- Get your teeth into multiple-language version films on Blu-ray and DVD!
- Feast your eyes on this rundown of the best MLVs of the early sound era
Continuing this series on the peak years of multiple-language version (MLV) films, here spotlighting those released from 1931–1932. During the silent era, a single film could be released right around the world, with a simple switch of its intertitles to locally-translated ones. When the talkies arrived, suddenly they were restricted to being released only in territories speaking each film’s language. Dubbing was in its infancy and very crude; what’s more, many audiences rejected it outright anyway – as they still do. For a while, MLVs were the most popular answer to the problem: assemble separate international casts, and sometimes crew, and shoot several different language versions of the same film, using the same sets, props and costumes. Easy, no? Well, no. Technically speaking, planning and shooting the film this way was an extraordinary logistical feat that almost defies comprehension. But somehow they pulled it off, for thousands of versions of hundreds of titles.
Another solution was the international sound version, whereby all dialogue sequences were replaced with intertitles; the rest of the soundtrack, including any songs, was usually left intact. This format was most often invoked for musicals, where reshooting choreographed dance numbers and re-recording lyrically-rewritten songs would have been prohibitively expensive and impractical. As you’d expect, the resulting silent/sound hybrids were usually clunky, difficult to watch and obviously negated many of the benefits of the new medium.
- The Congress Dances (1931)
- Dracula (1931)
- Emil and the Detectives (1931)
- M (1931)
- The Threepenny Opera (1931)
- F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1932)
- The Mistress of Atlantis (1932)
- Other media
- Related articles
The Congress Dances (1931)
This light, frothy confection is a musical comedy of mistaken identity set during the 1814–1815 Congress of Vienna. The unlikely-sounding setting was a historic conference which sought to establish sustained peace in a Europe recently stricken by decades of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars. The plot centres around Russia’s Tsar Alexander having a dalliance with a charming commoner, with the collusion of his official lookalike and stand-in for boring social occasions.
UFA spared no expense on this one: it’s a sumptuous, big budget feast for the eyes, produced in German, French and English versions. The German version in particular, featured just about every big name star UFA had at their disposal. In perhaps her most famous screen outing, the fluently trilingual Lilian Harvey starred in all three versions. She was accompanied in this feat by Lil Dagover, while Conrad Veidt starred in the German and English MLVs. All in all, this is unfettered German filmmaking at its finest, shortly before the Nazis assumed power and changed the lives of all involved and their audiences forever.
1955 saw a similarly big-budgeted, eponymous Austrian remake, this time shot in full colour. It was also that country’s first film to be lensed in CinemaScope and is available on DVD.
There are several great-looking DVDs featuring a photochemical restoration of the German MLV, Der Kongreß tanzt. It first appeared in 2004 and 2005 on a pair of barebones Spanish and German discs, each subtitled in their respective languages. The latter was part of publisher De Agostini’s 60-issue DVD/magazine series; used copies turn up regularly on German eBay and the DVD can also be had separately.
The next issue was as part of the aforementioned early German talkies 10-DVD box set, with a 20min making-of featurette featuring excerpts of the English MLV. In addition, here’s a goodly-sized chunk of the English MLV. All films in the box set had both English and German subtitles but the former were dropped for an otherwise identical standalone disc released the following year.
Lastly, the German MLV was most recently reissued on Blu-ray and DVD; the only on-disc extra is a reissue trailer but they do come with an eight-page illustrated booklet. Keine Untertitel at all this time, sadly.
- Germany: De Agostini DVD (2005) w/magazine, in Die grossen deutschen Film-Klassiker series
- Spain: Divisa DVD (2004)
Beware the US DVD-R from bootleggers Reel Vault: it’s in poor condition and cut down from the original 100 to 83 minutes. The only thing it has going for it is the original US release artwork on the sleeve. However, even that is sexed-up and hardly representative of the actual film:
This iconic film, the first official screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s eponymous vampire novel, though far from the last, is known chiefly today for Bela Lugosi’s career-defining performance as the bloodthirsty count. It’s hard to believe, but after nearly four decades of cinema and nearly a decade after the Germans did it with Nosferatu (1922), Dracula was the first true horror film that Hollywood produced. While there had been ‘horror’ or ghost-type films before 1931, in the end the creepy goings-on were always explained by a human or at least earthly cause. This was the first in which right from the start the audience were made to accept that the protagonist was actually a supernatural being – not just some Scooby Doo-style villain with a sheet over his head.
