Friday 11 March 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Subtitling and Soundtracking 'Victoria'

Writer Wyndham Wallace explains how he ended up working as the English subtitler and music consultant on award-winning German one camera, one take movie Victoria.

Back in 2007,  three years after I moved from London to Berlin, Fabian Schmidt, a friend who is involved in sound design, asked if I could help out with the English subtitles for German director Sebastian Schipper’s third full-length film, Mitte Ende August. At the time, I was looking at leaving the music industry, where I’d worked for many years, and wanted to write more instead, something I’d been doing on a small scale for a while. The opportunity seemed like an interesting, related challenge.
From L-R: Fabian Schmidt, Nils Frahm and me.

Schipper – as he’s known, never Sebastian – had commissioned a translation, it turned out, but wasn't happy with it, so my job was to scour the English dialogue and improve it. Since my German isn’t perfect, I referred back to the original script only when the English felt wrong, and then met up with Schipper to check a few things I wasn’t sure I’d understood. But what I’d expected would be a short meeting instead turned into hours spent going through the dialogue line by line, refining it until finally we were both entirely satisfied with every syllable.

It was a fascinating experience. Schipper is as obsessed with the details of language and communication as I am, and equally frustrated by the lazy manner in which films are sometimes subtitled, so we spent ages arguing over single words, debating their implications and weighing up exactly how a character would express themselves. Sadly Mitte Ende August wasn’t a box office success, but it led to me working on another German film, Oh Boy, which went on to win a number of prizes in 2012. Its director, Jan Ole Gerster, has been kind enough to credit my subtitles as one of the (many) reasons for its international achievements. I think he just liked the nickname I came up with for a key character, Roly Poly Julie, but I realised I’d perhaps found a niche.

People who knew me, especially the ones who had actually heard me speaking German, were sometimes shocked to hear that I was subtitling films. Still, I realised, I wasn’t being employed for my German, but instead for my English. Soon I was invited to work on further films, and, in order to improve the ‘service’ I was offering, I began working with my sound designer friend, Fabian, who’s a native German speaker. We also learned how to ‘spot', which involves the placing of subtitles at the right times and with the right line breaks. It turned out there are all sorts of rules. We don't always stick with them.

Fabian and I became obsessed with the process: how breaks can alter the tension of the delivery of a line; how, if possible, a word that sounds similar in both languages needs to be read by the viewer at the same time as it’s spoken by the actor; how to condense dialogue if it’s too fast for a literal interpretation; how the choice of one translation from several can make a huge difference since this can say so much about a character. I’d never realised just how compacted good film scripts are, how every phrase carries multiple layers of information.

Fabian was hired to work on Victoria, Schipper’s next film, and once they’d finished shooting, Schipper approached me again to discuss subtitling it. At that stage, I think the dialogue was largely untouched. In all honesty, sound was pretty much the only thing that could be edited to ensure that there’s a recognisable shape to the movie, so what you see in the final film isn’t 100% what was said. In fact, I’m told there was one moment during the shoot when two passing tourists came up and started drunkenly asking what was going on, so the noise of them being urgently told to move on had to be carefully removed. Anyway, what I saw the first time was quite messy. Furthermore, since much of it is delivered with a Berlin accent, and there was no script, I couldn’t understand everything that was said, even in English.

Luckily, I already understood more than enough to know it was absolutely, gut-wrenchingly riveting. I found myself so drawn in that by the time they reached the apartment block I was literally yelling at the screen - I was alone, I should add – and, by the end, I was bawling like a teething child. I knew that subtitling Victoria would be hard, but there was no way I was passing the chance up.

As I was watching the film, my history working with music made me wonder how Schipper was going to soundtrack it. Afterwards, when I excitedly called him up to tell him that it was a masterpiece that I naturally wanted to subtitle, I also took the liberty of saying I had a few ideas for its music. I had no intention of putting myself forward as a music supervisor, and in all honesty I also said that I wasn’t even sure if it really needed music. But I told him that if he wanted me to send him some tunes I’d do so.

