"It's funnier in German!?"

1. Introduction

Germans are (in)famous for not having a sense of humor, but I'll put off discussing this stereotype and its roots to some other time. TVTropes offers a decent (and positive) enough discussion of the subject. But one of the most obvious counter-arguments against the stereotype is that the German dubs of many foreign language movies (English, but also French, Spanish or Italian) and TV series from the 1960s to the 1980s happen to be funnier than the originals.

The reason for this is Schnodderdeutsch - a "school" of dubbing established by Rainer Brandt, a writer at Deutsche Synchron. In this article, I will first explain what Schnodderdeutsch is, then show an example, followed by a short analysis of the example, and a critical evaluation of Schnodderdeutsch in general.

2. History

Noticing that it was very difficult to translate certain types of American slang used in US movies into German, Rainer Brandt, writer and voice artist at the dubbing studio Deutsche Synchron, started trying a new approach in the 1960s: Instead of merely translating original scripts, he rewrote them, adding his own mix of German slang and humor. The scripts often took advantage of silent passages, or characters being offscreen, to add in jokes and funny phrases. Brandt would name the style Schnodderdeutsch - "snotty German".

Other writers in the German dubbing industry soon imitated this style, because it was popular with the audiences. Many German versions of foreign movies and TV shows from Cold War West Germany therefore are very different from the originals. Well-known examples are the Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movies, which are famous for being a lot funnier in German (one comedian did a bit where he'd just recite jokes from the Schnodderdeutsch version), and which are still shown on German TV a lot.

While The Persuaders!, a TV show starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis as crime-investigating richmen, only ran for one season, the Schnodderdeutsch version (called Die Zwei, "The Two" and written by Rainer Brandt), first shown in 1972, was enormously successful. Alone between 1977 and 1984, it had three prime time reruns on national television.

Tony Curtis himself was so enthusiastic about the German version that he wanted to film a second season of The Persuaders! - based on scripts originally written by Brandt. The idea never materialized due to disagreements with Roger Moore. A viable (yet pretty much the only) example of international success for Schnodderdeutsch is the fact that the very popular French dub of The Persuaders! was not based on the original scripts, but on the German rewrites.

During the 1980s, the Schnodderdeutsch school became less popular among studios. Low quality productions that imitated Brandt's vision without finesse had hurt the style's reputation. The last major production to be dubbed in Schnodderdeutsch was Hogan's Heroes, at the beginning of the 1990s.

3. Example

The following is an example that's supposed to show differences between an English script, and the Schnodderdeutsch version. The dialog is from the introductory scene from The Persuaders! episode "Greensleeves". In the scene, one of the two lead characters, Danny Wilde, played by Tony Curtis, approaches the gate of a property in order to take pictures with his camera. A tight-mouthed Englishman, who seems to be a gardener on the property, notices him.

The scene is about 45 seconds long. I wrote a transcript of the English version, and a translated transcript of the German version. But first, the original:

Wilde: "Hi!" - "Yes?" - "Is... erm, is this place called Greensleeves?"
Englishman: "What do you want?"
Wilde: "Aw, I've heard a lot about this place, I really have. I'm from Sand Dusky, Ohio - American, just a tourist traveling around. I thought I'd like to take some pictures for the wife and kids for them to see - if you, er, think it would be possible for me to get in there?"
Englishman: "No visitors allowed."
Wilde: "Er, could you ask the owner, maybe?"
Englishman: "He's not here."
Wilde: "Excuse me - what's the owner's name?"
Englishman: "The 15th Earl, Lord Brett Sinclair."
Wilde: "The 15th Earl, Lord Brett Sinclair! Well you're sure kind to a stranger, thanks a lot!"

