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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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Migration, Multilingualism and European Heritage: The Biopics Django (2017) and Vor der Morgenröte (2016)

Thea Kruse

Migration, Multilingualism and European Heritage: The Biopics Django (2017) and Vor der Morgenröte (2016)

Abstract: This article discusses the concept of the ‘European heritage film’, integrating, among other things, the use of multilingualism, as shown in two recent biopics, Django (2017) and Vor der Morgenröte (2016). Focusing on migration as an ideologically charged topic and a central theme in multilingual film, the analysis not only reveals the various functions of multilingualism in narrating the protagonists’ migration experiences, but also its political dimension.


Of the various topics multilingual film covers, migration is certainly one of its prevalent themes. Treatment of migration in contemporary cinema takes on various forms that range from culture clash comedies like Almanya (Yasemin Şamdereli 2011) or more recently the tragicomedy Toivon tuolla puolen1 (Aki Kaurismäki 2017), to contemporary dramas like the roadmovie Djam (Tony Gatlif 2017), or even historical films like the two recent biopics Django (Etienne Comar 2017) and Vor der Morgenröte2 (Maria Schrader 2016). What these films all have in common is the negotiation of attitudes towards migration and cultural diversity through the use of more than one language. What is particularly interesting about the two aforementioned biopics is that they both engage with the topic of migration by portraying well-known historical figures as refugees during World War II, namely, French Sinti musician Django Reinhardt and Austrian Jewish writer and intellectual Stefan Zweig. Released in 2016 and 2017, they are embedded in the vibrant debate about EU immigration policy that started in 2015 with the arrival of more than a million refugees in Europe. By presenting two famous persons as refugees, both films adopt a ←109 | 110→pro-refugee position, and, by using historical examples from World War II, they draw on an argument similar to the one employed by EU institutions. For instance, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker appealed to the Europeans in his 2015 State of the European Union speech, right before the peak of the refugee ‘crisis’, with a plea to welcome refugees in Europe as “a matter of historical fairness”:3 “We Europeans should remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Our common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from war, dictatorship, or oppression.”4

This is a good illustration of how current debates and problems inform contemporary discourses about the past, and how history is used in discussions about the present, both on and off screen. Thus, such heritage films as the biopics Django and Vor der Morgenröte say as much about European conflicts in the 20th century as they do about contemporary debates in Europe. Since these two EU-funded heritage films narrate history not from an exclusive (e.g. national), but from an inclusive, transnational perspective, I argue that they can be regarded as ‘European heritage films’. In my analysis, I focus on the multilingual character of both films, which is not only a marker of ‘Europeanness’ in the sense that it represents European linguistic diversity, but also a central tool for the mediation of the protagonists’ experience of flight and exile, including the (re-)negotiation of their cultural identities. The use of several languages can also be considered a key tool for conveying the films’ humanitarian and political message. Before discussing multilingualism in the context of migration in these two films, I will address the concept of the ‘European heritage film’, and will then cover the particular case of biopics. Finally, the comparison between both films will shed light on the commonalities and differences in their respective treatment of the shared past.

←110 | 111→

European Heritage Film

Heritage is a broad concept, including history as such as well as a wide range of cultural artefacts (cf. Bondebjerg 2016: 5). Understanding of what constitutes the heritage of a certain community, be it local, regional, national, or transnational, is influenced by its representations in various media. Fiction especially, with its emotional appeal, plays a key role in these processes. In the context of film studies, the terms ‘heritage cinema’ or ‘heritage film’ have been used since the 1980s to discuss historical films, more specifically costume dramas, literary adaptations or biopics that tend to celebrate mostly national histories and receive much criticism for doing so (cf. Vidal 2012). The term originated in Britain, where the genre has been particularly popular since the 1980s, however, heritage film in its various forms is now commonplace in all of Europe. According to Belén Vidal, the contemporary heritage film can be considered as

a hybrid genre with porous borders, a genre that is becoming less consensual and more political through its own staunch preference for emotional histories, and also more adventurous in its continuous incorporation of a popular historical iconography informed not only by literature or painting, but also by fashion, popular music and television. (2012: 4)

The two films I discuss in this article belong to the strand of heritage films that actively partakes in contemporary political debates, in this case migration, the protection of ethnic and religious minorities, the relationship between art and politics, and European integration. Despite the traditionally national scope that is typical of heritage films, Ib Bondebjerg and Belén Vidal, among others, have made attempts to put a stronger emphasis on the trans- and international realities of heritage film production, distribution, and reception in Europe (cf. Vidal 2012; Bondebjerg 2016). While having coined the term, Vidal nevertheless expressed doubts that European heritage film existed as of yet (2012: 5). In her influential book on the images of Europe in contemporary cinema, Mariana Liz seems to be guided by a similar concept. Although she never puts forth a definition, her leading criterion for singling out this transnational cinematic phenomenon appears to be EU funding (2016: 67; 69; 72). Axel Bangert et al. admit that “European heritage film is certainly more diverse than it is unified, but it is also impossible to deny its persistence and impact across various ←111 | 112→European film cultures” (2016: xxiii). Consequently, for them, European heritage film is simply heritage film from Europe. These discussions show that, while the phenomenon itself is gaining momentum, the concept of European heritage film has not yet been conclusively defined. Since EU funding and the geographical origins of a film cannot be the only criteria for defining it as a culture-related theoretical concept, I devise a larger set of four formal and four content-related hallmarks that enables differing between a heritage film from Europe and a European heritage film:

Table 1. Characteristics of the European heritage film

Formal criteria (at least two out of four should be fulfilled)

Content-related criteria (at least two out of four should be fulfilled)

Received funding from the EU or the Eurimages fund of the Council of Europe.

Transports a (political) message linked to the core values and freedoms of the European Union, e.g. as fixed in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Has been distributed in at least two European countries.

Shows transnational or transcultural rapprochement or interplay between different ethnic, religious, or national groups.

Includes characters that are from at least two European countries.

Celebrates aspects of cultural heritage from Europe that crossed the borders of nation states (e.g. music, philosophical/political thought, cinema, religion).

