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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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“My identity is like a patchwork of different experiences.” A conversation with the multilingual actress Laura Weissmahr

Ralf Junkerjürgen & Katharina Schryro

“My identity is like a patchwork of different experiences.” A conversation with the multilingual actress Laura Weissmahr

Laura Weissmahr (*1992) grew up in a multilingual family and speaks Italian, German, Swiss German, English, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, and French. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in Film & Television Production at the University of Westminster in 2015, she worked as a producer and actress in several projects, including Júlia ist by Elena Martín.

Apart from the Catalan actors, the film crew of Júlia ist was composed of Elena’s German friends whom she got to know doing theatre during her Erasmus stay in Berlin. One of the German students in the film is played by Laura Weissmahr, who is a friend of Martín’s from the Swiss School in Barcelona. Multilingual Laura was a valuable asset on set who could, apart ←153 | 154→from acting and working as a production assistant, help with translations and subtitling. Fanny (the character Laura plays in the movie), with her cool, hipster-esque appearance, stands for the stereotypical lifestyle of the Erasmus generation as she studies “something creative” in Berlin. Her spontaneity, flexibility and independence reflect, to a certain degree, the attitude of this generation towards life, and she serves as a role model for Júlia in the film.

Besides Júlia ist, the two friends Elena and Laura also act side by side on the stage. Wohnwagen, a play by Rémi Pràdere, was performed in theatres in Barcelona and Madrid. Although the play is conceived as a fairy tale with some grotesque elements, just like Júlia ist, it also focuses on the difficulties the Millennial generation faces when it comes to getting to know oneself and shaping relationships. Laura, in the role of an angel, was able to make use of all seven of her languages during a monologue in which she switches every few minutes from one language to another.1

In October 2017, at a congress on multilingualism and film that took place at the University of Regensburg, we had a chance to interview her about the ways in which multilingualism affects her identity and her professional career in the film industry.

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Figure 1. Laura Weissmahr at the conference “Multilingualism in film” in Regensburg.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: How did you join the project of the film Júlia ist?

Laura Weissmahr: Elena, the director, is my best friend. I have known her since we were 12 years old. When we finished school, I moved to London to study film production and she stayed in Barcelona. She studied Comunicación Audiovisual at the Pompeu Fabra university. For their final degree, they were allowed to do a feature film. That’s why they started with this project. I was pursuing film studies as well, so when she called me and asked me if I wanted to participate, I thought I was just joining a students’ project, going to Berlin and have some fun with them, and now it is everywhere. For me, it was a favour I was doing for her, I didn’t think it was going to be so official.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: You were also translating for the movie. What exactly were your tasks?

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Laura Weissmahr: Later, I did the subtitles. It was a lot of work because it had to be subtitled in Catalan, English and German. I tried to help out as much as I could. The movie itself is only in Catalan and German, because it is filmed either in Barcelona, where Júlia, the main character, speaks Catalan with her family and friends, or in Berlin, where she speaks German. Her German skills are due to her attending a Swiss school when she was younger. However, on set, the languages were Spanish, Catalan, English, and German. This was mainly due to the Catalan or Spanish crew, who didn’t speak German. The film was co-directed, and since one of the co-directors didn’t speak German at all, I sometimes had to translate from German to English, but this wasn’t an official task on set.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Did you raise the language issue during the project? How did you tackle language? There are some scenes in which TV and radio are in Spanish and the rest is in Catalan. Was it an issue you spoke about?

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Laura Weissmahr: No, that wasn’t an issue because 70 % of the film is in German. The issue was the ending of the film. When you watch the film, it looks like a very well finished film, but there is about twice as much additional footage that was never used in the final cut. There are a lot of different versions of the film, which also include various endings in Barcelona, thus in a Spanish environment. But when Elena watched the film, she thought that the best parts were her experience in Germany. Furthermore, they were thinking that they were going to show the film in Barcelona. In Germany, it has not premiered yet. I wonder how the German audience is going to react to it, because for me, it’s perfect, I understand the whole movie. But I can’t imagine the experience of a person who doesn’t understand German and has to read the subtitles. Obviously, it’s not the same. So, this was an issue that was definitely considered.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: But in Spain, it was very successful.