Probably the best known MLV of all, it was shot in English and Spanish and viewing both versions makes for a fascinating comparison. There was also a third, silent, version prepared for cinemas not yet converted for sound. This would likely have consisted of outtakes and footage shot from alternative angles. Notably Dracula, as was common with many early talkies, is almost entirely bereft of a musical score. Although this was due to the technical limitations of the time, in many ways it actually helps the film to be even more atmospheric and foreboding. An interesting thought: the silent version of this sound film that doesn’t have a music score would undoubtedly have had… continuous musical accompaniment! Should it ever turn up, that would be interesting to see performed live.
The much shorter English MLV has a runtime of 74 minutes; the Spanish 103 minutes. Dracula originally ran for 85 minutes but suffered various censorship cuts for its 1936 reissue, following the 1934 enforcement of the Production Code. Sadly, only the cut version survives and therefore Drácula, the Spanish MLV, contains many scenes no longer present in Dracula. Additionally, it is oftentimes more risqué and suggestive than its English counterpart, as it is both uncut and produced for a market not concerned with pandering to that era’s more sensitive American tastes.
Drácula was thought lost for many years but ever since its rediscovery in the 1970s, debate has raged about which is the superior version. The simple truth is that each is often better in different regards and they’re best taken together as two sides of the same film. Personally though, I reckon if you could transplant Bela into the Spanish version you’d pretty much have the best of both worlds. Incidentally, the beautiful heroine of Drácula gave the Count a run for his money in the immortality stakes by making it to the grand old age of 106! A recent interview with Lupita Tovar (27 July 1910 – 12 November 2016) showed her to be in fine form right until the end.
Both talkie versions have been issued on disc numerous times, owing to the former’s enduring popularity. Most highly recommended are the fantastic Universal Classic Monsters: Complete Collection and Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential CollectionBlu-ray box sets, containing the horror studio’s eight most famous creations in meticulously restored HD. The restored Spanish Drácula also features in HD, as well as copious extras for all the films and a 48-page book – indispensable stuff for classic fright fans.
Note that for some reason the US and Canadian editions of the latter set are more expensive than those in Europe. As all Universal’s Blu-rays are region free it’s much cheaper for US and Canadian buyers to pick up the UK set instead. The UK, Germany and France additionally had a coffin-shaped box version but it’s simply the standard set inside a cardboard box, with no additional extras whatsoever. Dracula: The Legacy Collection is also also available, a set collating all the classic era Universal films in which the Count makes an appearance. Dracula has been restored several times over the past couple of decades, each time improving on the previous effort, and most recently just ahead of its 2012 Blu-ray release. I’ve linked to all of the 2012-restored DVDs; any not listed very likely have earlier, somewhat inferior restorations and many will only contain the English version.
Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection 8-disc/9-film box set:
Dracula: The Legacy Collection 4-disc/7-film box set:
Emil and the Detectives (1931)
The first of five screen adaptations to date of Erich Kästner’s classic 1929 children’s novel, this equally classic German film is not, strictly speaking, an MLV, but it is a special case which I feel merits inclusion on this list. It was the third talkie by seminal director Gerhard Lamprecht, who is famed for having a particular affinity with children. Time and again he elicited the most moving and naturalistic performances from his young stars. His reputation is enjoying a renaissance of late as some of his landmark silent films are finally being restored and made available again. Four of them, including his renowned Berlin Trilogy (the term was applied to Lamprecht years before Bowie), are on a couple of 2-DVD sets that are trilingual (English, German, French) and region free PAL format. Trust me on this: he really is one of the finest, most unjustly forgotten directors ever and you won’t regret seeking them out.
Young Emil’s story is a simple one but very well told: he takes the train to Berlin to visit his granny but has some money stolen en route. On arrival, he enlists a gang of local children – the “detectives” of the title – to help him track down the thief. Will justice be done?