What followed was one of the most satisfying creative experiences I’ve ever had. After Fabian and the team edited the onscreen dialogue, he and I debated how to present it so it was easy to follow. Since the actors were improvising, this was especially complicated, and there was even more debate about how precisely to capture their linguistic tone. I recall that whether to use ‘mate’ or ‘dude’ as a salutation provided fodder for one particularly long discussion with Schipper, who inevitably joined us towards the end of the process.

While this had been going on, I’d presented a number of songs to Schipper that I felt might suit various scenes, and he soon invited me to take on the role of ‘music consultant’. Right from the beginning I pushed for Nils Frahm, about whom I’d written a few times for various publications, including a big piece for The Sunday Times on so-called 'neo-classical’ acts. Admittedly I also put forward a few other ideas: I knew that using quieter music was vital, and in attempting to find an effective methodology I tried taking it down the ‘vintage’ path too. For instance, for the closing credits I suggested ‘My Autumn’s Done Come’ by Lee Hazlewood, about whom I published a book last year, and a German language track by Fran├žoise Hardy for the taxi scene even survived until the penultimate version. What was always important, however, was to let the drama breathe, and not to let the music either obscure or over-emphasise what was happening on screen.

Schipper was particularly keen on a track recorded by Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds that I had sent him. As he wasn’t terribly familiar with Nils’ work, however, he was initially more excited by the idea of working with Olafur, who I already knew was very busy with Broadchurch. Johann Johannsson, was also mentioned, whose early solo work I’d admired but whose more recent soundtrack work - I’d just heard The Theory Of Everything – was, I argued, a little too saccharine for Victoria. So I kept hammering away at the idea of Nils, initially because I love his music, later precisely because he’d never written a soundtrack and is a great improviser, and ultimately because he’s also Berlin based. I knew he’d understand the atmosphere I envisaged better than someone who lived outside the city.

Over a number of lengthy, passionate chats, Schipper came round to the idea. I finally called Nils, with whom I’d exchanged phone numbers at a dinner party, and told him about the film. He was immediately excited, so Schipper arranged a screening. Nils was blown away. At that stage, I simply left them to figure things out, visiting Nils in the studio just one time to pass on some thoughts about various scenes that Schipper and I had discussed separately.

I therefore wasn’t so closely involved in how the music was used. Schipper is a man with a steadfast vision, and I didn’t need to intrude. But I attended a number of screenings where I shared my thoughts about what I thought worked and what didn’t. In particular, the scene where they return to the club proved problematic, and I offered a number of possible solutions, purely based on instinct as opposed to trial and error in the studio. What emerged was pretty much how I had hoped it would, I’m proud to say. Sadly I have to admit that the early scene where the dialogue is replaced by music wasn't my idea, but I felt it was a brilliant one since it provided an opportunity for the audience to absorb the relationships that were slowly being revealed. It was also a brave directorial decision since there were some lovely exchanges during that scene which had to be sacrificed.

When I attended Victoria’s premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, it was the first time I’d seen the finished product. I was terrified, since I’d been lauding it to anyone who would listen for months, but about 15 minutes in, I could tell from the audience’s reaction that Schipper had nailed it. The acting, the story, the camera work, the sound, the direction: all of these aspects are astonishing. I spoke afterwards briefly to Frederick Lau, who hadn’t seen the film since they’d shot it, and he was quite literally in shock.

But I’m proud, too, that the subtitles truly capture the language spoken, and its tone. There’s a line about pistols, for instance, that makes me chuckle every time, though it was questioned repeatedly up to the end. Nils’ music, meanwhile, is simply breathtaking. I get goose bumps during that club scene when his music comes in: it encapsulates everything I felt he could do for the film. Furthermore, I’ve now seen Victoria in one shape or another about 20 times, and I still want to yell at the screen as Sonne walks out onto that apartment balcony, and I still bawl at that unspeakably traumatic climax. I can’t speak perfect German yet, either.


Wyndham Wallace is the author of Lee, Myself & I: Inside The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (Jawbone Press), an acclaimed memoir about his friendship with the man who wrote ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’.

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