- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND — The continent-hopping, Oscar-nominated “Babel” has made subtitles sexy once again for American moviegoers. In Switzerland, they never went out of style.

Here in the language crossroads of Europe, you had better check the fine print before you go to the movies.

Do you want to see Daniel Craig chase the “Casino Royale” villains in German with no subtitles, or do you prefer the latest James Bond flick in English with both German and French dialogue scrawled across the screen? Same with other major releases, such as Denzel Washington in “Deja Vu,” Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum,” Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth” and the penguin stars of “Happy Feet.”

The choices don’t stop there. You can go to movies in Italian, Swedish, French, Spanish, Danish and even Japanese, most with German and French subtitles. There also are films in Swiss German, a dialect that about 64 percent of the nation speaks.

Action movies do fine with this arrangement — “Get him” translates pretty easily across the world. Explaining global warming or the racially based humor of “Borat” in two additional languages, however, takes up a chunk of the screen. Subtitles for children’s movies surely are aimed at parents, not die Kinder who can barely read.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” took the land of subtitles here to a whole new level. Even those watching the original version in English needed a second language to grasp the dialogue because the movie’s many scenes in Japanese, Berber and Spanish were all translated only into German and French subtitles. Yikes.

Switzerland is the only European country with four recognized languages — English is an unofficial fifth — and the Swiss have long been proud of their multilingual status. Most countries have just one dominant language, so movies are either dubbed or subtitled in that language.

Swiss German is spoken mostly in the north, central and east, with Zurich the main city. French, the native language for about 20 percent of the Swiss, is in the western third, so movies in Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchatel tend toward spoken French, with German and sometimes English subtitles.

Italian (6 percent) dominates in Lugano and other southern border areas, and Rhaeto-Romanic (.5 percent) is spoken in the extreme southeast. English and other languages account for 9 percent, according to government statistics — but don’t go telling the Italians.

A fondness for subtitles is not the only difference between Swiss and American movie theaters; consider the Swiss movie ratings, which are both more varied and more rigid than their U.S. counterparts.

A movie can be rated K/6, K/8, K/10, J/12 or J/14, which means a child or teen has to be that age to view it. Babies and toddlers are banned unless a special family matinee is advertised. Parental discretion is not allowed.

“No babies, no young children. We have a different approach to movies than the United States,” says Charlottte Waltert, an employee at Zurich’s Arthouse Alba theater.

That means you must be at least 8 to see “Happy Feet” and “Flushed Away,” while “Night at the Museum” and “An Inconvenient Truth” are reserved for those 10 and older. “The Holiday” and “Eragon” can be seen by those 12 and older, but you must be at least 14 to view “Casino Royale” or “Deja Vu.”

You would have riots in Topeka if American children were blocked from seeing the “Happy Feet” penguins or Mr. Stiller’s museum antics.

Meanwhile, movies such as “Borat” or “The Departed” are rated E (Erwachsene, German for adult) and open to those 16 and older.

One visiting California family was turned away from “Miss Congeniality 2” when an usher asked the youngest son how old he was. He was 12, and the movie was rated J/14. The family was not getting in — even if both the mother and the father were there insisting that their son was mature enough to handle the complex themes Sandra Bullock was dishing out.

At least they got their money back.

Other surprises await ex-pat theatergoers. One is the price — 16 to 19 Swiss francs (up to $15.50) for an adult — a serious ouch that surpasses even Manhattan’s $11 tickets. Another is the traditional Swiss intermission. Explosions could be thundering, lips could be inches away from connecting, but the screen goes black, the lights go on, and it’s time to head to the lobby for popcorn, ice cream or a cigarette.

After a 15- to 20-minute break, it’s hard to remember what movie you were watching, much less where you were sitting or what actor had the diamonds, the money or the girl.

Speaking of seats, they are reserved, with comfy cushions and lots of legroom. That eliminates the American stampede for seats when the doors open, but woe to those who want a different view. The Swiss are not amused to find someone in a reserved seat and stare down anyone who dares to arrive late, even amid the endless pre-movie ads.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide