phenomenon: subject to the scene, the spectator understands sometimes more and sometimes less of the dialogues, and then must focus on the subtitles. However, multilingualism also means that the events on the screen are perceived by the audience as authentic. A reviewer writes on

Prepare yourself, because this entire movie is not entirely spoken in English, the characters speak in French, German, and Latin as well. I love that the directors chose to do this because it allows the movie to be a true representation of the people involved in this event along with the languages that they spoke.2

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But how do the characters with different first languages communicate? As for the ordinary soldiers, direct communication is mainly achieved through the use of sign language, gestures and mimics; some know a few words that help them speak French or English (such as “Merci”). For the main characters, the situation is different: The three lieutenants negotiate fluently in English. Lieutenant Audebert has no difficulties speaking English – despite his modest answer to the question of whether he knows it (“Yes, a little.” 00:49:42). Horstmayer, however, turns out to be the most linguistically gifted character in the film, and also speaks French fluently with Audebert.

Among the bilingual characters, the germanophones are especially skilled: Smith (2010: 45) states that they are depicted as “remarkably accomplished codeswitchers”. She counts eleven situations in which germanophone characters switch to French, not taking into account the scenes in which they switch to English.

In most of these cases it is Lieutenant Colonel Horstmayer who addresses his dialogue partner, who is nearly always Audebert, in French. In Horstmayer’s first switching from German to French, he explains: “Il y a un petit hôtel, rue Vavin ? J’étais là une semaine avec ma femme, ça fait deux ans. C’était notre voyage de noces.” (“Isn’t there a small hotel in rue Vavin ? I spent a week there with my wife two years ago. It was our honeymoon.”; 00:56:51). Already at this point it is striking that the lieutenant speaks French fluently. In a later scene, it becomes apparent that he also effortlessly masters verbal constructions that are unfamiliar to germanophones. After an artillery attack during which Horstmayer has given the French and Scottish troops refuge in the German trenches, they return the favor during the ensuing counterattack. When the fire is stopped, Horstmayer notes with regard to the future course of the war: “Cette fois-ci, je crois qu’on va en rester là.” (“For now, I believe that we will call it quits.”; 01:23:20, emphasis added). The use of the idiomatic phrase en rester là verifies Horstmayer’s high level of French. A less well-versed germanophone French-speaker would have most likely stated: “Je crois qu’on va s’arrêter maintenant.” (“I believe we will stop now.”)

But where does this character’s proficiency in French come from? The answer is given by Horstmayer himself in the course of a dialogue in which Audebert invites him to visit him in Paris after the war. Horstmayer answers:

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– Ce serait… chouette. C’est comme ça qu’on dit, non ?

– Oui. Vous connaissez mieux le français que moi l’allemand !

– Je n’ai pas de mérite. Votre femme n’est pas allemande. (01:23:46 ff.)

(– That would be… fab. It’s how one says it, isn’t it?

– Yes. Your French is better than my German!

– It is not my merit. Your wife is not German. [01:23:46 ff.])

Now that the spectator knows that Horstmayer is married to a French woman, the character no longer appears to the viewer as the typical ‘strict German soldier’, but, rather, as a cosmopolitan contemporary, who is involuntarily involved in a war between his homeland and that of his wife. Lieutenant Audebert seems to have the same impression of Horstmayer as he responds to Horstmayer’s farewell “Bonne chance !” (“Good luck!”) with “Toi aussi.” (“To you, too.”; 01:24:05 ff.) and uses the informal pronoun “tu” for the first time here instead of the formal “vous”.

The other germanophone figure, who often and easily dives into French, is opera singer Anna Sörensen. Despite her Danish nationality, she acts on the German side in the film: she has a ‘job’ in Berlin, is in a relationship with a German and manages to persuade the Prussian crown prince to allow her to sing for the German officers and himself. All this calls for an examination of her special, yet not exclusively ‘German’, role in the constellation of the characters.