Two or more languages are spoken.

Deals with major European historical events or personalities.

The fact that these criteria remain relatively open, especially the content-related ones, allows both a flexible and more accurate categorization of the European heritage film than the taxonomies based on geographical origins or source of funding alone. However, it must be noted that in most cases, even heritage films with a strong national bias offer both national and European readings (cf. Bondebjerg 2016: 11; 20 f.), as the national and the European (or even universal) dimensions may overlap in certain ways. Thus, both national and transnational elements can be co-present at the plot level. Therefore, as with any genre definition, it is important to keep in mind that they can never be ‘waterproof’ but, rather, should be seen as a starting point for a more in-depth analysis. Django and Vor der ←112 | 113→Morgenröte, for instance, fulfill all the formal and content-related criteria. However, in my analysis, I focus only on the issue of multilingualism as one of their chief properties.

Within the plethora of European heritage films, Liz (2016: 69–76) emphasizes, among other things, the specific role of (artist) biopics as a particularly noteworthy subgenre that portrays historical figures as “distinguished Europeans” (2016: 72). As there are a large number of biopics that have been released in recent years, also including multilingual ones like Gauguin (Edouard Deluc 2018), Le Jeune Karl Marx5 (Raoul Peck 2017), or Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta 2012), it is indeed worth looking at the biopic and its specific properties. The biopic, as defined by George Custen, is “minimally composed of a life, or the portion of a life, of a real person whose real name is used” (1992: 6). Henry M. Taylor stresses that, in contrast to other historical films that typically concentrate on events, a biopic’s plot focuses on a central personality (2002: 22). Since biopics commemorate historical persons who are considered extraordinary within a certain society, one may say that biopics can operate as “filmic equivalent[s]; of statues and monuments” (Liz 2016: 72). As these films potentially present both intra- and extra-filmic identification figures to the public through the historical ‘role models’ they portray, the biopic is an extremely persuasive form of heritage cinema indeed. At the level of narrative, this strong focus on characters makes processes of personal development and identity searching as well as renegotiations of individual-collective relationships a pivotal subject of the biopic (cf. Taylor 2002: 21). As a fundamental component of identity, language plays a crucial role in the depiction of such processes. With regard to the focus of this article – the experience of flight and exile in two biopics – it is thus useful to consider the connections between languages and identities, since migration can initiate a renegotiation of the protagonist’s identity in relation with his or her rapidly changing, among other things linguistic, environment. Vidal also underlines the importance of identity and identification, although in her argument, she veers toward its potential for memory politics and ←113 | 114→claims that “the modern biopic has become a site of competing memories, in which the emphasis falls on identity rather than action” (2014: 22).

Another noteworthy trait of the biopic is identified by Lukas Werner: On one hand, the biopic refers to an extra-filmic historical personality, while on the other hand, as a fictional genre, it is not obliged to be historically accurate. Thus, the biopic, as it is located in between fiction and nonfiction, is characterized by a ‘communicative-ontological hybridity’6 (cf. Werner 2012: 269). According to Werner, it is precisely this hybrid status that raises questions of authenticity, as he claims that in factual communication, things can either be true or false while in fictional communication, the status is not questioned at all, because what is said is exclusively part of the fictional world and not about the ‘real’ one. Werner goes as far as to assert that authenticity has become a core trait of the aesthetics, marketing, and reception of biopics (2012: 269). Indeed, aiming for authenticity, it is this very combination of historicity with fictional storytelling that constitutes the persuasiveness of biopics. The use of more than one language in many contemporary biopics can also be understood in this context as part of a larger authentication strategy. Many of the biopics’ protagonists knew several languages by the virtue of their profession and/or socioeconomic status, therefore their depiction as multilingual in the films is a tribute to historical authenticity. Yet this function of polyglottism in biopics is but merely a starting point in an interpretative analysis of multilingual European heritage films.

Django: finding home on the run

The biopic Django deals with a short period of Sinti jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt’s life between 1943 and the end of World War II in May 1945. This temporal limitation, among other things, underlines that Django strives to present its protagonist as an almost political actor in troubled times, contrary to more conventional films that primarily celebrate the entire life and oeuvre of an artist. Nearly two thirds of the film take place at the Swiss border where he is waiting for an opportunity to flee (0:40:02–1:43:38). His attempt to escape and, more importantly, ←114 | 115→his time spent waiting, are thus turned into the film’s focus, making this state of flux a central emotion of the film. Reinhardt wants to take refuge in Switzerland because of his ethnic affiliation as a Sinto, an often persecuted and marginalized group. Django is thus also about the question of Reinhardt’s experience of displacement as well as about his way of dealing with the persecution of the ethnic minority he belongs to. This goes along with a negotiation of his cultural self-understanding and his responsibility as the most prominent representative of the Sinti people. My analysis deals with the use of different languages and music, Django’s language-like medium of expression that changes through the course of his journey, and in particular, the protagonist’s identity shift from a Parisian dandy towards a community-minded Sinto, which is mediated through multilingualism and music. A descriptive presentation of the languages’ distribution throughout the film will be the basis for this.

Django did receive EU funding, but it nevertheless remains an entirely French production, set exclusively in France. It is therefore unsurprising that French is the main language of the film, making up 62 % of the dialogues. Other languages used in the film are Romani (27 %), German (9 %) and English (2 %).7 The film is structured chronologically and its narrative macrostructure is composed of four parts: it starts with a prologue (0:00:21–0:02:47), ends with an epilogue (1:43:38–1:48:27), and has a main story divided into two parts, with the first taking place before Django’s attempt to escape (0:02:48–0:40:02) and the second showing him waiting and trying to leave the country at the Swiss border (0:40:03–1:43:38). This structure is also reflected in the use of different languages:

Table 2. Language use in Django


Total share

Used in part (P;1;2;E)a


62 %



27 %



9 %



2 %


a P = prologue; E = epilogue.

