Sprischt Deitsch (Speaks German) – Or How Heimat Saved the Hunsrück Dialect By Elke Weissmann There is a reason why the Germans are the largest immigration group in Scotland: though some would probably argue they came to Scotland in search of better weather (less cold in winter, less heat in summer), another reason is certainly British television. Though to those of you who have lived through the 80s, 70s and even 60s, British television now must seem like a sad shadow of itself (and can I suggest you get a freeview box and have a look at BBC4 and More4?), it is still much, much, much better than German fare. Not only do you have hour-long news on three terrestrial channels – something unheard of in Germany where academics worry about those viewers who manage to navigate their way around news, even though the longest programmes are only half an hour long – you also have the history of ITV; and ITV brought you Parkinson and accents. To one of those Germans who came to Scotland to enjoy television at its best, the notion that Parkinson ‘wouldn’t have made it’ on television until the arrival of ITV because of his accent (as he said himself on The Story of ITV in 2005) now seems completely incredulous. But it is true: before 1955, the year ITV started broadcasting, British accents were kept from the screens in favour of the largely made-up received pronunciation of the BBC. Only ITV with its regional structure allowed accents to roam relatively freely, including a Scouser accent on the opening night for Granada Television. That did not mean that accents were no longer regulated: what you hear nowadays as ‘Scottish’ accent is probably not how you speak it, unless you have gone through the same speech training as the people on TV.Yet, it must seem encouraging that programmes such as Sea of Souls (BBC1, 2003) bring at least a regulated form of Scottish accents onto the small screen all over the British Isles. Other accents similarly find a space on television: in the soaps where even a Birmingham accent suddenly becomes charming thanks to Sarah, the practice receptionist in Doctors, in the regional news shows which are usually presented by newsreaders in their local accent, in prestigious drama where the Liverpudlian accent is part of the authenticity created around the Hillsborough disaster, and in reality television programmes where the accents are still the most interesting thing about Big Brother. All of this is so much better than German television: the Scottish lilt, if sadly not the actual accent or dialect, is particularly popular with broadcasters at the moment – Kirsty Young, the face of ‘five’, speaks with the left-overs of what once was a Scottish accent as does More4’s (and ex-Channel 4’s) Sarah Smith. For me as the foreigner living in Scotland with an increasingly Scottish lilt myself, this is a vast improvement on German television as it means that accents – even if they are regulated and watered-down, relegated to particular genres (often low-brow) and characters (often working-class) – at least share this public space
that is television. In Germany, accents are not even given a derogatory space. To give an example: the last time my own German accent was heard on German television was at the end of Kohl’s government (1998) who famously could not speak ‘proper’ German. The reason for this lies in the German perception of accents as inseparable from their dialects. And the dialects in Germany are tricky. There are so many regional varieties that quite often you only have to drive for 20 minutes before you have trouble understanding anyone. This is largely due to Germany’s history. Contrary to legend, Germany had not been united for centuries before 1871 when Prussia brought the nation together. Germany had officially been the ‘Holy Roman Empire of German Nation’ (Heilige römisches Reich deutscher Nation) until Napoleon broke up what was left of it in 1805. But in fact Germany had developed into separate kingdoms and dukedoms since the 13th century when England’s Magna Carta also changed the relationship between emperor and aristocracy in Germany. Since then the parts of what is now Germany constantly changed hands – for example the area around my hometown (Speyer) alternatively was Palatinate, French and Bavarian. As a consequence my dialect is filled with French words such as baggage (meaning ‘the whole lot’), trottoire (pavement) and chausee (street). Cross over the Rhine and people there would find some of these words rather confusing. As a consequence, German has always operated with a standard known as ‘Hochdeutsch’. It is derived from the Hannoverian dialect of Luther, who translated the bible, and the Kurpfalz accent of the Heidelberg printers who printed it. That this mix could become the standard is indeed due to the spread of German as a printed language which was entirely phonetic (ie. written as it was spoken), as it remains today. One of the problems with this ‘Hochdeutsch’ is that its name contains a hierarchy: ‘hoch’ means high which is better than the ‘platt’ – straight, plain German of the dialects. Dialects are continuously devalued in the face of the standard, often leading to the dialects’ erosion. Germans, then, have for a long time been bilingual, or at least this is what our German teachers would want us to believe. The fact is that this is only partially true. Friedrich Schiller, one of Germany’s most celebrated writers, who happened to be Swabian, never learned the standard and consequently continued to write in his Swabian dialect as the manuscripts of his work demonstrate. And what is true for Schiller is true for most people in Germany: though they can make a distinction between their dialect (with its separate vocabulary) and the standard (to communicate with people from outside), they usually speak in a regional variation of the standard because they use the pronunciation of their regional dialect. Thus Kohl – speaking perfectly understandable German, but with a strong regional accent.