Smith (2010: 48) notes that Sörensen is the first character in the film to perform code switching. After arriving at the manor house, where the German officers are housed behind the front, she is looking for her lover in the kitchen and encounters an elderly couple. After failing to get an answer to her question in German as to where she could find Sprink, she repeats her request in French: “Euh… Pardon, savez-vous où est installé Nikolaus Sprink ? Il a dû arriver il y a une heure environ.” (“Er… Excuse me, do you know where Nikolaus Sprink has been lodged? He must have arrived about an hour ago.”; 00:30:49). In Sörensen’s first sentence one can hear some uncertainty; then, however, she proceeds to speak fluently and at the same speed as a native French speaker. The use of the construction “il a dû arriver” is unfamiliar to germanophones since in German, not the modal verb “müssen [must]”, but the following infinitive is put into the past tense, much like in English: “er muss angekommen sein [he must have arrived]”. Sörensen avoids a mistake, easily made by non-native ←98 | 99→French-speakers, of formulating the sentence incorrectly as follows: *Il doit être arrivé il y a une heure environ.

In other scenes in the film, too, Sörensen performs brilliantly in French at mother tongue level. Unlike Horstmayer’s case, the viewer is offered no explanation for her proficiency. The probability of having acquired it as a presumably well-traveled opera singer does not explain her seemingly fluent French throughout the rest of the film. Nor can French language classes that she might have attended at school account for her smooth oral communication: until well into the mid-twentieth century, at secondary schools, French was taught, similarly to ancient Greek and Latin, with the grammar translation method. Students were taught almost no oral skills in the foreign language, but instead had to focus on learning and applying grammatical rules and written translation of original texts. Christiane Fäcke (2010: 33) writes in her introductory work on the didactics of French that learners “who take French lessons using this method will, after a few years, be able to read and translate texts by Rabelais or Flaubert, but they can hardly order a café au lait or talk about the weather in France” (transl. by the author).

How do the viewers react to the unrealistic French language skills of the characters? Is the divergence between authenticity and the portrayal of the character even noticed? The answer is no. Neither in the 721 French audience reviews on the internet platform allociné3 nor among the 96 German comments on the sales site amazon4 could I find a single comment or critique on the subject. Most viewers’ evaluations are guided by the touching storyline.

A seemingly self-evident function of the above-average French language skills of the characters has not yet been explained: Hearing mistakes or halting speech is troublesome for the viewers of a film – particularly if this concerns the main characters with the most lines. Especially the French ←99 | 100→audience of Merry Christmas benefits from the fact that Horstmayer and Sörensen have no difficulty in correctly expressing themselves in that language.

In addition, communication that is free of errors and misunderstandings facilitates the progress of action in the film. Imagine Horstmayer having to look for the right vocabulary and delaying the delivery of his message when he warns the French combat unit that the German troops are going to bombard them in a matter of minutes: his speech, dotted with the typical “um” (or “äh” in German) familiar to any foreign language learner. Any words or hesitations that are unnecessary to the plot are thus eliminated from the script and do not surface in Horstmayer’s error-free speech. It is historical events that take precedence: for one thing, the storyline has to evolve clearly, for another, no trivial details are to distract the spectators from the importance of the historical moment.

It can be said that the film creates a kind of linguistic ideology of the ‘perfect European cosmopolite’: a role assumed by anyone who can express themselves well in a foreign language. It should be noted that the ‘evil’ officers who are responsible for the brutal war in the film only speak their mother tongue, whereas Horstmayer and Sörensen openly seek contact with the ‘enemy’ in English and French. Here, a contrast reminiscent of the one between the good and evil archetypes of a fairy tale is created. Junkerjürgen (2019: 320) even speaks of an “idéologie européaniste” regarding Merry Christmas, and Laurent Véray (2009: 163) notes in an article addressing the same film that Christian Carion offers an anchronistic revision of World War I by making the soldiers the victims of the war: “le film reprend l’idée que les soldats dans chaque camp auraient combattu sans haine, si ce n’est contre la guerre elle-même, et qu’ils se faisaient ‘casser la figure’ contraints et forcés.” (“the film draws on the idea that the soldiers in each camp would have fought without hatred, even against the war itself, and that they were compelled and coerced to ‘smash each other up’.”).

Junkerjürgen (2019: 322) emphasizes that the multilingualism in Merry Christmas plays a crucial role in this precise construction of a ‘European myth’:

Le traitement du plurilinguisme fait partie de cette idéologie européaniste et célèbre la devise européenne “in varietate concordia”. Dans le plurilinguisme, ←100 | 101→l’esthétique se transforme en éthique : le film montre que l’on peut parler des langues différentes et être uni par un même sort.