French dominates the first 37 minutes of the main action taking place in Paris, with only a few words in Romani and German and two short scenes in English to dilute its otherwise monolingual character. In the second part, which takes place in Thonon-les-Bains, there is an increased use of Romani and German. The prologue and the epilogue are entirely in Romani, which only appears through singing in these two scenes. Thus, Romani is the only language present in all parts of the film, although its quantitative presence is much lower than the presence of French. With ←115 | 116→the biopics’ focus on characters as their key attribute, the protagonist’s language use is especially important. Django Reinhardt speaks French, Romani and English throughout the film, with French and Romani being his two mother tongues.

Monolingual consensus, multilingual confrontation

Since the film takes place in France, speakers of French and its conversational contexts by necessity greatly vary, so there is no specific emotional or situational focus associated with the use of the French language. With French as the common main language, the first part of the film’s plot does not underline a division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ through the use of different languages. The protagonist himself nearly exclusively speaks French in the first part of the film – even with his wife and his mother who are both Sinti. In Paris, French is presented as the only language for ‘real’ communication: Django only speaks Romani to his monkey Joko (0:31:01–0:31:02) and the English scenes are only imitations of existing dialogues. In this way, Django Reinhardt is at first presented as a predominantly French artist. In Paris, the German occupants have a positive attitude towards Django and use his language instead of theirs, trying to convince him to go on a tour to Germany. They are still the solicitors while Django is a popular star who believes he is being protected from the National Socialists because of his fame. In one scene in Paris, the Germans’ linguistic shortcomings are underlined, where a German captain tells Django that his concert was “diversant”, and is then corrected by someone saying “divertissant” (“entertaining”; 0:13:31–0:13:34). Through this small mistake, as well as through the occupiers’ German accent, which is mocked ←116 | 117→in the first third of the film (0:35:40–0:36:06), French-speaking Germans are portrayed as ridiculous. Non-native speech in Django is thus used for caricature-like characterizations of certain groups, as well as for the demonstration of power relations between them.

This linguistic interplay between superiority and inferiority is reversed through the course of the film, with the National Socialists becoming increasingly dangerous for Django and the other Sinti. Comments on German accents and mistakes in French are no longer present in the second part of the film. Moreover, the German occupiers appear as bilingual, asserting their dominant position through their mastery of both languages and control over both countries. The development from a mostly monolingual towards a multilingual language code thus echoes the plot’s development from consensus, or at least coexistence, towards dissent and conflict. The lack of comprehension of the other’s language complicates communication and hinders understanding, fosters mistrust and underlines confrontation by stressing varying levels of otherness. Multilingualism makes the different actors in conflict more visible and easily distinguishable – the use of different languages underlines that Django and the occupants are no longer potential business partners but, rather, perpetrators and their victim.

In contrast to French, which is spoken by everyone in Django, only the German occupants speak German. In the first part of the main plot it only appears on a sign that forbids swing dancing during concerts (0:08:28–0:08:30) and thereby shows from the beginning that the German speakers are the ones issuing bans. In general, German is the language orders are made in, but in Thonon these come more frequently, sound more aggressive, and are linked to the direct danger of getting arrested. For instance, in one scene in Thonon, Django, his wife Naguine and his mother Négros get chased from the house they are squatting in. From a narrative point of view, the use of German has an important effect here: as the first direct confrontation between Django and the occupiers, it makes the change in relationship between them harsher, since the preceding encounters with Germans were marked by politeness, as shown by the use of French.

Soldier 1: Was machen Sie hier? Sie müssen sofort weg!

Lieutenant: Was ist hier los? Das Haus ist beschlagnahmt. Sie müssen sofort gehen. (throws a suitcase at him) Na los!

←117 | 118→

Négros in Romani: We didn’t do anything to you!8

Soldier 2 to Négros: Treppe runter!

Soldier 1: Beeilen Sie sich bitte.

Soldier 1: What are you doing here? You have to go away at once!

Lieutenant: What’s going on here? This house is confiscated. You have to go away instantly. (throws a suitcase at him) Off with you!

Négros in Romani: We didn’t do anything to you!

Soldier 2 to Négros: Get downstairs!

Soldier 1: Please hurry up.


Django’s mother Négros speaks Romani in this scene even though it would be more probable to be understood by the soldiers if she had spoken French. Through the use of Romani and German instead of a common language such as French, it is underlined that Négros, Django and Naguine are discriminated against not as French people, but as Sinti, and that the perpetrators are not French, but rather German.

Compared with the other three languages used in Django, English seems to play an unimportant role, but with regard to the representation of Django’s cultural self-understanding and its development throughout the film, its actual function is crucial. English can be found in the first part, for instance through the use of words from the world of jazz music and in the lyrics of a jazz song inside a jazz club in Paris (0:17:30–0:19:45), with the guests singing the song out loud. The only spoken dialogue in English is in the form of imitation and not in a genuine conversation. In this scene, Django’s lover Louise asks him to imitate the famous actor and Django’s idol Clark Gable (0:26:51–0:27:32). For one thing, this dialogue symbolizes American culture as a source of entertainment and as a possible way to forget about the war. Inside the jazz club, English also enables the guests to move without dancing prohibitions and to forget the restrictions imposed by the German occupation. Most importantly, English stands for Django’s admiration of US culture, which is very present during the first part, notably through references to Clark Gable and the American jazz music which had an important influence on Django’s musical style. Django ←118 | 119→even says “Depuis qu’il y a plus de jazz américain à Paris, c’est moi le King of Swing.” (“Since there is no American jazz in Paris anymore, I am now the King of Swing.”; 0:18:38–0:18:41). As the new “King of Swing”, Django, whose real name is Jean, even positions himself as part of the American jazz tradition. By contrast, during the second part in Thonon, English is hardly used at all. It underlines that Django’s focus shifts from the admiration and imitation of US culture towards a reinforced feeling of belonging to the Romani people. This development also goes along with an increased use of the Romani language.