Emil also featured a screenplay by Kästner himself, alongside the young Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger, who of course, after fleeing Germany from the Nazis, would both go on to make some of cinema’s most acclaimed and enduring works. Outside of Germany, Kästner is perhaps best known for his much-filmed 1949 novel Das doppelte Lottchen (Lottie and Lisa), source of the 1961 and 1998 US versions of The Parent Trap.
Emil’s second film adaptation was made by an English studio three years after the first. However, having obtained the original script and shot-list from the earlier film, they were utilised to recreate it faithfully, even recreating many of the same set-ups and shots. Wait – I know what you’re thinking, but the less said about that the better, ok? Emil 1935 is actually a really good film. It was thought lost for many years but turned up recently in the hands of a US collector. A tragic coda: the young cast were aged between 9 and 15 during the making of the 1931 film. Within a few short years many of them were to die during WWII, with several meeting their demise in active combat, including ‘Emil’ himself, Rolf Wenkhaus. The end of innocence.
While the various German versions of Emil and the Detectives have been issued often on DVD, including in the DVD/magazine series mentioned above, only the UK’s BFI have so far included both 1930s versions together. It’s a great package that includes a substantial booklet with press materials and several essays, including one by our very own Bryony Dixon. Both films are by turns both dark and foreboding one minute, then truly charming the next, and make for interesting and entertaining viewing.
- 2-DVD Die Verrufenen (The Slums of Berlin, 1925)/Die Unehelichen (Children of No Importance, 1926)
- 2-DVD Menschen Untereinander (People to Each Other, 1926)/Unter der Laterne (Under the Lantern, 1928)
- DVD Emil and the Detectives (1931 and 1935 versions)
Speaking of the end of innocence… The seminal thriller M, or to give it its full German title: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Looks for a Murderer), was writer/director Fritz Lang’s favourite of his own films. A masterpiece of expressionism, it featured a star-making turn from Peter Lorre as the titular subject from whom no child is safe. M was also made in English and French versions, though neither of these featured any direct input from Lang.
In the case of the English-language version (ELV), most of Lang’s original footage remains, with only a few reshot scenes. Instead, an entirely new soundtrack was created with English voices and sound effects; the film has no non-diegetic music. Notes and signs, etc, dissolve into English-translated versions. Most crucially, Lorre provides his own new voiceover and reenacts his pivotal final scene in English. Of course, he had to learn his lines phonetically, as he knew very little of the language at this time. He used the same technique for his second English-language film, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
M has had a chequered history on film and home video. It was banned by the Nazis in 1934 just before Lang’s pre-war defection to the US. Lang, a Jew, had no intention of acceding to Josef Goebbels‘ personal invitation to head the UFA film studio and fled Germany the same night he was asked, losing everything. Lorre, also Jewish, had already left for the US two years earlier. Lang’s stance against Nazism also cost him his marriage: Thea von Harbou, his wife and collaborator on all his 1920–1933 films, was an early sign-up to the Nazi Party.
Even after the war, M suffered many censorship cuts and reissue re-edits over the years and at one point even had extra music and sound effects added, to ‘compensate’ for Lang’s sparing use of them on the original soundtrack! Thankfully, the film has undergone several restorations over the past few decades, with each one coming ever closer to the original version. It is now in excellent shape and virtually complete. M’s English version was thought lost for many years and only found, lurking in the BFI‘s vaults, in 2005. At present it’s included in the following releases:
- US: Criterion region A Blu-ray
- UK: Eureka region B Blu-ray and region 2, 2-DVD set; also combined in a 3-disc dual format edition – Eureka earlier issued M as a single DVD (1999) and a 2-DVD Ultimate Edition (2003), which utilised a then-recent restoration, but obviously neither included M’s English version
- Spain: Divisa, 2-disc Blu-ray and DVD sets
M’s French version isn’t available in its entirety on disc, but extensive clips are featured in the 25-minute Physical History of M featurette, produced just before the rediscovery of the English version. It’s included as an extra on the Criterion Blu-ray and their 2004 R0/NTSC 2-DVD set.