Laura Weissmahr: Yes, it was. Maybe it has to do with the crisis. In Spain, this is a current issue among the youth. A lot of them want to leave, because it seems like the situation is better anywhere outside of Spain. Therefore, I think the film was very popular among young people, because it represents this generation who have left their homes earlier, lived somewhere else, come back with different experiences, and have not been able to reconnect with their environment because suddenly it seems boring and the view of the people around them is one-sided instead of two-sided. In my opinion, it’s more the experience depicted in the film rather than the language of the people. Since we are a generation that is switching from Spanish to English, language is not an issue. It doesn’t really become a problem, so you don’t point it out.

Figure 2. Júlia with her friends back in Barcelona. 01:26:54

Ralf Junkerjürgen: You have grown up with seven languages. Can you tell more about your language biography?

Laura Weissmahr: When I was 12, I spoke seven languages. However, this wasn’t my achievement, it was thanks to my parents. My father is Swiss and my mother is Italian. I was born in the South of Spain but due to my parents’ work, we moved around quite a lot. That’s why I lived in the United States, in Switzerland, and when I was 12, we moved to Barcelona. In addition to that, we spoke Italian with my mother. Therefore, speaking ←156 | 157→all these languages wasn’t really my effort. The only language I had to learn at school was French. That’s the only effort I have ever made to learn a language. I can only talk about myself, but for me, it’s natural. I don’t know how my brain would work without it.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Though you are an exceptional case, you represent a new generation of young Europeans who live in a country different from their home one and are able to communicate in at least three or four foreign languages.

Laura Weissmahr: But there are also cases like Elena. She is completely Catalan but she went to a Swiss school, so she learned German, a little bit of French and English. Then she was on Erasmus in Berlin. I think my case doesn’t necessarily represent this generation, because it’s due to my family situation, but around me, I see a lot of people who have left, learned another language, come back and switch between languages without effort. It becomes second nature to them.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Your language profile is also interesting for film directors because they can make use of your capacities for extraordinary characters.

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Laura Weissmahr: I guess it’s interesting for them because I can do multiple roles. I’ve been doing a lot of theatre after Júlia ist. Moreover, we did one particular theatre play in Barcelona where my friend is the director, and he asked me to do a monologue which lasted about 10 minutes. I would switch languages every two or three sentences. After that came other projects where I’ve been asked to do exactly the same, so this year has been a year I have been asked to perform within this diversity of languages. However, film directors doing an English or a German movie, which I would really like, for instance, have not approached me. It’s a Catalan movie but my part is just German. Actually, when you approached me at the Malaga Film Festival, you were very surprised I spoke Spanish.

Figure 3. Laura Weissmahr as Fanny, a German student. 00:49:50

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Yes, because you speak without accent on screen and I thought that this girl had to be German. However, she was not, as we now know. Do you have the feeling that film or theatre directors use you as an “element of multilingualism”?

Laura Weissmahr: I think not just with me, but in general, they like working with languages. In all the productions we are doing now, we aren’t scared of using other languages anymore. In some plays, I speak English and ←158 | 159→there are no subtitles. We just assume the audience will understand it. Sometimes I even feel bad about it, because the parents of my boyfriend, for instance, don’t speak English. I feel sorry for them but at the same time we agree that almost everybody is bilingual now. At least in the sense of “a little bit of everything”. As you said, it’s not always for comical use or for creating a historical context. It’s just to use the language as it is. As a tool to change something creatively, to add a creative level to the production.

Talking about theatre or a film project: I worked for a video artist named Jordi Colomer, who was the exhibiting artist for the Spanish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale this year. His project was all about how cultures merge and how civilisation is formed. He was very interested in the fact that I could speak so many languages. That’s why he asked me to recite Kafka’s text about the construction of the Babel tower in different languages, because in a way, it represented the construction, the beginning of civilisation. To conclude this metaphor, I think our generation is beginning to rebel against this kind of punishment from God that separates us and we will unite again.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Unite again in multilingualism.

Laura Weissmahr: Yes, exactly. Through the Internet, young people just feel as connected to the culture in Britain as they do to Germany, even though they are different. How can you cross this border? The language shouldn’t be much of an issue anymore.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Language is often related to issues of identity. You said you had lived in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, England, and the United States. What’s your opinion on this question of identity? How do you shape your identity with respect to languages?