While it is only used for indicating some characters’ ethnic affiliation in the first part of the main plot, Romani plays an increasingly important role during Django’s attempt to flee. With his mother and his wife, he increasingly speaks in Romani rather than French. The same applies to another part of his family in Thonon, with whom he speaks French at the beginning but later on switches to Romani. In general, Romani is mostly used in (large) family contexts, which are also more important in this part than in Paris. In that way, Romani is associated with the warm welcome by Django’s family and the Sinti community spirit in general, in contrast to a rather individualistic lifestyle in Paris. Given that the Sinti community doesn’t define itself through a certain territory, the use of Romani also serves as a medium through which the Sinti community is given a perceivable cultural ‘space’. Through increasing use of Romani, the film suggests that Django finds home while fleeing, not in a specific geographic location but in the community.

In Thonon, Romani speech often accompanies live music. In these scenes, the music played is presented as a cultural good of the Sinti, not as a product of American culture. This association of Romani with music also constitutes the film’s auditive and narrative frame, with the prologue as well as the epilogue being sung in Romani. Django’s increasing awareness of his Sinti origins finally culminates in his “Requiem for my Gypsy brothers” in the epilogue (1:44:44–1:48:27), with which he commemorates the Sinti murdered during World War II. This requiem scene and the song performed in Romani in the prologue (0:00:21–0:02:43) are the only long non-French scenes in the film that are not subtitled. Shorter scenes in which Romani is spoken in the background are not subtitled either. In these, Romani does thus play not a communicative but a purely aesthetic ←119 | 120→and symbolic role – the language of the Sinti blends into the music. Through the missing translation and the incomprehension resulting from it, the language becomes a mere stream of sounds, and ultimately turns into music, or, as Sanaker (2010: 26) puts it when referring to multilingual film in general:

notre manque de compétence linguistique de spectateur […] nous permet ou nous oblige d’adopter une autre attitude envers l’autre langue que celle à laquelle nous sommes conditionnés par notre culture conceptualisante: en assumant notre non-compréhension, nous découvrons la langue dans sa musicalité, dans sa matérialité.

(our missing language competence as spectators […] compels us to develop a different attitude towards other languages than the one we have been conditioned to adopt by our culture built on abstract concepts: by accepting our incomprehension, we shall discover the musicality and materiality of the language.)

Conversely, music becomes a language-like means of expression in Django, as will be shown below.

Music and language – music as language

The interplay of music and language is, as already stated, a recurrent motif in the biopic about the jazz musician. Numerous passages in which music plays a major intradiegetic role, with several full pieces of music performed, make music one of the most important components of Django. Music accompanies the protagonist as a means of artistic and personal expression during the entire film. He even finds artistic inspiration in his situation of displacement, which manifests itself in a shift from the admiration of American jazz culture towards an appreciation of Sinti music. The languages also function as markers of the music’s cultural origins, which are multiple in the case of Django’s music. This becomes especially clear in the closing scene, where Django plays the requiem for his people, in which he incorporates elements of Christian sacred music. His music represents a ‘musical Esperanto’ that everyone understands, no matter which language(s) they speak or which ideology they adhere to – even the National Socialists fall for it despite prohibiting jazz. Moreover, music not only operates in Django as a form of metalanguage, but also as a language-like medium of communication for the protagonist.

In several instances, he answers via music instead of speech. The most emblematic scene in which this takes place is in Thonon shortly after ←120 | 121→Django and his family’s arrival. As a specific code which communicates content and emotions, music can be compared to, or even, as it is the case in this film, be used as, a form of language. Thus, Django and Naguine are having a ‘trilingual’ conversation, in which the former expresses his bad mood through music and the latter answers in Romani and French (0:48:23–0:50:06). As their exchange progresses, Django’s music changes from short and dissonant to longer and consonant chords and melodies until he starts speaking and Naguine starts humming. The conversation ends with both of them humming a melody together. This scene demonstrates that music is just as important as verbal languages are for Django. Consequently, music needs to be understood as more than simple entertainment. As one of the main topics in Django is the political expression of artists in times of crisis, his music also needs to be understood as a medium that can convey a political message, especially in the second part of the plot. For instance, when Django has an audition at a bar, he starts to play the beginning of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Then, he switches to fast Sinti jazz melodies, mixed with elements of the Marseillaise. While the bar owner was bored by the Marseillaise, he is excited by Django’s new creation. Thereby, the scene implicitly suggests that cultural diversity is enriching. Moreover, Django takes a symbol of French national pride and reinterprets it – in this way, he demonstrates that the cultures of France and Sinti have the capability to intertwine. However, the tone of his music changes with the ongoing cruelties of war and his long time waiting to flee in Thonon and becomes his main instrument of self-expression. In the epilogue in a church in Paris, after his failed attempt to flee, he does not speak at all, but the music speaks for him. As the lyrics of the requiem he composed are in Romani, the requiem also mirrors his increased feeling of belonging to the Sinti community and conveys Django’s humanitarian message.

Vor der Morgenröte – multilingualism and the longing for a lost home

Vor der Morgenröte, an Austrian-French-German coproduction about the intellectual, writer, and committed European Stefan Zweig, stands out among other multilingual films with a total of eight languages depicted ←121 | 122→within. Furthermore, in contrast to many other originally multilingual (heritage) films, the fact that the film has not even been dubbed in Germany, a typical dubbing country (cf. Sanaker 2010: 12), underlines the importance of multilingualism in this film. The use of subtitles instead of dubbing can be explained by its concept, which is based on a very detailed and realistic representation of notable moments in Stefan Zweig’s life. More than that, it can also be explained by the fact that the film aims at mediating the protagonist’s suffering in exile. Like in Django, the migration experience is central for the period of Zweig’s life depicted in the film, focusing on his travels and his life in exile in America from 1936 to his suicide in February 1942. The exile experience is primarily conveyed through the use of different languages, since Europe and the cruelty of war are not visually present, as the entire film is set in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. The importance of the connection between language and exile is subtly present throughout the film and becomes explicit in the film’s epilogue, where Stefan Zweig’s original farewell letter is read out loud, in which he says that he would have liked to build a new life in Brazil after the loss of the ‘country of his own language’ and after the self-destruction of his intellectual home, Europe.9 He adds that he has not been able to do so because of his long years of displacement and nomadic travels. The following discussion concentrates on the protagonist’s experience of loss and nostalgia and its negotiation through language.

