Actors in “The Reader” make English-language dialogue sound deeply, authentically German.
To create the illusion, without English-speaking audiences missing a beat, dialect coach William Conacher invented a language that blends standard German and English pronunciations.
“I’ve turned German into a
regional accent of English in the same way you could say that people from Alabama speak English the same as everybody else, but with an Alabama dialect,” explains Conacher, himself a Brit.
David Kross, who plays teenage Michael Berg — the literary lover of Kate Winslet’s 36-year-old Hanna — entered production with a heavy German accent and little English. Director Stephen Daldry considered having Conacher help Kross lose the accent. (Conacher and Daldry also worked together on the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot.”)
“I said to Stephen, ‘Let’s try not getting rid of his accent,'” Conacher says. “‘Let’s keep the features that make David sound German, like all of the vowels … all the key sounds like saying “u-nee-form” for “uniform” and “beck” instead of back.'”
Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and the non-German rest of the cast followed suit.
Meanwhile, Kross borrowed “conversational elisions” from the English to sound more rhythmic, more fluid, like a speaker at home with English, albeit with a German accent.
“David as a German would naturally say, ‘Is that for you or for me?’ You or I would say, ‘Is that fer you or fer me?’ contracting the word ‘for,'” Conacher says. “David would say, ‘Burgers and fries,’ but I taught him, ‘Burgers an’ fries,’ as we would naturally say.”
Conacher coached Kross full time for two weeks to prepare him for his prose-performing love scene. He also assisted Olin with two parts, that of older camp survivor Rose Mather, who speaks with a heavier Germanic sound, and Rose’s Americanized daughter Ilana.
Winslet studied additionally with her personal dialect coach, Susan Hegarty.