(The treatment of multilingualism is part of this Europeanist ideology and celebrates the European motto “in varietate concordia” [unity in diversity]. In the framework of multilingualism, aesthetics transforms into ethics: the film shows that people can speak different languages and be united by sharing the same fate.)

It is interesting that the linguistic “varietas” the film celebrates has its limits after all: linguistic mistakes that the characters are not allowed to make.

Un village français: German occupiers speaking perfect French

En 2005, Emmanuel Daucé (producteur), Frédéric Krivine (scénariste-producteur associé) et Philippe Triboit (réalisateur-producteur associé) présentent pour la première fois à France 3 le projet d’Un village français et annoncent clairement l’ambition : proposer une vision nuancée de l’Occupation, en refusant à la fois le mythe ‘tous résistants’ […] et le mythe ‘tous collabos’ […]. (Boutet 2017: 21).

(In 2005, Emmanuel Daucé (producer), Frédéric Krivine (screenwriter and associate producer), and Philippe Triboit (director and associate producer) for the first time presented to France 3 the project of Un village français, clearly stating their ambition to put forth a nuanced vision of the Occupation, casting aside both the myth of ‘everybody in the Resistance’ […] and the myth of ‘everybody as collaborators’ […].)

The idea, which Daucé, Krivine and Triboit presented to the public broadcaster France 3, has been implemented: in its seven seasons, broadcasted from 2009 to 2017 in France, Un village français tells the story of the fictional village of Villeneuve during France’s occupation by the German army. The series makers wanted to approach the subject with the greatest possible realism and historical accuracy, which is why Frédéric Krivine consistently developed the scripts in collaboration with historian Jean-Pierre Azéma (cf. Boutet 2017: 6 f.).

The complexity of the series commented on in the above quote and acclaimed by critics and audience alike is one of the most remarkable features of Un village français. However, the two most important German figures are, interestingly enough, among those who best fit the “good/evil” dichotomy: Heinrich Müller, an unscrupulous chief of the SD in Villeneuve, and Kurt Wagner, a nice Wehrmacht soldier, whose love story with the young primary school teacher of the village unfolds in the series. ←101 | 102→The contrast between these two figures could hardly be stronger. And yet they share a quality: Heinrich and Kurt both speak – what a surprise – excellent French.

Already in Heinrich’s first appearance in season 2, the viewer becomes aware of his language competence and high level of education. At an identity check south of the demarcation line, he meets De Kervern, a police inspector from Villeneuve. He questions the latter, with a slight accent but no hesitation: “Que faites-vous du mauvais côté de la Ligne, commissaire ?” (“What are you doing at the wrong side of the front, inspector?”; Season 2, Episode 1, “La loterie”, 00:45:16 ff., emphasis added). A less well-versed germanophone speaker of the French language would have surely made a linguistic mistake here, by using the wrong preposition à, derived directly from German: *Que faites-vous au mauvais côté de la Ligne ?

De Kervern snaps back at him: “Je croyais que les Allemands n’avaient pas le droit de venir en zone sud, monsieur… ?” (“I thought Germans did not have the right to come to the South zone, sir…?”). To which Heinrich answers: “Le droit est un rapport de forces, c’est Montesquieu qui l’a dit. Nous n’avons pas le droit de venir officiellement… Mais nous pouvons venir faire du tourisme.” (“The right is a question of the relation of forces, it was Montesquieu who said that. We do not have a right to come here officially… But we can come here as tourists.”). The quick-witted way in which Heinrich rejects De Kervern’s accusation proves his eloquence in French. To cite yet another example of his foreign language competence, a quote from a later episode of the same season shows him conferring with a French colleague on how to track down a messenger who is delivering secret information to the Resistance: “Ce qu’il faudrait, c’est que nous sachions exactement quand ils vont transmettre un message…” (“It would be necessary to find out when exactly they are going to deliver a message…”; Season 2, Episode 3, “La leçon de choses”, 00:09:23). In this sentence, Heinrich skillfully uses several difficult grammatical elements: for instance, the subjonctif (subjunctive mood) in “sachions” and the use of the future form of “transmettre”, although the German equivalent sentence would rather consist of the verb in the present tense.