Because of the frequent changes in location and the high number of languages spoken on screen, it is necessary to get an overview about the use of the different languages at the different places.10 The film is composed of six parts and set in five different locations, all far off from Zweig’s Austrian homeland. These parts each document a single day, in a time span between 1936 and 1942. The locations of the parts (in the film’s chronological order) are Rio de Janeiro (0:00:47–0:09:48), Buenos Aires (0:09:49–0:28:26), the Brazilian province of Bahia (0:28:27–0:50.17), New York City (0:50:18–1:11:58), and the Brazilian town of Petrópolis (part 4: 1:11:58–1:32:54; epilogue: 1:32:55–1:38:58). Five of the eight ←122 | 123→languages used in the film are spoken by the protagonist himself: English, German, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. None of the six parts of the film are monolingual but only German is present in all of them:

Table 3. Language use in Vor der Morgenröte


Total share

Used in part (P; 1–4; E)


56 %



17 %



12,2 %



7 %



6 %



1 %



0,7 %



0,1 %


Given that German is used far more frequently than the other languages, it can be considered the guiding language (or Leitsprache; cf. Wahl 2005: 145) of the film. As the film’s guiding language, as the protagonist’s mother tongue, it is central to the film and I will therefore focus on its use in particular, contrasting it with the use of the other languages. This by no means implies that the other languages are unimportant – it would simply be beyond the scope of this article to analyse the use of each of those separately. Despite the presence of German in a wide range of conversational contexts, it can be noted that the dialogues in German are often concerned with subjects like flight, exile, and war. Stefan Zweig speaks of his thoughts and feelings about Europe exclusively in his German mother tongue. This is the case throughout the film, starting with an interview with journalists at the P.E.N. Congress11 1936 in Buenos Aires (part 1; 0:12:22–0:18:18), the conversations with his wife Lotte about the organization of travels and assistance to friends who want to escape the war, and in several other scenes including his farewell letter in the epilogue. The monolingual scene ←123 | 124→that is by far the longest in the film (part 3; 0:50:30–1:06:56) entails a long conversation between Zweig and his ex-wife Friderike in New York City in 1941, where they discuss the war in Europe, the letters Zweig receives from people begging for help, and Friderike’s traumatic journey to America. Through the use of German, the spectator gets an intimate insight into Zweig’s emotional states. The German language is strongly associated with the war that is devastating Europe, and thus operates as a medium through which the invisible cruelties of war are able to be experienced in the film. Nevertheless, German is also the language of strong positive emotions expressed by Stefan Zweig. Their immediacy and authenticity stand in contrast to the superficially friendly and polite talk in other languages.

Despite their overall strong presence on screen, composing overall 44 % of the spoken text, the other seven languages are utilized in a manner quite different from German. In many cases, the use of languages other than German simply highlights the international character of Zweig’s environment or underscores Zweig’s language skills. Foreign languages are often used in scenes in which people politely greet each other, have small talk or deliver a speech. Thus, they often remain at a superficial, professional level. With its strong, often gloomy emotionality, the conversational context of German forms a stark contrast to this. The scenes with the most languages spoken, including situations where they are spoken simultaneously, are mostly big events like the P.E.N. Congress. The latter is also the most multilingual part of all (involving six spoken languages in total). These are events during which Zweig appears uncomfortable because he does not want to attend them but has to. He perceives them as a high psychological burden. This way, multilingual situations are often associated with stress and constraints, and as a consequence at least partly have a negative connotation.

Nevertheless, other languages are also used in private contexts, notably French and English. The latter is spoken in Friderike’s apartment in New York (part 3) with Zweig’s American publisher and friend Ben Huebsch. While the English conversation is marked by strong expressions of happiness, in a preceding and partly parallel exchange, Stefan Zweig relates his depressed mood in German (01:06:45 - 01:07:18):

←124 | 125→

Stefan (reads out loud a letter): “Und ich stehe vor Ihnen, als Bettler um Hilfe. Ehrenstein.” (pause) Du hast vollkommen Recht, Fritzi. Was wiegt meine Arbeit, was wiegt irgendetwas gegen diese Wirklichkeit? (“And thus I stand before you begging for help. Ehrenstein.” (pause) You are absolutely right, Fritzi. What weight does my work hold, what weight does anything hold against this reality?)

Ben (outside the frame): Hello? Anybody here?

Friderike (leaves the frame to join Ben): Oh! Ben! I’m so sorry! Please, come in!

Lotte (to Stefan): Wer ist Ehrenstein? (Who is Ehrenstein?)

Ben (to Friderike): My dear friend, welcome to New York!

Friderike (to Ben): I’m so glad you… (incomprehensible, because of the parallel conversation)

Stefan (to Lotte): Freund von früher. (A friend from the past.)

Ben: When did you say you arrived?

Friederike: Almost ten weeks ago now.

Stefan stands up and goes to Ben, the camera turns towards Ben, Friderike and Stefan.

Ben: Stefan!

Stefan Zweig: Ben! (hug) So good to see you.

Ben: Same here, Stefan, same here.

Once again, this scene shows very clearly how far the spheres of conversation in the different languages are from each other, both emotionally and with regard to the content. While Zweig speaks in German about the fate of his poet friend Albert Ehrenstein, Friderike starts a parallel conversation in English with Ben, which is at once jovial and inconsequential. Ben Huebsch enters the apartment from outside and is not visible during his conversation until Stefan Zweig joins in the conversation. The spatial and linguistic separation highlights an emotional distance between inner thoughts and external behaviour as well as between Europe and America.

On the whole, non-German languages are used for friendly and superficial exchanges and the only moment when they are also used to convey negative emotions is the closing scene after Zweig’s suicide. There, in one scene, Stefan Zweig’s Jewish friend sings a kaddish (healing prayer) in Hebrew at the bed with the dead bodies (1:35:55–1:36:14). Directly afterwards, Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s Brazilian gardener sits down next to the bed to pray, too. Even though this is the only scene where Hebrew is used, it plays a key symbolic role because it is only after Stefan Zweig’s death that the Jewish religion is explicitly shown. Thereby, it gives a hint at Zweig’s fate and the fate of the Jewish people in their struggle to find a place they can call home. His Jewishness is the main reason for his life in ←125 | 126→American exile in which he yet felt displaced, while the country of exile is represented by the Christian Portuguese prayers said by their Brazilian gardener. That way, Zweig’s utopia of a peaceful coexistence of different religions and ethnic groups is depicted without him having the opportunity to experience this vision becoming reality. Thus, there is again a distance, not an emotional, but an existential one, between Zweig and the people speaking in the other languages. The same goes for the Brazilian music with Portuguese lyrics that is playing in the background in the epilogue: while the music sung in Portuguese in the prologue is followed by Zweig’s praise of Brazil as the “land of future”, the same cheerful tone of the music in the epilogue is not heard by the writer after his suicide, thereby indicating that the blissful country and the culture he had so appreciated failed to make him find a new home there.

It can be noted that the content communicated in the non-German languages tends to be less relevant12 but their overall effect is a very important one, as it contrasts with the use of the German language – and it is only in contrast with each other that the languages obtain their specific roles. What is suggested at the level of action is reinforced at the level of language: Zweig is welcome everywhere, but he is exhausted by the frequent travels, the receptions he has to attend, and above all by his thoughts about the war in Europe, which he cannot stop thinking about. Through the differing use of the different languages, a marked distance between his inner world, burdened by thoughts about war, and the blithe outside world becomes obvious. An impression of the protagonist’s growing inner isolation is mediated through multilingualism and reveals a notion of interconnectedness of mother tongue and feelings of belonging by transporting information about the war in German. Indeed, there is no classical narrative antagonism in Vor der Morgenröte because the war is not shown in the film but only hinted at in conversations. Instead, the film depicts an inner conflict of the protagonist and the relationship between ‘inner world’ and ‘outer world’, which is emphasized by multilingualism.

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Aspects of mis- and non-comprehension in the experience of exile

Vor der Morgenröte reveals the multifaceted aspects of non-comprehension: its multilingual setting underscores communication problems that are only partly due to language. While the film resolves the issue of possible incomprehension on the part of the spectator by providing translation or subtitles on the interdiegetic level, it also focalises instances in which mis- or incomprehension on the intradiegetic level is caused not only by language differences but also by differences of experience and emotion which different languages connote.

Interpreting is first and foremost a strategy of mediation of foreign-language content in multilingual films (Bleichenbacher 2008: 173 ff.). Nevertheless, interpreters play a special role in multilingual films because they do not only mediate between characters in the film but also make content accessible to the audience (cf. Şerban 2012: 45). Through the high presence of interpreters and interpreting characters in Vor der Morgenröte, the necessity of linguistic mediation is not only acoustically but also visually emphasized. Thus, as a form of indirect communication, personal distance is created towards the non-German content. As there is always a third person listening in a dialogue with interpretation, the conversations are inevitably less personal. In Vor der Morgenröte, the lack of privacy in interpreted dialogues is particularly strong, for it is in the context of the public events Zweig is forced to attend that the interpreters are present (prologue; part 1; part 2). In these contexts, the interpreters add to the feeling of a multilingual, stressful chaos that is caused, among other things, by their relentless whispered translations.

Even though, as already stated, there is no direct conflict like in Django, Vor der Morgenröte also uses multilingualism in order to create distance between the characters. Therefore, comprehension problems that are both of a linguistic and personal nature are also key to understanding the representation of the protagonist’s experience of displacement. A very graphic example for this type of non-comprehension can be found in the third part, when Stefan Zweig’s American publisher tries to give a gift and wish Friderike a good start in her new home in New York. He wants to do so in German, even though he does not speak German at all (01:09:20–01:09:55):

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Ben: Äh.. so.. habe ich hier… einen Aufrag, was ich muss geben. Brot äh Solz. In the European manner… Fur diese neue… home. (I have here… an assigh-ment which I must to give. Bread a solt. […] For this new…home.)

Friderike: Thank you so much, Ben!

Ben (opens a piece of paper and reads out loud): For…äh…für…ääh… Wohlgähän, for Scheschefteme… ähh…Schescheftig…Scheftig…keit?

Friderike (laughs): Sesshaftigkeit. (Sedentariness.)

Ben: Sessaftigeit. (Sedentassness.)

Friderike: Ja. (Yes.)

Ben: Fur die Gemein…schaft…äh…lichkeit? (Fir the communality.) With regards from my wife.

By trying to speak German (and by the type of his gift), Huebsch’s intention to create a feeling of home and to please the others is highlighted. At the same time, he unintentionally recalls Stefan and Lotte Zweig that they have not yet found a new home. Ben Huebsch does not directly understand the meaning of his words, neither at the level of language nor at the level of personal experience. As he did not have to flee from persecution, he does not seem conscious of the actual impact of his speech. What is striking here is that he is most struggling with the pronunciation of the word Sesshaftigkeit (settledness/sedentariness). This pronunciation problem is a long, involuntary emphasis on a state Stefan and Lotte Zweig are still far from reaching. Another scene in which linguistic non-comprehension is linked with a personal one can be found in the epilogue, which starts with two Portuguese-speaking men that are outside the frame (1:33:01–1:33:28). They jointly try to translate something from German into Portuguese, discussing exclusively grammar and vocabulary aspects of the text they are translating. Therefore, it is not obvious at first glance that the letter is Stefan Zweig’s farewell letter he had written shortly before his suicide. The fact that these men talk about this highly emotional letter only by discussing technical aspects of its translation increases the suspense since the situation is difficult to interpret for the film audience, even though subtitles make the content of the conversation accessible. At the same time, this scene suggests that the men cannot make deeper connections regarding the weight of the letter, certainly on a linguistic level, yet also on an emotional level. All of this creates an emotional distance between the characters and the audience, as well as illustrates the omnipresent feeling of not being understood, which contributes to the depiction of Zweig’s ←128 | 129→isolation amongst a sea of other people, thus providing a conclusive commentary on the experience of exile.

