Illustration by Holly Whitnell.

Going to the cinema in Germany is no mean feat. There are many, many more factors that must be taken into consideration when one watches a film in their non-native language. In the UK, we have become complacent to the privilege of living in a country that, alongside the US, dominates the film industry. There is no question of how you will watch your chosen film, rather the problem is a luxurious one of not being able to choose a film in the first place! Compared to British cinema, the world of dubbing, subtitles, and everything in between is a permanent feature of German cinema. 

When I moved to Hamburg at the start of September for my year abroad, going to the cinema became a somewhat regular occurrence for me, and it remains so to this day. Not only is it a brilliant way to keep my ear for German sharp, but it also allows me to remain up-to-date with the German world of film. However, for each and every film I have seen, the manner in which I consumed it was different. I am, of course, alluding to the impossible question of whether to dub, subtitle, or simply do nothing when watching English-language films in Germany. And, as my experience has taught me, there is no right answer. 

The problem lies in the fact that going to the cinema deserves to be more than just a functional matter of understanding a plot. If one simply could understand a narrative with the aid of subtitles or dubbing in their mother tongue, it is unlikely that this article would have been written. However, the issue is much more nuanced than this. In many ways, it aligns itself more with questions of translation than questions of cinema. The way in which one sees and hears (and in this case sometimes reads) heavily affects the impression one walks away with. Where in the case of translation, the reader must only worry about words, there are many more aspects to be considered with film. It is not simply a question of getting an effective translation, but a question of conveying exactly the same tone, emotion and nuance that the director intended in their original screenplay, all whilst not detracting from the visuals – no easy task.  

Largely, the format is a matter of personal preference. For some, it may be preferable to have your eyes glued to the bottom of the screen as you quickly scan the subtitles from left to right. Whilst for others, simply having the luxury of sitting back, relaxing and listening to a dubbed actor’s voice presents itself as a more attractive and less strenuous option. However, to speak solely for myself, my heart sinks when I see a film is dubbed, as happens often in cinemas here in Germany. I question whether it can achieve the same effect and do the original actor (and director) justice. To take the matter to the extreme, it can feel like watching an entirely different screenplay, just with the same visuals. Not only are the facial expressions, lip, and eye movements out of synch with the original, but the voices are generic and bland, verging on machine-automated and lacking the original animation and colour the original screenplay possesses. This is, however, by no means to say that subtitles are a better solution. Whilst this option doesn’t aurally detract, it does leave viewers with no other option other than to have their eyes glued to the bottom of the screen, leaving very little to no opportunities for enjoying the carefully thought-out visuals. 

It is increasingly clear that trying to go to the cinema in a country where English is not widely spoken provides its challenges. However, the question lies much deeper than a simple inconvenience. Rather, the experience is indicative of the ever-increasing presence of anglophone culture in Germany and how this has also filtered into the world of cinema. The presence of the German language in cinemas, from my observation, is huge. In fact, I can barely see a difference between listings in the UK and in Germany. The majority of titles I have seen have been English or American, which is not representative of the audience members: the murmurs during the opening advert have all been German. This can only mean one thing: everyone is compromising to some extent. As an audience member, by watching a film in a language that isn’t your own or, as a director, seeing your masterpiece undergo significant changes through dubbing or subtitling. On some level, this is frustrating for everyone. And, having come abroad to immerse myself in the culture and language, it can be disappointing to feel as if the dark room you are sitting in could, in fact, be anywhere. 

Or, one can choose to see the joy in this slightly messy tangle of languages we find ourselves in. The joy is that we have found a way around the barriers, that we are now all able to enjoy the same films, in whichever cinema you are sitting in the world. Admittedly, the solution is not, nor will ever be ideal, but whilst we live in a world filled with a variety of languages, one must be prepared to multitask. So, is frequenting the cinema an exercise in sitting back and relaxing? It appears not. Instead, it’s an exercise in sitting back, putting your feet up and enjoying the mish-mash of language and culture before you. Sometimes you just have to ignore any inconvenience and go with the flow. Not ideal, but far, far better than nothing.