Laura Weissmahr: I definitely don’t shape my identity by a nationality. Nationalism or the bond to a specific nationality is very difficult to understand for me. I know the issue in theory but I can’t feel it in my heart. My identity is like a patchwork of different experiences. For instance, I prefer one language for being angry and another language for being serious. When I speak German, I usually use a lower tone of voice, so that’s what I use when I want to sound serious. Therefore, my identity is linked to my experiences and to the places where I have lived. Obviously, ←159 | 160→this is also related to the languages I speak, because that’s why I’m here. However, at the same time, I feel a certain distance from each language, because I am not really at home in any of them. You mentioned the case of Stephan Zweig before, a multilingual author who believes nevertheless that speaking other languages affects his German writing. I feel the same. I feel like I’m never going to be able to write a proper piece of paper in one language, because I would like to use all seven languages and I would swap whenever it is convenient for me.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Where does this come from? You said you link certain ideas or biographical experiences to your languages. German is linked to situations that are more serious or is it just the style of communication?

Laura Weissmahr: It’s just because in Switzerland you speak lower, in Spain you shout more and I speak slower when I speak German. It is also linked to the people I am speaking with. When I think, I don’t think in language. If I think of a person, I think in the language I speak with that person. In general, I just think in clouds, which then turn into language in my mouth. My thoughts are not written. It’s a problem because I don’t really think before I speak.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Can you explain this with the clouds? That’s an interesting metaphor.

Laura Weissmahr: Maybe I shouldn’t compare it to a cloud. It’s more like a concept. I don’t put my thoughts into sentences. A sentence has a beginning, a middle part and an end. Therefore, it has a linearity. It has almost a temporality. That doesn’t happen in my head. I know I’m thinking of something but not until I say it, do I know exactly the structure of what I was thinking. Moreover, I think that has very much to do with the fact that I can’t fully express myself in any language. It sounds amazing, the seven languages, but at the same time I’m limited in each one of them.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Do you use each language for a certain context?

Laura Weissmahr: No, I mix them. Nevertheless, when it comes to emotions, language comes out very differently depending on which emotion you are talking about. For example, I studied film in English, so it’s easier for me to talk about film theory in English.

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Katharina Schryro: What’s your family language? Which language do you speak when you are together with both of your parents?

Laura Weissmahr: Well, that’s where all the craziness came from. At my house, at the dinner table we would swap between Italian, Spanish, German, Swiss German and English. We would go to another language whenever it was convenient. That’s why I got this bad habit of not finding a word and saying it in another language. If they had been more disciplined, maybe it would be different.

Right now, I have been living in Spain for a year again and my intimate language is Spanish because I’m speaking Spanish with my friends and my partner. Two years ago, when I was in London, it was definitely English. Therefore, it changes depending on my habitat.

Nolwenn Mingant: I would like to know about the financing of the film. It was a co-production and you said there were four nationalities on set and you translated. I was wondering: why so many nationalities? Was it because of the financing or was it due to the project?

Laura Weissmahr: The film was done without any budget. In the beginning, the four producers and directors put in €1000 each and said “let’s go, we are doing this”. The nationalities were just random. Actually, the main nationalities were German and Spanish, or Catalan. However, due to communication reasons, sometimes we would swap to English. Later, once the film was done, it caught the interest of producers. There was this production company, Avalon, which invested in the post-production and distribution, which cost a fair amount of money. They earned a bit with the Malaga Film Festival, but this was due to the post-production. The film itself was made on a zero-budget-basis. It was a nice experience for a group of friends helping each other.

Nolwenn Mingant: Concerning your translation job on set: did you use English because it was technical vocabulary of the film business and because you were studying that in London?

Laura Weissmahr: Yes and no. The technical team was Spanish and the actors and the locals on set were German. The vocabulary wasn’t that technical, so it wasn’t a problem. As I said, everyone on the set spoke English ←161 | 162→as well. I wasn’t the main translator. It was just in very specific situations that I would help out and translate.

Reine Maylaerts: I have a more general question. I would consider all of this as a kind of “happy multilingualism”. I’m really happy about it as well. The question I have is: within Europe, is this type of multilingualism linked to European multilingualism? Moreover, don’t we require of people who come from outside of Europe to rather unlearn their languages, because we are not considering that as multilingualism? That’s to say, if you look at the policies on a European level, we are adding up national languages and we consider this as positive. So, why should the other people unlearn their languages?

Laura Weissmahr: When you say other people, whom do you mean?

Reine Maylaerts: Let’s say people coming from the North of Africa or Turkey. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t learn the language, but my question is: don’t we have a different, and in this aspect more negative, attitude to this kind of multilingualism?