Worthy of note is the fact that M received its most recent restoration in 2011, again by Kaiser. Among many improvements was the reinsertion of minute additional fragments of missing film, totalling around 30 seconds. Also, an alternate version of the soundtrack was created whereby the ‘silent’ passages are now truly silent. While the advances are relatively slight compared to the previous, generally available 2004/2010 restoration, it can be obtained via a book-bound, extras-laden German 2-disc R0 Blu-ray/DVD and R0, PAL 2-DVD set. Both are also included in the 4-BD/1-DVD and 6-DVD Deutsche Filmklassiker Weimarer Kino 1920–1931 box sets.
Just avoid the Italian Blu-ray from Studio 4K: restorer Torsten Kaiser confirmed it as being pirated from the Eureka/MoC disc, as are the French Films sans Frontières Blu-ray and DVD.
Lang’s masterpiece has inspired several dedicated books, perhaps chief among them is by film historian Anton Kaes for the BFI Film Classics series. He takes a good, in-depth look at M’s production, sociological and psychological contexts, and is highly recommended. The other English-language entry, part of the Auteur Devil’s Advocates series, is a decent effort but sadly fails to so much as even mention the fact that M is an MLV.
- M le maudit: Fritz Lang (1992) – Pierre Guislain
- BFI Film Classics: M (2000, Kindle) – Anton Kaes
- M le maudit: Fritz Lang (2005) – Michel Marie
- Fritz Lang: “M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder”. Texte und Kontexte (2011) – ed. Christoph Bareither, Urs Büttner; fw: Anton Kaes
- Devil’s Advocates: M (2019) – Samm Deighan
In other media, M was the subject of an acclaimed graphic novel and in 2006, using dialogue from the film’s soundtrack, it was retooled as a radio play.
- 1960 re-release trailer
- Criterion clip
- Mark Kermode’s M review
- Cinema Then, Cinema Now: M
- M: The Importance of Sound Design
- Observations on Film Art: Sound in Fritz Lang’s M
- My Film M: A Factual Report by Fritz Lang, 20 May,1931
- A few words about…™ Fritz Lang’s M
M is fully deserving of every accolade ever heaped on it – and much more besides. Whatever you do, don’t risk living your life having never seen this magnificent, unforgettable film.
The Threepenny Opera (1931)
The very epitome of German Weimar era filmmaking, The Threepenny Opera was based on Bertolt Brecht‘s still-hugely successful play, Die Dreigroschenoper, which was in turn based on John Gay‘s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Shot in German and French by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and US-financed, an English version was also planned but never materialised. Two years after its première, it was banned by the Nazi Party who, though it was set in Victorian England, objected to the obvious allegory to contemporary German society. The Nazis also attempted to destroy all known prints but thankfully, as was their lasting habit, they failed miserably.
Carola Neher, the talented star of the German MLV, had an early life of boundless promise that devolved into a tragic end under the brutal regimes of both Hitler and Stalin. Primarily a stage actor – often featuring in Brecht’s plays – she appeared in only three films, with Opera being her last. Her first, a supporting role in a comedy short titled Mysterien eines Frisiersalons (The Mysteries of a Hairdresser’s Shop, 1923), was written and directed by Brecht. So far it has only been released on a few German VHS videos and a 3-DVD set, but can be viewed on YouTube. Carola was elevated to star billing in her second film, Tenderness (1930), the German iteration of another French/German MLV.
Both versions have been released in several 2-DVD sets:
- US: Criterion (2007) – English subtitles
- UK: BFI (2004) – English subtitles
- Germany: absolut Medien (2008) – German and English subtitles; domestic version also issued singly
- Spain: Divisa (2010) – Spanish and Portuguese subtitles
The French version is also available in the mammoth 12-DVD/3-BD Pabst: Le Mystère d’une Âme box set from Tamasa Diffusion (2019), but unfortunately its 12 films do not have any subtitles.
F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1932)
F.P.1 antwortet nicht, its German title, was produced in an age when tales of aviation pioneers and their exploits in international air travel were regularly capturing the headlines and the public’s imagination. F.P.1 refers to Floating Platform 1, a huge mid-Atlantic aircraft refuelling station, which is sabotaged and threatens to sink into the sea. In its attempt to capture the technological zeitgeist, F.P.1 succesfully foreshadowed the critical importance of naval aircraft carriers in an impending WWII.
