Voice Actors in Germany: On Hollywood’s Lips
When actors from all around the world have a German voice, it is not because they are polyglots. Voice actors make cinema and TV stars comprehensible for the audience.
Enlarge image Humphrey Bogart as Rick and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa look deeply into one another’s eyes in the classic film "Casablanca." (© picture-alliance/ dpa) The man in the trench coat raises the weeping woman’s chin. “Schau mir in die Augen, Kleines!” (Here’s looking at you, kid!). Everyone knows the film, and everyone knows the quotation. But would Casablanca have been such a success in Germany if Bogart and Bergmann had spoken English? Or with German subtitles instead of the German voices of Paul Klinger and Marianne Kehlau (later Joachim Kemmer and Rose-Marie Kirstein)? The fact is that in Germany nearly every foreign film and TV series is shown in a dubbed German version.
Being a voice actor is not a profession in its own right. In Germany, most voice actors are trained actors who have theater and television roles, read audio books and do voiceovers for radio advertisements. Voice actors’ voices are often better known than their faces. You hear Manfred Lehmann and Gisela Fritsch and see Gerard Depardieu and Judi Dench. Even stars among the voice actors such as Christian Brückner, the German voice of Robert de Niro, are nowhere near as well known as the actors to whom they lend their voice.
Nearly 270 foreign-language feature films and documentaries were screened in German cinemas in 2008. In addition, there are innumerable TV series, TV films and DVDs, some of which are newly dubbed or are not shown at the cinema at all. Voice actors are even used for computer games. The dubbing is done in special dubbing studios. Two of the largest are the Berliner Synchron AG and Film- und Fernseh-Synchron GmbH (FFS). The Berliner Synchron AG has dubbed more than 5,000 feature films since 1949.
Enlarge image A mixing table at the dubbing studio Berliner Synchron AG (© picture-alliance/ dpa) “You have to be incredibly fast”
Dubbing a film well presents voice actors with a huge challenge. Acting talent is one important prerequisite – but it is by no means sufficient. “Voice acting is a special talent that not everyone has. You have to remember the text, the gaps and the expression all at the same time. That calls for the greatest concentration and ability to react,” says Norbert Gastell, 79. The actor and voice actor is the German voice of characters including Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films and the comic character Homer Simpson in the TV series The Simpsons. Gastell finds it even harder to do the voiceover for cartoon characters than for actors: “Actors prepare their emotions. You recognize it in the way they breathe, for example. With cartoon characters they appear all of a sudden. You have to be incredibly fast.”
During recording, voice actors stand at a console with their text and follow a short film excerpt without the sound on a monitor. The voice actor speaks the German text into a microphone in sync with the actor or cartoon character and tries to mirror the emotions and lip movements. The dubbing director checks the emotional expression. A cutter makes sure that the actor’s and voice actor’s gaps between speaking phases and breathing pauses and their lengths are the same. Work is done in so-called “takes,” the time between two movie clappers. The movie clapper’s purpose is also to indicate a common starting point for the film and soundtracks, which are recorded separately.
Enlarge image Voice actor Christian Brückner, who portrays the German voice of Robert DeNiro and Robert Redford, is known as “Die Stimme,” or “The Voice.” (© picture-alliance/ dpa) “Here in Germany dubbing is most advanced,” says Gastell. “I remember the Westerns of the seventies dubbed into Italian. Often the voice actors were still speaking when the actor’s mouth had long closed.” The quality is suffering increasingly from time pressure, however. Studios have to produce more and more cheaply and production times are becoming shorter. “Work is done at breakneck speed,” says Norbert Gastell. “You used to have three weeks for a film, and now you often only have three days. We do about 26 takes an hour.” That means there is no time to familiarize yourself with a role. The voice actor sees the text and film excerpts in the studio for the first time. At least the work is not routine, every film is different. “You have to feel your way into the new role every time,” says Gastell. “Some takes work first time, but others are a hard nut to crack.”
Lack of recognition
People argue about whether dubbing is worthwhile. The argument is often presented that original versions, as shown in Scandinavia, for example, make it easier to learn foreign languages. A pointless discussion, believes Nicolas Böll of the Berlin-based Association of Voice Actors. Learning languages is the job of schools, not of television and cinema. Böll regards original versions with German subtitles as a poor compromise. “Subtitles are distracting. And their content is often inadequate.” People process pictures and spoken information much more quickly than text that has to be read. That is why subtitles significantly reduce the original text.
“Dubbing gives viewers the opportunity to perceive the film as a total artwork,” says Böll. There are many outstanding examples of dubbing, for example The Lord of the Rings and Woody Allen’s films. This goes unrecognized. Dubbing plays no role at film festivals. “There are awards for every aspect of film,” says Böll, “Costume, cut, set, soundtrack – but not dubbing. Yet it demands a great acting performance, too. Many emotions are expressed through the language.”
Written by Jonny Rieder, a freelance writer in Munich.
Translation: Eileen Flügel