Ralf Junkerjürgen: The ideology of “happy multilingualism” might be explained by European history. We are nearly all monolingual. If we think of the oldest nations in Europe, like France, they followed a strictly monolingual policy for a long time since the French Revolution. In the 20th century, European hegemony perishes in the wars, the European Union is a kind of European resurrection, and multilingualism has a very practical and an ideological meaning for the unification of the nations at once. But seen from the outside, this might be, like Reine says, a reductive construction. On the contrary, from the inside, as is shown in these films, it is considered as a historical step forward. Maybe this is the point why it works so well, because it’s very constructive.

Patrick Zabalbeascoa: I agree with what you say that it is a starting point. But there are projects at universities at the bachelor’s level, as well as the primary school level, that show the negative effects of making very young children unlearn a language. The studies propose environments and methodologies where teachers don’t have to know five languages, which the student might have, but they should show awareness of their students’ ←162 | 163→linguistic situation and reduce embarrassment. Because silent periods these students go through are negative, apparently. However, teachers can start doing simple exercises like asking all the children to say their name in their own language and other initiatives. In Barcelona, for example, the language scope is very complicated. First, because you have people learning Catalan at home and Spanish at school or vice versa. Then, you have the additional immigration population and almost all language combinations are possible. Nevertheless, if the mother tongue is completely suppressed outside the home, that has been shown to be negative. Even for learning the host country’s language. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense at any level. I imagine that, as that awareness grows, the policy will change. I think, on a European level, funding that policy has changed. Before, it was only for European languages, now there is funding for multilingualism including Arabic, Chinese and non-European languages.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: Combining Reine’s remark with a question for Laura: “Happy multilingualism” is often impeded by the school system, especially in Germany. Even if pupils come from families with a certain academic background, for a long time it was nearly impossible for them to get access to university without speaking German perfectly. How did you get through this? School systems are often designed for monolinguals and now, there are people like yourself with five, six, seven languages. How was the contact with the school system in Barcelona or in other countries?

Laura Weissmahr: The thing is, I went to a Swiss school which was predominantly German. I struggled with learning Catalan and Spanish properly. I am lucky, because over the years, I soaked it up quickly. My sister, on the other hand, doesn’t speak Catalan to this day. Kids make fun of you, of course, but that’s it. The teachers were inclusive enough. Before, we were speaking about Arabic or Chinese. There is a lot of Arabic and Chinese immigration in Barcelona, which is affecting the generations younger than me. I used to work with a foundation that was based in Raval2 and 80 % of the kids in class were foreigners. Most of them Arabs and some Chinese. Sometimes you notice a certain kind of racism. Especially in small towns in Catalonia, where Catalan families worry that their kids would start ←163 | 164→speaking Arabic. Therefore, it was even the other way around. However, my friends, who are Arabic or Chinese, speak perfect Arabic or perfect Chinese, and also perfect Catalan and Spanish. Maybe they are lucky, and I understand the problem you are suggesting, but I think Barcelona had to adapt to it. I can only speak for Catalonia now because that’s where I grew up.

Patrick Zabalbeascoa: I want to go back to this multilingual identity. Your name can probably be pronounced differently in all these languages. Do you have a favourite pronunciation for your name in phonological terms? Because the spelling is easy, it doesn’t change.

Laura Weissmahr: My first name is definitely Laura (Italian pronunciation), the Italian version. That’s what my mom uses. My surname is more complicated. When I went to England, I would also say Laura (Italian pronunciation). I wouldn’t say Laura (English pronunciation).

Thea Kruse: What role does English play in Júlia ist? I noticed that in some of these modern, young-generation, inter-European migration films, most conversations are in English. I’m thinking of L’Auberge espagnole or Victoria. They switch to English as a third language in many of these films. That’s probably a realistic depiction of Erasmus and other kind of ←164 | 165→migration experiences, especially in Berlin. I was curious if that’s the case in your film, too, or if the focus is more on German, as a learning experience for the Spanish girl?

Figure 4. Júlia with her German friends working on a project. 00:32:35

Laura Weissmahr: I personally didn’t go on an Erasmus, but my friends told me that you made friends with a lot of people from other countries, who are on an Erasmus as well and you speak English with each other. That’s not the case in Júlia ist. Júlia goes to Berlin by herself and she doesn’t have any other Erasmus students around her. She speaks a little bit of German and she is surrounded by a German community, so she has to speak German and they don’t speak English. She speaks Catalan with a couple of Spanish and Catalan friends she has in Berlin, but that’s about it. The only English part in this film is the music. All of the music is in English with a bit of German rap. But in general, English doesn’t play an important role. In real life, it actually happens a lot that you either avoid other foreigners and go with German people, because you want to learn German, or you make a lot of friends from everywhere except Germany.