The image of the ‘evil Nazi’ who masters several foreign languages can be found in numerous films. The most prominent example is Hans ←102 | 103→Landa in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). This “Jew hunter”, as people call him in the film, is characterized by intelligence and cruelty like Heinrich Müller in Un village français, a man who is known in the series for his sadistic interrogation methods. Even less prominent Nazi figures in other films often speak French very fluently, like the ruthless officials who want to benefit from the Parisian Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in Django (2017).

All these examples, including the character of Heinrich Müller, give the impression that the ‘evil Nazi’ dominates everything: the Germans have not only occupied France, but also master the language of this country. The superiority and rigidity of the National Socialists is also expressed when they speak French.

Interestingly, Bleichenbacher’s observation (2008: 83) regarding such negative foreign characters as, for instance, bad Russian guys in James Bond films, likewise pertains to Nazi figures in movies: “Code-switching and interlanguage are typical for negative or laughable minor characters, whereas higher up in the hierarchy, the evil masterminds are more often portrayed as fluent users of standard English.” The same ‘distribution of roles’ can be observed in Un village français. In a scene at the border between the ‘Zone nord’ and ‘Zone sud’, a strained Wehrmacht soldier wants to ward off the angry French on both sides of the closed border. His remarks clearly show that he speaks French poorly: “La ligne fermée ! […] Geschlossen, pas marchandise… Personne passe, geschlossen ! […] Pas klaxonne !” (“Border closed! […] Geschlossen (“Closed” in German), no goods… Nobody passes, geschlossen! […] No beep!”; Season 2, Episode 1, “La loterie”, 00:18:12 ff.). The “interlanguage” (Bleichenbacher) signals the insignificance of this soldier’s part within the series: The spectator will already have forgotten him after this scene – this is intentional. The bilingual and evil mastermind Heinrich Müller, on the contrary, remains one of the most visible characters throughout the series.

Imperfect language mastery is not only associated with the insignificance of individual characters, but also serves as comic relief: as Bleichenbacher (2018: 29) notes, humor is another benefit of using multilingualism in fictional texts. Frequent language mistakes or strong accents in films often fulfill the purpose of portraying the character speaking as ridiculous. An example of this can be found in the French crowd-pleaser La ←103 | 104→grande vadrouille (1966) in which the strong German accent of the Major Achbach stigmatizes him as stupid, incompetent and involuntarily comical (see also Hauner, in this volume). To avoid this characterization of Heinrich Müller in Un village français, it seems logical to use a figure that speaks flawless French with only a slight German accent.

Wehrmacht soldier Kurt Wagner also does not make grammatical mistakes typical of a German native when speaking French, however he has a slight accent. Kurt appears in the first season, where he catches the attention of Lucienne, the elementary school teacher, by protecting a child who unknowingly wrote down a homework assignment on a Resistance leaflet (cf. Season 1, Episode 6, “Coup de froid”). When he realizes in the second season that Lucienne plays the violin, he sees that they have common interests and uses this to get closer to her. While they are on a walk, he tells her: “Le Feldkommandant veut que nous donnons un concert pour le 150ème anniversaire de la mort de Mozart.” (“The Feldkommandant wants that we give a concert in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s death.”; Season 2, Episode 1, “La loterie”, 00:19:50 ff.). Here, Wagner makes a linguistic mistake by forgetting to use the subjonctif (subjunctive mood) after the verb “vouloir”. Directly afterwards, however, he avoids a typical error by formulating the number “cent cinquantième” (“hundred-and-fiftieth”) in a fluid and apparently effortless way. The dialogue continues:

[Lucienne] Le commandant Von Ritter aime la musique ?

[Kurt] Non, il aime les ordres… Et les ordres… c’est d’utiliser la musique parce qu’elle rend la vie… moins dure, elle…

[Lucienne] “Elle adoucit les mœurs.”5

[Kurt] Voilà, c’est ça. Alors, avec trois camarades, on va jouer le quatuor à cordes Köchel 421…

(– [Lucienne] Commander Von Ritter likes music?

