Audiences increasingly confused by actors’ mumble jumble

Domestic films are increasingly being subtitled in Danish, which critics say detracts from the viewing experience

The age-old joke about their language being so incomprehensible that Danes can’t even understand each other may have finally come true – at least at the nation’s cinemas. 


Screenings of ‘Kvinden i Buret’ (‘The Keeper of Lost Causes’ – literally ‘the woman in the cage’) are now being offered with Danish-language subtitles at cinemas across Copenhagen, Aarhus and Odense. 


Additionally, Grenaa Cinema in the Jutland region of Djursland has also introduced subtitles for ‘Olsen Banden på dybt vand’ (‘The Olsen Gang in Deep Water’) and ‘Antboy’, as well as Danish screenings of ‘Turbo’ and ‘Planes’. 


As Gert Skov, the owner of Grenaa Cinema, told the radio show P1 Morgen, Danes are having trouble deciphering their countrymen’s style of speaking.


“It is too hard to understand what the actors are saying; they mumble too much,” Skov said.  


READ MORE: In the cartoon world, if they’re dumb they’re from Jutland 


Changing speaking styles

Film producer Regner Grasten, whose films include ‘Hvidsten Gruppen’ (‘This Life’), suggested that the introduction of subtitles for domestic films marks a general change in the way Danish actors are speaking. 


“Danish actors are no longer talking like [classic actors] Poul Reichhardt, Tove Maes and all the others did in Danish films in the middle of the last century. This has been both a positive and negative trend among Danish actors – and probably foreign actors as well,” Grasten told P1 Morgen. 


“The way that one speaks is becoming more natural. There just happens to be the problem that often you can’t understand what they’re saying.” 


It is hardly the first time that Danish film has received criticism for unclear dialogue. The television series ‘Den som dræber’ (‘Those who Kill’) was widely criticised for being difficult to understand, as was Lars Mikkelsen for his dialogue in ‘Forbrydelsen’ (‘The Killing’)


But Grasten felt that the change in speaking style was not something that needed changing, either through subtitles or through requiring actors to speak more clearly. 


“You lose the pulse and the ‘right-here-and-now’ situation in the natural style of play that many young and old actors have acquired, which is very good for film,” he said, noting that he would not require actors to speak more clearly in his own films.


Not just a Danish trend

Incomprehensible dialogue is hardly a trend unique to Danish actors. 


The 1996 Scottish film ‘Trainspotting’, for example, was noted as being particularly unclear due to the actors’ thick Edinburgh vernacular, and it was even dubbed by producers in some parts to help the film appeal to US audiences. 


More recently, the 2012 BBC One drama ‘Birdsong’ received widespread criticism for its indistinct dialogue – Tony Hall, the head of the BBC, even went on to recommend that actors be required to speak more clearly. 


READ MORE: Totally nice! Why Danes love to speak English


“I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I think muttering is something we could have a look at,” Hall told the UK’s Radio Times in July.  


The acclaimed US crime series ‘The Wire’ has also been noted as particularly difficult to comprehend due to its Baltimore dialogue.  But when the question of using subtitles to decipher the thick dialogue came up, one of the series’s creators, George Pelecanos, echoed Grasten’s sentiments.


“[Subtitling] kind of reminds me of scenes from that [1980 disaster spoof] comedy ‘Airplane!’, when two black guys speak and subtitles appear on the screen,” Pelecanos told The Independent in 2009. “We wrote it so audiences would have to work at it.”


Mixed response from audiences 

Even so, Skov maintained that the response to the subtitles, at least at Grenaa Cinema, had been widely positive.


“Most customers have been pleased with our decision because they have experienced bad pronunciation of the dialogue in Danish films,” she told P1. “Others have been tired of it and say that they want to see a movie – not read it.”


But John Tønnes, the head of Nordisk Film Cinemas, was dismissive of the concern, noting that subtitled screenings of ‘Kvinden i Buret’ – which earlier this month had the second biggest opening weekend of any Danish film in the last decade (over 120,000 tickets – second only to ‘Klovn – the movie’) – at one of his cinemas in Aalborg averaged less than ten viewers per showing. 


“It is more talk than reality in this debate,” Tønnes told DR Kultur. “As a matter of principle, we have to take it seriously if there is poor speech understanding.”


“We very gladly show films with Danish subtitles, but ultimately we have to decide if there is a real demand for it,” he went on. “We still have yet to see. But there are no grounds for criticising actors and producers.”

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