Ralf Junkerjürgen: There is just one scene, in which there is a mix of German and English phrases. It’s at the very beginning of the film, when Júlia goes back to her apartment and the girls are playing a game (see ←165 | 166→Figure 5). But apart from this, Júlia already has quite a good grasp of German.

Laura Weissmahr: Elena, interpreting Júlia, had to pretend she speaks less German than she actually does. It’s very difficult pretending you don’t speak a language. Therefore, she was stuttering a lot, although she is quite fluent in German. And it’s true, there is one scene where they play a game and the new flatmate is trying to translate for her. I think this is because one of the girls, one of the actresses is Australian. That’s why they play the whole game in English. On set, these things happen and then you are suddenly at a conference theorising about it and you haven’t thought about it before.

Figure 5. Júlia with her flatmate and some friends playing a game. 00:07:54

Nolwenn Mingant: When you were studying film production in London, was your linguistic profile the exception or the norm in comparison to other students? I’m thinking about whether the profile of producers is changing with the new generation. That they have more linguistic capacities because there is more co-production in Europe. What did you feel or what did the teachers say?

Laura Weissmahr: At university, there were the English students and half of the class was usually European or Asian. All these students have a very good level of English because that’s the requirement to be accepted at the university. Therefore, they would speak their languages as well as English. I haven’t met someone with this kind of multilingualism. Maybe English and Swedish or English and German, or English and French. That was very common. All the students there had a very good level of English. I think this has to do with the fact that the film industry is worldwide and not country-based anymore.

Nolwenn Mingant: Did you have that conversation with your teachers about whether speaking more languages than English would give you more job opportunities, or whether English was enough to survive in the world of production?

Laura Weissmahr: I remember one conversation in which he said that it’s good to have another language. My profile is interesting but at the end of the day, most of the money for movie production is in America or Great ←166 | 167→Britain. He said I could go to Switzerland, but then I would probably work for TV.

Constanze Potthoff: What language do you speak with your sister?

Laura Weissmahr: It depends on the situation we’re in. It used to be Spanish. Now she is studying in Lausanne at an English university, so she started speaking a lot of English with me, because she doesn’t speak French. When we argue, it is definitely Spanish and when it is very serious, it’s going Swiss because the language is quite harsh. It sounds a bit like snakes talking. However, generally we switch between Spanish and English. But again, it has changed with the years. It’s not really that interesting. It’s just about where we lived at that moment.

Gala Rebane: You have introduced the film as standing in the tradition of Erasmus films and at the same time pointed out (and then it was repeatedly confirmed) that language wasn’t a problem. For example, in the scene in which she tries to read the architecture book and drops it on her head. Is her exasperation caused by the academic writing style or the language itself? What are the main challenges for Júlia coming as an Erasmus student on an exchange from Spain to Germany?

Figure 6. Júlia trying to study for university. 00:39:17

←167 | 168→

Laura Weissmahr: It’s the culture and the fact that she is alone and everybody else already has their life sorted out. Even though in the beginning, she would very quickly be able to practice her German, it always takes her one second more to talk. When she asks a question, her professor ridicules her in front of the whole classroom, because she didn’t phrase it right or she doesn’t know what a Referat is. Therefore, the main issue is her loneliness, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the language, because Júlia learned it very quickly. At the end of the movie, she speaks German very well. I think it’s more the Germanic culture which seems kind of distant.

Gala Rebane: Is this more focused on the differences between the academic cultures of different countries or different cultures in general?

Laura Weissmahr: There is just one scene where they focus on this academic difference. For instance, there is this knocking on the table after class in Germany, but it’s not the academic surrounding itself. She studies architecture; I think there is a kind of global language to it.

Nolwenn Mingant: What are your new production projects now, since you said language is not an issue?

Laura Weissmahr: As I said, I am working on theatre. Now, we are starting a new theatre production on Saturday. That one is not necessarily focused on the different languages, it is mainly in Catalan. Nevertheless, we were trying to translate some parts, because there are people working on the play who have several nationalities or speak other languages.

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1 Mercè Rubià, ‘“Wohnwagen”, Arriesgarte a Ser Quien Eres’, 20 April 2017, https://www.teatromadrid.es/revista/wohnwagen-arriesgarte-quien.

2 El Raval is a neighbourhood in Barcelona.