It is these accents that I most want to see on German television. But there, Hochdeutsch rules the waves. Though regional news programmes are now common, not one presenter speaks in any other variety than perfect standard German. In our soaps too, most people speak without accent or dialect. Soaps in Germany arrived relatively late on television – as late as 1984 when the German equivalent to the BBC (ARD) started broadcasting Die Lindenstraße. Produced in Cologne but set in Munich, it has been able to react to such serious political events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and its effects with quite admirable political and personal sensitivity. One thing, however, remains incredibly unrealistic: the lack of accents. Though, to be fair, we have a janitor’s wife who speaks with a Bavarian accent, one Chinese person who can’t pronounce his Rs (very pc) and one person from Eastern Europe with a Polish accent. Within the soap as a whole, accents remain underrepresented: anyone who has ever been to Munich knows that the Bavarian accent there is so strong that even foreigners start using it. Only in the prestige dramas – of which there are as yet few – is there a space for accents, mostly in order to allow for greater ‘authenticity’. One of these productions was Das Ewige Lied (1997) which told the story of how ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’, the famous German Christmas Carol, was written. Co-produced by the Austrian public service broadcaster ORF and the Bavarian subdivision of ARD, Bayrischer Rundfunk, it allowed some mild – and some rather bad – Bavarian and Austrian accents. Set in the depths of a half Bavarian, half Austrian valley and chronicling the lives of 19th century farmers and shippers, it could have done more in terms of accents. Tobias Moretti, an Austrian, plays father Joseph Mohr who was sent from Salzburg in Austria to Oberndorf to take on the post of assistant priest, only to find that the main priest has business rather than preaching on his mind and the local shippers boycott the church. Moretti plays down his own natural accent, but leaves some of the melody and guttural sounds to mark it as Austrian. Michael Mendl, who plays the leader of the shippers and has become known in Britain for his portrayal of General Helmuth Weidling in Downfall (2005), finds the Austrian accent obviously more difficult. Born in Lünen in NordrhineWestfalia, he struggles particularly with the melody which is much more pronounced in southern German varieties such as Austrian than in the northern dialects. Nevertheless, Das Ewige Lied offered something refreshingly new on German television: namely a production for television that considered regional accents as important enough to its portrayal of local, historical life. It was originally scheduled on ARD on two consecutive nights over the Christmas period and lasted for a total of two hours. As such it was one of those Christmas productions that were given quite some prestige and money and therefore can still stand the test of time. Five years later the same television channels (ORF and Bayrischer Rundfunk) produced another of those prestigious Christmas films for Germany. This time, the production team, in particular the director Xaver Schwarzenberger (originally Fassbinder’s cameraman) and the writer Felix Witterer insisted, despite protests from the German producers, on the use of accents. The film was Andreas Hofer1809 – Freiheit des Adlers (2002) which tells the story of the Tyrol freedom fighter of the 19th century which inspired a whole continent into resistance against Napoleon. Hofer, himself a farmer and
inn owner, managed to defeat the Napoleon-allied Bavarians with an army of farmers and Tyrol citizens, but they were eventually sold out by Austria which had promised to protect them. I remember watching the film, which again was a two-part production shown on two consecutive nights, and being startled by the sudden confrontation with strong regional accents that I had never heard before on German television. Tobias Moretti, again, plays Andreas Hofer and this time he makes no concessions to anyone. His accent is so strong that half of the words disappear into guttural ‘ch’ sounds. It takes a while getting used to – but you do and then the accents are fundamental to the characterisation of the different groups involved in this conflict: the Tyrol farmers with the strong Tyrol accent representing their national affiliation and unity as a group, the Austrian emperor and his court with its standard German which evokes their lack of affiliation and therefore also foreshadows the eventual betrayal, and the Bavarian soldiers with their strong Bavarian accents (less guttural sounds and the melody more on the side of a polka than of the Austrian ballet) which again highlights their affiliation to Bavaria, their outsider status, but yet also similarity to the Tyrol fighters. Thus, in Andreas Hofer the accents do more than simply create authenticity. They allow for identification of groups within the film, but also identification for those viewers who speak these dialects: it represents a part of their national histories that are negotiated throughout the film with the help of language and accents. It is this wish to