Cross-border multi-lingo films would require more subtitling

BERLIN — They’re giving “Europudding” films a bad name.

Several promising European co-productions about authentic multinational, multilanguage stories such as “Merry Christmas,” “Black Book” and “One Day in Europe” are dispelling many of the old notions about cross-border films being contrived mainly for cross-border subsidies.

The Europudding films of the past that scooped up multinational coin but caused audience indigestion and left viewers wondering why everyone was parlaying in English no matter where the story was set are facing a new challenge: genuine multinational stories told in multiple languages with multiple subtitling.

“You have to respect the different languages,” Christian Carion, director of “Merry Christmas,” tells Variety about his film based on the heartening 1914 Christmas truce during World War I by French, British and German troops. It will open Nov. 9 in France on 500 screens, a French record for a film with subtitles (in this case for the German and English segments of the three-way story).

“When people pay to go to the theater, they want to believe what they see,” Carion adds. “People are not stupid. They can understand something is wrong when everyone is speaking French or English even though they’re playing Danish or Italian or German roles. It kills the idea of truth. It’s total nonsense, and I hope those Europudding types of films are dead.”

He’s referring to the disparaged genre of awkward stories welded together to attract multisourced financing or to spread risks.

Based on a true but little-known story about the short-lived truce that brought thousands of French, British and German soldiers out of their trenches without their weapons to sing Christmas songs together, bury their dead and even play soccer, Carion’s x18 million film (“Joyeux Noel” in French) got beaucoup attention at Cannes and has since sold to 30 territories. It bows in Germany and Belgium on Nov. 24 and in Britain on Dec. 16.

“The fact that everyone in the film speaks their own language makes it authentic,” says Carion, who got plenty of cross-border funding from German, British and Belgian co-producers. “It’s the only honest way.” He adds French television execs who loath subtitles tried to persuade him to do it all in French, but he refused.

“I didn’t want to make just a French film. It’s not a French story. It’s a story involving French, German and Scottish people, and they all speak their own languages.”

Christina Weiss, Germany’s culture minister, says it was too soon to speak of a trend away from Europudding, but she predicted that a strong box office for “Merry Christmas” would be a catalyst for more genuine cross-border multilingual films without the bad aftertaste as if they were only made to skim off subsidies from multiple countries.

“There are still relatively few such films in Europe,” she tells Variety. “But I sincerely hope that a trend in this direction will emerge. A European film should be able to find audiences across Europe. That sort of cross-border acceptance has been so terribly difficult for co-productions to achieve until now. ‘Merry Christmas’ is a wonderful and authentic film, and I anticipate it will turn out to be a huge success for the European film industry.”

Other recent examples of “natural co-productions” that got multinational financing include “One Day in Europe,” a German-Spanish co-production by Hannes Stoehr that screened at the Berlin Film Festival, and “L’Auberge espagnole,” the 2002 French-Spanish comedy directed by Cedric Klapisch (which was also marketed as “Euro Pudding”).

“One Day in Europe,” co-produced by three television networks that also got support from seven European film boards, lampoons language barriers while following four pairs of mismatched Europeans struggling to understand each other in seven languages on the same day as four tourist thefts are reported in four police stations in Moscow, Berlin, Istanbul and Spain. The four separate stories are linked by the same championship soccer match being watched on TV by the police in all four countries.

“L’Auberge espagnole” even mocks the very idea of Europudding by throwing a group of students and young people from England, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and Spain into an overpriced Barcelona apartment as roommates speaking seven languages. Despite their different nationalities, they discover they have a lot in common — including the same CDs — and suffer similar heartaches. Klapisch’s follow-up pic, this year’s “Russian Dolls,” also took a pancultural approach that resonated with French auds.

Paul Verhoeven is directing the pan-Euro-funded thriller shot in Holland in Dutch, English and German called “Black Book” that’s due out next year. The $20 million film is the story of a young Jewish woman who joins the Resistance and survives the war in Holland but is falsely denounced as a traitor. Entangled in a web of deceit, she sets out to discover who betrayed her. It features a Dutch-British-German cast.

“It’s clear that language is playing a different role than it used to,” says producer San Fu Maltha. “People are more into realistic stories. You see people speaking the language they’re supposed to be speaking, not only English. People want to see people as they really are. In our film, everyone speaks their own language. I think there will be more natural co-productions, a co-production that happens according to logic and natural ways and not for tax or other reasons.”

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