[Kurt] No, he likes orders… The orders being… to use music, because it makes life… less hard, it…

[Lucienne] “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

[Kurt] Yes, that’s it. So, together with three friends, we are going to play the string quartet Köchel 421…)

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Kurt’s less sophisticated phrases at the beginning of this passage offer a rather convincing portrayal of someone who is looking for the right words to use in a foreign language. However, his knowledge of the French proverb “La musique adoucit les mœurs” (which does not have an equivalent in German) is not as realistic, although at first, he asks her to help him recollect the saying. In another episode, Kurt asks Lucienne to explain a word that she uses. In this scene, Lucienne comments on her violin skills: “Je joue comme une crécelle.” (“I play like a rattle”; Season 2, Episode 2, “L’engagement”, 00:10:40 ff.). Kurt does not understand the word “crécelle” (“rattle”) and asks Lucienne to explain and spell it, trying to pronounce it correctly several times. While his exaggerated interest in learning a new word can be interpreted as a part of the advances he makes towards the elementary school teacher, it also serves another purpose: his struggle with the comprehension of this word gives the audience the impression that he does not have a perfect grasp of the foreign language. The use of this same strategy can be seen in the example we have already examined in which Lieutenant Horstmayer says to Audebert: “Ce serait… chouette. C’est comme ça qu’on dit, non ?” (“That would be… fab. It’s how one says it, isn’t it?”) in Merry Christmas (01:23:46).

Once again, we go back to the conversation between Kurt and Lucienne, in which he tells her about the concert project: Another element in Kurt’s speech suggests that he has quite a high level of language proficiency in French. He uses the French formulation “avec trois camarades, on va…” (“together with three friends, we are going…”; emphasis added) – a sentence structure that cannot be translated directly into German (nor English) and that could not have been learned in school, as it is a colloquial phrase. To avoid mistakes, a germanophone would most likely use the phrase “les camarades et moi, nous allons…” (“the friends and I, we are going…”).

On the whole, these are only a few attempts to give the figure Kurt Wagner the appearance of someone who does not speak perfect French. His portrayal is somewhat comparable to the German characters in Merry Christmas. Just like them, Kurt makes no distinction between the Germans and the French – and speaks the language of the neighboring country almost perfectly. The series does not provide a possible explanation for his level in French; only the fact that his brother works as a teacher in ←105 | 106→Saarbrücken (cf. Season 2, Episode 2, “L’engagement”, 00:10:49) suggests that he grew up close to the French border. However, Kurt’s interest in music, his violin playing, and the fact that his brother earns his living as a teacher imply that Kurt comes from a middle-class household – a possible explanation for his good French.

His background coincides with an imaginary type that is not uncommonly encountered – the well-educated German citizen, the “Bildungsbürger”, who, as a versatile, educated and open-minded person, does not hate other peoples, but admires them for their strengths. In his contribution to this volume Fabian Hauner analyses the main German character of the film Le silence de la mer who is somewhat like Kurt Wagner. This film explores the story of the German officer Ebrennac, who is lodged in occupied France in the house of an elderly gentleman and his niece. Every evening he tries to communicate (in perfect French) with his unwelcoming hosts who remain silent – a small act of resistance. Nevertheless, Ebrennac does not give up, especially since he has fallen in love with the young woman of the house. In his monologues in the evening in the presence of the French, he quotes German and French books, philosophizes about the relationship between the two peoples – and thus proves to be a representative of the educated German middle class, the “Bildungsbürgertum”. Kurt Wagner in Un village français does not only share this high level of education with Ebrennac, but also the fact that he falls in love with a young Frenchwoman whilst being a German soldier in France.

In summary, the two most important German figures in Un village français each fulfill a cliché of a German soldier in occupied France: the ‘good’ educated Wehrmacht soldier and the ‘evil’ intelligent Nazi. Their proficiency in French serves the purpose of supporting their characterization as ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘superior’, thus reinforcing the audience’s expectations. It is therefore unsurprising that none of the 132 spectator reviews of the series on allociné show an interest in the high French level of the German characters.6

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The analysis of these examples has shown that germanophone film characters are hardly ever allowed to make any linguistic mistakes in French for a variety of reasons – which, however, is not noticed by large parts of the audience or at least not rated negatively. The lack of linguistic errors in the films stands in opposition to the main function of the multilingualism shown in them, whose aim is to depict communication in film as realistically as possible.