re-narrate history that also lies at the heart of Heimat (1984, 1992, 2004). However, rather than narrating the big events of history – the battles, the political decision – it uses the prism of village life in order to evaluate this history. Set in the Hunsrück (probably known to most Scots as the area surrounding Frankfurt Hahn airport) and covering a whole century with its three parts, Heimat is more than just a prestigious project. It is completely the brainchild of Edgar Reitz, one of the founding fathers of the New German Cinema. The group advocating the New German Film saw in the old, genre-based, often escapist films of the post-war years an evil that they wanted to combat with more experimental, innovative and political films directed by auteurs. After the Oberhausener Manifest (1962), Reitz moved into fiction film and later, with Heimat – eine deutsche Chronik (1984) into television. But what Reitz envisioned for television was, despite its serial aspect, not really television. The epic nature of the story is told, and the use of camera – in particular the many long and panoramic shots, the use of colour vs. black and white and its general emphasis on experimental aesthetics – made this project distinctly different from normal German television and distinctly the work of its auteur. Reitz himself was born in the Hunsrück, and his chronicle of German life therefore always had an autobiographical feel to it, particularly as the second part’s main character, Hermann Simon, also left the Hunsrück to study in Munich. The good thing about this autobiographical approach was that it allowed accents into it and it allowed them to be realistic. Heimat 1 in particular makes use of different levels of dialect with the grandmother speaking with a stronger accent than the younger generations. The levelling of accents therefore shows the erosion of German dialects due to increasing traffic and exposure to other varieties, in particular
standard German which arrives with the new media of radio and television. In its portrayal of village life, Maria, the grandmother, lives essentially an oral life – surrounded by stories that others tell her and she tells others, while the younger generations hardly listen. Yet all speak with at least some of the dialect: the sch-sounds that predominate South-west German accents, the melody which flows up and down and the indifference towards accusative ‘den’ and dative ‘dem’. In Heimat 2, set in Munich and chronicling the student rebellion and its developments, the accents become more varied: Hermann now speaks standard German while his landlady speaks with a Munich accent. Other accents, such as the Hunsrück dialect, are also represented. Here, the accents help to define the characters and identify with them: Hermann representing the young, well-educated intelligentsia which will embrace liberalism and shape the future of Germany during the 1970s, while his landlady stands in for a generation of Bavarians who are wellmeaning but essentially ignorant of their part in the events during the Third Reich. Heimat is a mammoth historical project and as such admirable. At the same time it is incredibly pretentious, particularly the voice-over of Heimat 2 that appears to be clever when indeed it says nothing (and if you understand German it can make you crawl up your walls). It is of a kind that is distinctly German elitist – in line with a tradition of humanist educational ideals that in themselves stand in stark contrast to television’s popular appeal. As a consequence it sits uneasy in its schedule and devalues all other television drama around it. This is particularly sad as Die Lindenstraße (see above) has at times been much better able to deal with changes in German society as it is set in an urban space to which most of Germany’s population has moved over the last 100 years. It is a pity, then, that Die Lindenstraße does not provide the same space for accents. All of this naturally has an effect. It limits accents on television to representations of history on the one hand and to prestigious projects on the other. Thus, rather than accepting accents as natural, able to share the common and public space of television, it makes them into something of the past and something that the educated elite has to preside over. It therefore shares the same values with a movement in Germany which recognises German accents but consists primarily of educated people on a regional level going back to 19th and 20th century ‘Mundart’ poetry (literally ‘mouthkind’, ie. written as people speak) and re-evaluating it for its riches in experiment and vocabulary. Dialect as something that is spoken today still lacks any representation in a public space such as radio or television. The result of this is saddening: I have to learn standard German in order to be able to communicate with a person from the North Sea because they hardly ever hear my accent. If I were more used to the different regional accents, because I had heard them more often, it might not take me a whole day to get used to my aunt’s Bavarian German in order to understand it. But having watched a lot of British television, I would be able to understand them at least to some extent, even if they were from the other side of the British Isles.