Is there such a thing as a universal language of film? The students in German 206 “Intermediate Composition and Conversation, team-taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Gülly and German House Tutor Carolin Wattenberg, ” were about to find out: thirteen movies covering almost 100 years of German and Austrian film history. Thirteen movies, that’s thirteen individual stories: the story of a young couple whose life is torn apart by the Berlin Wall (The Promise); the story of a son who keeps the GDR alive in an attempt to save his mother’s life (Good Bye, Lenin!); the story of a boy who refuses to grow up out of contempt for his elders and their ready compliance with the Nazi regime (The Tin Drum) or the multiple stories of Turkish, Russian, and other immigrants and their struggles behind, between, or across physical and psychological borders.
The range of movie plots, characters, themes, and styles put us in a very fortunate position: they provided us with a sheer endless source of material to discuss with our students. It was not just the fact that they made it possible for us to cover a variety of vocabulary but the movies also provided us with visual representations of Germany’s history and culture. We would spend one week on each movie; first giving students an introduction into its specific historical background and context, before moving on to a more specific discussion of the movies’ themes, plots, character developments, cinematography or scenery.
The students actively led class discussions by doing three oral group presentations each. The purpose of these was not so much to provide a synopsis of each movie but for them to think of crucial questions and issues that they’d want to discuss with their classmates. Presentations challenged them to practice speaking German freely and in front of an audience, while also actively managing their classmates’ responses and reacting to them in real time.
Homework consisted of additional grammar exercises geared to the specific movie contexts. Compositions of three to four pages required students to analyze the movies in greater detail, compare them to each other or to creatively elaborate on a given theme from the perspective of one of the characters, e.g. through diary entries, inner monologs or letters.
For their final assignment, students will work on their own subtitling projects. They will produce English subtitles for one of the movies we discussed in class. They’ll be introduced to both technological as well as linguistic aspects of creating movie subtitles. Apart from the mere translation of individual words from German into English, students will face the challenge of grasping the core of each dialog, its irony, humor, context, and even more importantly, its subtext. They’ll realize that it’s more than just words they’ll have to translate and that it can be very challenging to lend an American voice to characters who are very much determined by their German language. In the end, students will have to find an answer to the question that has accompanied us all semester long: Is the language of film really universal or always inextricable from its national context?