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Films that make creative use of subtitles and language


Nick R
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One brief, cute little touch I really liked in Mission Impossible 4 was the subtitles gradually dissolving from Russian to English to represent Ethan Hunt shaking off his grogginess. That got me wondering about other examples of films and TV shows that did interesting or playful things with subtitles and translated/untranslated languages.

Of course

There's a sillier bit from the third Austin Powers movie, in which the characters acknowledge the on-screen subtitles.

I was reading Todd Alcott's series of posts discussing Inglourious Basterds, and in this post's comments section there's a good point about Tarantino's use of subtitles:

One of my favorite things about ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is QT’s treatment of language: when characters speak English, when they don’t, and when QT uses subtitles, and when he doesn’t. I think he’s really grooving on the contrast and musicality of the different “tongues.”

I also think he’s borrowing a technique that Mel Gibson used in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (and may have preceded it). In ‘Passion,’ if memory serves me right, Gibson used subtitles for the Aramaic of Jesus and most of the characters, but pointedly did not use subtitles for the Latin of the brutal centurions. Having characters suddenly speak in a language we couldn’t understand build a sense of dread and fear of the other/unknown.

Even more interesting is that, in the Act III scenes, we get French subtitles for the French speakers but none for the German speakers. In Act IV that’s reversed — we get to know the Germans while the French tavern staff go untranslated.

And then the commenters there offer a couple of other examples:

I’m fascinated by that point in general — when foreign languages are used and when they aren’t, when they’re subtitled and when they aren’t, when characters switch between tongues, even what accents are used. (For example, I’ve always been struck by the contrast in Enemy at the Gates between British actors for the Russian characters, and Americans for the Germans. It’s the reverse of what you’d expect.)

If you know of any other films that play around with this in interesting ways, I’d love to hear about them.

I’m fascinated by this sort of thing myself. If I recall correctly, there’s a gag in Volunteers where the English starts getting subtitled, and people start getting confused.

And, of course, there’s the language switch in Red October.

Any other good examples of movies and TV programmes using subtitles or languages creatively?

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An accidental example, my DVD of X Men First Class for some reason doesn't display subtitles in the German-speaking scenes by default. For a long while I thought it was intentional, and that it was brilliant: it held my attention completely, brought the performances and emotions to the fore and was extremely thought provoking, and meant some of the events that happened were quite shocking.

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I've started watching Rescue Me. Sometimes when Tommy and his dad are talking on the phone, they have a conversation, but subtitles come up saying what it really means, like the hidden meaning in their words and the way they say them.

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The IT Crowd DVDs have a subtitle track in E71TE SP33K.

Plus other subtitle tracks containing base64-encoded JPEG images and BASIC program listings!

DVD subtitle track Easter eggs weren't really what I had in mind for this thread, but now you've said that I've got to mention the one on the Nathan Barley DVD: a hidden track that, halfway through one episode, begins insulting the viewer for being the type of person who experiments with pressing the subtitle button on their remote control. :D

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Doesn't Man on Fire doing something with subtitles? Though I recall that was more of a graphical effect than anything else. Same with Domino IIRC.

Yeah Man on Fire does them really well, I can't find a clip on youtube though. They match the rhythm of the speech with the timing that the subtitles are displayed, and the tone/volume of voice is reflected in the font. It's a really nice effect

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I love Look Around You's subtitles, the fact they are Ceefax style.

A rather disturbing (NSFW in many ways) but funny anime Puni Puni Poemy (you should really watch Excel Saga before it) has an extra option for subtitles in Pig Latin. Also there is a scene of a big military battle and both in Japanese and English the soldiers are dubbed just shouting random fruit and veg instead of a different language.

None particularly creative but fun

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