Showing the invisible through language – a comparative perspective on both films

The examples of Django and Vor der Morgenröte demonstrate that multilingualism is a central element in the mediation of the protagonists’ migration experience. However, in these two films, it is employed in quite different ways. While in Vor der Morgenröte, Zweig’s native language is the key to understanding his identity and experience of exile, Django traces the protagonist’s transformation in the course of his experience of displacement through the renegotiation of his two mother tongues, namely, French and Romani.

In Django, in contrast to Vor der Morgenröte, the protagonist is in direct danger of getting arrested by the German occupants after fleeing from Paris. Multilingualism is thus more a tool for delimitating and characterizing different groups and power relations than it is in Vor der Morgenröte. The development towards a direct confrontation in Django goes along with an increased use of the perpetrators’ and the victims’ languages, German and Romani. Through the protagonist’s increased use of the Romani language, it is stressed that he positions himself on Sinti side. Because of this narrative antagonism, including an easily identifiable enemy, the Nazis, there are languages with more or less positive, or even clearly negative connotations. In Vor der Morgenröte, by contrast, there are no antagonistic relations between characters or groups of speakers of certain languages, mostly because Zweig is already in exile where he is secure and warmly welcomed by his environment. It is rather an internal, psychological struggle between Zweig’s cosmopolitan attitude and the reality of his exile, in which he was completely uprooted. The latter is mediated through the use of the German language while his new surroundings are represented by the other languages spoken in the film. Through the use of certain languages in certain contexts, his psyche and his emotions on one side and the world surrounding him on the other side, as well as the distance between these spheres, can be identified – and it is only through the use of the German language that we learn about his emotional state.

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Through different, more complex representations of situations in which misunderstandings on different levels are at play, Zweig’s inner isolation and loneliness in exile is highlighted. This contrasts with the language use in Django, which is developing through the course of Django’s flight and thus rather underlines the ‘external’ action as well as Django’s transformation from a Parisian dandy towards a more community-conscious Sinto. Unlike in Vor der Morgenröte, multilingualism does not make more complex processes visible – since the film does not show a profound reflection of the protagonist about his experience of displacement, language does not play the same existential role as in Vor der Morgenröte, at least not at the individual level. At the collective level, however, it has important symbolic implications in Django, too.

What both films have in common is the strong connection between music and language, while this is true to a lesser extent for Vor der Morgenröte than for Django. In both films, prologue and epilogue music with lyrics sung in a language other than the films’ respective guiding languages has a key function for the mediation of the protagonists’ ‘before’ and ‘after’ situations: Vor der Morgenröte starts and ends with a Portuguese-language song playing in the background that characterises the country of exile as an easy-going, peaceful place. While in the prologue, it underscores Zweig’s enthusiastic attitude towards Brazil, a similar song stands in a stark opposition to the situation of mourning in the epilogue, which shows that the feeling of happiness transported by the music proved to be inaccessible for Zweig. In Django’s prologue and epilogue, music and songs in Romani underline the connection of the Sinti people with their music, initially here not directly associated with the figure of Django, but becoming so by the end. Music as a (meta-)language plays a pivotal role in Django, highlighting the existential importance and communicative character of his artistic form. By contrast, Zweig’s art form, literature, is a solitary one and is strongly linked to verbal expression, which makes it perhaps more difficult for the protagonist to deal with the situation of displacement and further contributes to his isolation. The protagonists’ artistic means of expression are thus in both cases fundamentally connected to language(s) and to the way they cope with being uprooted.

Furthermore, in both films, multilingualism keeps together the elliptic, weak narration that, as such, is rather structured in an additive than in a ←130 | 131→causal way as it is composed of several separate episodes with relatively large time gaps between them. Through the use of more than one language in the context of the protagonists’ migration experience, certain causalities are evoked at least in a subtle way, which is especially the case for the German language in Vor der Morgenröte and the Romani language in Django. Beside this, it is important to note that both protagonists develop a strong orientation towards their cultural and linguistic origin during the course of their migration experience. This is symbolized through the use of their mother tongue(s): Django shows the Sinti musician’s rediscovery of his cultural roots and Vor der Morgenröte reveals Zweig’s desperate longing for his lost home. Another noteworthy parallel between the use of language in both films is that it shows what cannot be seen: While Romani in Django represents a culture that doesn’t define itself through a certain territory and thus evokes a physically undefinable home, in Vor der Morgenröte, German symbolizes the equally invisible homeland that Zweig had to leave behind, one that he was unable to forget. Nevertheless, Django is portrayed as a member of a community by using the Romani language whereas the German language in Vor der Morgenröte reveals the protagonist’s isolation in his new surroundings.

Finally, the languages of the ethnic or religious groups that were persecuted during World War II are strongly linked with their fate in both films. In Django, this connection constitutes the film’s linguistic, emotional and thematic frame: the film starts with a Sinto singing in Romani getting shot in the head in the prologue, and ends with the requiem in the epilogue that is also sung in Romani. The epilogues of both Django and Vor der Morgenröte commemorate the dead in the language that represents the reason for their death: In Django, its eponymous protagonist who survived the war composes a requiem in Romani for his ‘Gypsy brothers’, as he calls them, that were killed during World War II. In Vor der Morgenröte, Zweig’s Jewish friend Abrahão Koogan sings a kaddish in Hebrew after his death, thereby evoking one of the reasons for Zweig’s life in exile and finally his suicide. In that way, each film ends with a commemoration of a minority persecuted during World War II. This message is ultimately reinforced by the use of the language associated with them. Through the endings of the films, the protagonists are turned into figures that stand for the Sinti and Jews persecuted during the war, respectively. Therefore, ←131 | 132→the use of multiple languages must also be understood as a persuasive element that communicates central humanitarian and political messages in both films. The spectators’ perception of flight and exile is intensified and guided by the appearance of multiple languages through the course of the film. Thereby, they can reinforce empathy for the protagonists and the minorities they represent. More globally, multilingualism in contemporary heritage films also facilitates the accurate depiction of different historical groups, thereby contributing to a new understanding of heritage that includes linguistic, cultural and religious diversity.

As the above-mentioned epilogues show, both heritage films also end on a religious note – a requiem in a church in Django and two prayers in Vor der Morgenröte, suggesting the shared pacifist values represented by religion, which has the potential power of uniting the peoples at war with each other. The topos of religion is used quite frequently in European heritage films, for instance in Christian Carion’s multilingual European anti-war film Joyeux Noël (cf. Junkerjürgen 2019 and Scholz in this volume). These films champion the vision of a united Europe that is composed of various peoples, given the presence of the suffering caused by war. As the ultimate reason for the existence of the European Union as a guarantor of peace in Europe, the two World Wars are frequently highlighted in political, cultural, and media discourses, including the European Union’s institutional communication. Liz even states that “at least by negation, war is so important for the EU, it must, perhaps paradoxically, be continually remembered” (Liz 2016: 77).

As two biopics financially supported by the European Commission, Django and Vor der Morgenröte are part of the EU’s cultural policy. Furthermore, both films focus on the suffering during World War II in contrast with the shared cultural and artistic heritage and its uniting potential represented by their protagonists. The ideological messages communicated by them resemble the EU’s famous maxim “unity in diversity” – multilingual protagonists as refugees who represent cultural and religious diversity, explicit thoughts on European integration in Vor der Morgenröte, European music as a universal language in Django. Moreover, even though both films do not celebrate multilingualism in a naïve or exaggerated way, the multilingual character of these films’ settings and protagonists reflects the guiding principle of the EU’s language policy, which is to foster language learning and ←132 | 133→multilingualism among EU citizens.13 Considering all these elements, both biopics can therefore be considered as European heritage films in the way the term is defined in this article. To a certain extent, both films leave behind the national bias of the ‘traditional’ biopic and indeed offer up to the audience potential ‘European’ figures. Given the specific hybrid and persuasive nature of the biopic, these identification figures are both intra- and extra-filmic as the historical personality that is represented by the film’s protagonist is directly associated with the latter. This article has underlined the central role of multilingualism in the depiction of these figures, as well as their experiences and identities, particularly in the context of migration. More in-depth research on its role in European heritage film as well as in the biopic can provide further insights into the complex functions of multilingualism in film.


Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland (2011). Dir. Yasemin Şamdereli. Concorde Home Entertainment.

Djam (2017). Dir. Tony Gatlif. Les Films du Losange.

Django (2017). Dir. Etienne Comar. Pathé Distribution.

Gauguin (2018). Dir. Edouard Deluc. StudioCanal.

Hannah Arendt (2012). Dir. Margarethe von Trotta. NFP marketing & distribution.

Le Jeune Karl Marx (2017). Dir. Raoul Peck. Films Distribution.

Toivon tuolla puolen (2017). Dir. Aki Kaurismäki. B-Plan.

Vor der Morgenröte. Stefan Zweig in Amerika (2016). Dir. Maria Schrader. X-Verleih.


Bangert, Axel et al. (2016). Introduction. In: Screening European Heritage: Creating and Consuming History on Film, ed. by Rob Stone & Paul Cooke. London: Palgrave Macmillan, xvii–xxxiii.

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Bleichenbacher, Lukas (2008). Multilingualism in the movies: Hollywood characters and their language choices. Tübingen: Narr Francke.

Bondebjerg, Ib (2016). The politics and sociology of screening the past: a national and transnational perspective. In: Screening European Heritage: Creating and Consuming History on Film, ed. by Rob Stone & Paul Cooke. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 3–21.

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

Liz, Mariana (2016). Euro-Visions. Europe in Contemporary Cinema, New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Sanaker, John Kristian (2010). La rencontre des langues dans le cinéma francophone: Québec, Afrique subsaharienne, France – Maghreb, Québec: Presses de l’Univ. Laval

Şerban, Adriana (2012). Translation as Alchemy: The Aesthetics of Multilingualism in Film. In: MonTI 4, 39–63.

Taylor, Henry McKean (2002). Rolle des Lebens. Die Filmbiographie als narratives System. Marburg: Schüren.

Vidal, Belén (2012). Heritage Film – Nation, Genre, and Representation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Vidal, Belén (2014). Introduction: The Biopic and its Critical Contexts. In: The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, ed. by Tom Brown & Belén Vidal. New York etc.: Routledge, 1–28.

Wahl, Chris (2005). Das Sprechen des Spielfilms. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

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Werner, Lukas (2012). Authentic Life. Ein Paradigma des Biopics im Spannungsfeld von Hybridität, Relationalität und Narration. In: Authentisches Erzählen: Produktion, Narration, Rezeption, ed. by Antonius Weixler. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 265–290.

Zweig, Stefan (1942): Declaração. Online under: (accessed on 01.11.2018).

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1 English title: The other Side of Hope.

2 English title: Farewell Europe.

3 Juncker, Jean-Claude: State of the Union 2015: Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity. In: <> (15.05.2018).

4 Ibid.

5 English title: The Young Karl Marx.

6 Own translation.

7 The following analysis is based on the multilingual original version with French subtitles.

8 The sentence is written in English in this transcription because no written version could be found, since she speaks in a rare Romani dialect which has no common written language.

9 Cf. Stefan Zweig, Declaração. Online under: (accessed on 23.05.2018).

10 The following analysis is based on the multilingual original version with German subtitles.

11 P.E.N. (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) is a worldwide association of writers that aims at fostering mutual understanding and cooperation through culture, particularly literature.

12 Examples include a discussion in French about the coffee price in the prologue, a crowd of people in part 1 who want to take photos of Stefan Zweig, etc.

13 Eur-Lex: Promoting multilingualism in the EU. Online under:;EN/TXT/?uri=LEGISSUM%3Ac11084 (accessed on 28.02.2019).