One of the reasons for the absence of language mistakes is that flawless communication is more enjoyable for the audiences. Authenticity is therefore conveyed by a slight accent, or sometimes an explanation for the characters’ proficiency in French is provided by their background (such as a French wife).

Especially in the examples that were analyzed in this article, the subject of the films generally requires error-free communication in the dialogues. The historical genre requires on one hand that the action progresses quickly and is not held back by language barriers. On the other hand, flawed communication in films is often used as a comedic tool, creating a humorous atmosphere in the film, one that is often avoided in ‘serious’ history films.

Thirdly, the above-average foreign language skills of the characters support their respective traits, e.g. empathy, openness, intelligence, but also their power-consciousness. This is often used to create archetypal and cliché characters. Additionally, the creation of multilingual characters can also allow filmmakers to convey a pacifist message that is driven by a cosmopolitan ideology that goes beyond the film.

The praise of the diversity of peoples and languages shown in films attempts to break up and combat linguistic ideologies and monolingual norms. Nevertheless, the way they go about doing so can sometimes seem a bit awkward: the films analyzed in this article do not keep this promise of breaking from linguistic ideologies, and even reproduce a well-known one: namely, that only grammatically correct language is considered to be proper language.


Django (2017). Dir. Étienne Comar. Fidélité Films.

Inglorious Basterds (2009). Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Universal Pictures.

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La grande vadrouille (1966). Dir. Gérard Oury. Les Films Corona.

Le silence de la mer (1949). Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville Productions.

Merry Christmas (2005). Dir. Christian Carion. Nord-Ouest Production.

Un village français (2009–2017). Dir. Philippe Triboit et al. Tétra Média/France 3.


Bleichenbacher, Lukas (2008). Multilingualism in the Movies. Hollywood Characters and Their Language Choices. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag.

Boutet, Marjolaine (2017). Un village français. Une histoire de l’Occupation. Saisons 1 à 7. Paris: Éditions de La Martinière.

Fäcke, Christiane (2010). Fachdidaktik Französisch. Eine Einführung. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag.

Junkerjürgen, Ralf (2019). Rompre l’incommunication : le rôle du plurilinguisme dans deux films sur la Première Guerre mondiale (La Grande Illusion; Joyeux Noël). In: Ästhetiken des Grauens: Der Erste Weltkrieg in Literatur, Medien und Erinnerungskultur, ed. by Marina Hertrampf & Jochen Mecke. München: Romanische Studien: 311–323.

Şerban, Adriana (2012). Translation as Alchemy: The Aesthetics of Multilingualism in Film. In: Monografías de traducción e interpretación 4, 39–63.

Smith, Alison (2010). All quiet on the filmic front? Codeswitching and the representation of multilingual Europe in La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) and Joyeux Noël (Christian Carion, 2005). In: Journal of Romance Studies 10 (2), 37–52.

Véray, Laurent (2009). Un long dimanche de fiançailles et Joyeux Noël : une patrimonialisation de la Grande Guerre comme antidote aux angoisses mémorielles et à la déprime européenne. In: Fictions patrimoniales sur grand et petit écran. Contours et enjeux d’un genre intermédiatique, ed. by Pierre Beylot & Raphaëlle Moine. Pessac: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 153–166.

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1 Anonymous, Language. In: The Movie Clichés List, ed. Giancarlo Cairella, (Accessed: 03/20/2018). Lukas Bleichenbacher (2008: 93) also uses this quotation in his work Multilingualism in the Movies to introduce the topic of multilingualism of film characters. However, he draws another conclusion from the platform post by developing the research question of whether non-English native speakers have inferior L2 knowledge in English than English native speakers have in a respective L2.

2 Harris, Brea: Joyeux Noel Evaluation. In: Merry Christmas User Reviews, (Accessed: 03/14/2018).

3 Cf. Allociné Joyeux Noël Critiques Spectateurs, (Accessed: 03/20/2018).

4 Cf. Merry Christmas Kundenrezensionen, (Accessed 03/20/2018).

5 Here, Lucienne refers to a well-known dictum “La musique adoucit les mœurs”, sometimes attributed to Plato, its likewise popular English equivalent being “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast” (William Congreve, The Mourning Bride, 1697).

6 Cf. Allociné Un village français Critique Spectateurs, (Accessed: 03/27/2018).