Here is my translation of the German version, with translation notes in the pipe links:

Wilde: "Yoo hoo! I bestow my greetings upon you, lord of the cap! The summerhouse here on this parcel, is that called Greensleeves?"
Englishman: "What do you want?"
Wilde: "Basically, not much - I just wanted to hear the English grass grow. Where I live, we only have that in plastic - I'm from Ohio in America, and like most people who are from there, I am American. An American tourist passing through. Could I perhaps make a few pictures inside there?"
Englishman: "There are no visitors allowed here."
Wilde: "Oh well, then you could perhaps ask the doorman, or the owner!"
Englishman: "He's not here."
Wilde: "That's but sad. What's the name of the guy anyways?"
Englishman: "The property belongs to the 15th Earl, Lord Brett Sinclair."
Wilde: "Tell me what! There's 15 of them - quite the plague! By all means, thank you for the exhaustive information. A wonderful weekend to you!

4. Analysis

First of all, it is obvious that the writers tried to sneak in as many jokes, quips and funny wordings as possible. But it's not true, as Wikipedia states, that everything was changed but the images. The words coming from the Englishman are indeed pretty much the same as in the original version. And the German version gives all plot relevant information (the property is called Greensleeves, it belongs to the second lead character who is not present, and visitors are not welcome) contained in this sequence.

What's different is the amount of words Curtis' character uses. The writers were able to get away with him saying more because some of the scene doesn't show his face - after the "Hi!" in the original, the Englishman responds with "Yes?", and the camera cuts to him, but you don't register his lips moving. In the German version he does not respond verbally at all, and the writers use the cutaway to let Wilde crack a few jokes instead. As the dialog goes on, there are some moments in the original version where Wilde takes pictures. Because his mouth is covered by the camera, the writers of the German version were able to squeeze in one or two additional lines there, while in the original Wilde is not saying anything, you just hear the sound of the camera.

How do the two versions of the scene compare? The tone of the original, supported by the music and image, is kind of eerie - we know there's something suspicious going on here at this property, but we don't know what. The German version doesn't completely forsake this impression - it is still there, represented by the Englishman, who is the same character as in the original. But Wilde's character is changed in a way that clearly subverts the eeriness. His casualness, immaturity, and general upbeat and sarcastic tone might be seen as an extreme version of the original Wilde character, who is the easy-going counter-image to Sinclair's upper class stiffness. But, truth be told, the character is so extreme, he also changes the character of the scene.

5. Critique

Just from the scene above it's easy to see that the character of the show altogether is also changed through Schnodderdeutsch. Whether you like the changes or not, there is no respect for the artistic intent of the original creators. The approach brushes over differing genres, characters and atmospheres to make them fit to a formula.

In general, the Schnodderdeutsch school takes the lead characters and turns them into quip cannons, while the side characters (as shown in the example) are often more or less left as they are. This results in a shrill and at times borderline surreal contrast: While the leads constantly trade jokes off each other and make fun of everything in sight, most of the rest of the ensemble become puppets just there to advance the plot. The contrast will inevitably make the rest of the characters appear self-important, square and kind of boring. Scenes without the leads will seem very stiff, as if they're from a different movie, and tend to drag.

In many ways, the plot itself is tossed to the sidelines. While in most films and TV shows viewers may guess that the heroes will win out in the end, in the Schnodderdeutsch versions the heroes themselves seem to know they're invincible, and therefore free to riff on everything that happens onscreen, even in moments of danger. Tense scenes are quickly defused by comments like "Hands up, I've got an armpit fetish!" or "The little one is injured and bleeding - that clashes with the color of my Ferrari!"

Schnodderdeutsch also regularly breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the viewer, or the script itself. Die Zwei in particular was famous for the main characters sprinkling in comments like "Finally some excitement in this flick!", "To the attentive listener that sounds like a threat.", or "The annoyed viewer asks, 'but what?'" This doesn't just further detract from the original artistic intent, it openly makes fun of it.

However, as you can see from those quotes, Schnodderdeutsch was pioneering in the field of meta-humor. By building the riffing directly into the scripts of the movie or TV show, the dubbing style not only predated, but in its way pre-empted shows like MST3K, and more generally the internet age's obsession with riffing, parodies and meta-jokes. Therefore, even at the cost of sacrificing characters, excitement, and artistic intent, Schnodderdeutsch was, without a doubt, highly innovative.

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