F.P.1’s three German, French and English MLVs were shot simultaneously in Germany. Sadly, as with so many films of this era, the only currently circulating English version is an edited reissue print, which at 74 minutes is a full 40 minutes shorter than the German one. The French version is presumed lost. Conrad Veidt and Charles Boyer toplined the English and French efforts respectively, while Hans Albers and Peter Lorre, both by now veterans of several MLVs apiece, headed up the German version.
The latter MLV also featured a song by Albers, Flieger, grüß mir die Sonne (Fliegerlied) (Pilot, Say Hello to the Sun – Pilot Song). It became one of his most popular and was a hit all over again more than half a century later when it was covered by German new wave band Extrabreit. Conrad Veidt also got in on the gramophone action, by intoning When the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay, which is unfortunately no longer present in the cut version of the film. Nonetheless, it was very successful and played regularly on British radio well into the 1980s. Boyer, in the French MLV, took a turn behind the mike too: his number, He ! Charl´s ! Salu´la lune ! is a translated version of Fliegerlied.
Options are understandably quite limited, with none of the DVDs having subtitles or any extras. However, Kino’s excellent US BD has both versions, restored by the FWMS in 2014, subs on the German MLV and an audio commentary by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddy Von Mueller (review).
- US: Grapevine DVD-R (2012) – English and German MLVs
- Kino BD (2021) – English and German MLVs
- Germany: Koch DVD (2008, reissued 2009) – German MLV, also in Hans Albers 2-DVD Die besten Abenteuerfilme, 4-DVD Edition and Größte Abenteuerfilme
The Mistress of Atlantis (1932)
Making his second of three appearances in this series, G.W. Pabst directed this talkie remake of Jaques Feyder’s fantasy L’Atlantide (1921). It treads very similar territory, though perhaps not quite as successfully, as the later She (1935). As well as English, Mistress was filmed in French (also called L’Atlantide) and German (Die Herrin von Atlantis) versions. All three had different leading men but shared most of the rest of the cast, including titular star Brigitte Helm, most famous for her dual role as the two Marias in Metropolis (1927). This perennial tale of lost civilisation, based on Pierre Benoit’s classic 1919 novel, has been remade on numerous occasions. Notable adaptations include the campy, renamed Siren of Atlantis (US, 1949); the Italian/French co-production Antinea, l’amante della città sepolta (Antinea, the lover of the buried city) aka Journey Beneath the Desert (1961); and an eponymous 1972 French téléfilm.
The 1932 German version survives and is even occasionally screened. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet been released on home video but the English and French versions can be had on DVD. Sadly however, the English Mistress appears occasionally choppy and disjointed. At 78 minutes it runs much shorter than its German and French counterparts, which are 87 and 90 minutes respectively. It’s probable that the only copy in circulation is taken from an edited US reissue print. That being the case, such cuts would likely have occurred because of post-1934 re-release censorship under the Production Code or because it was relegated to B-movie status on the bottom half of a double bill.
Timeline of Historical Film Colors: tinted and toned nitrate print of L’Atlantide (1921)
L’Atlantide (1921) review (with spoilers) by sci-fi/fantasy author Kage Baker, also in Ancient Rockets: Treasures and Trainwrecks of the Silent Screen (2011, paperback).
- US: Image 3-DVD Rediscover Jacques Feyder: French Film Master (2006) – English subtitles
- France: mk2 DVD (2004), also in 2-DVD w/1932 version and novel
- Spain: Divisa DVD (2011) – Spanish and Portuguese subs
Mistress of Atlantis (1932)
- US: Mill Creek 12-DVD Nightmare Worlds 50 movie pack (2006)
- US: Sinister Cinema DVD (2009)
- Mr. FAT-W Video DVD (2019)
- France: mk2 DVD (2004), also in 2-DVD w/1921 version and novel
- Spain: Divisa DVD (2011) – Spanish and Portuguese subs
Die Herrin von Atlantis (1932) – unreleased
Apart from Image Entertainment’s Rediscover Jacques Feyder set of silents, all the US DVDs listed above are technically bootlegs. The sound versions are copyrighted there until the end of 2027 (publication + 95 years); for the rest of the world, they don’t enter the public domain until the end of 2043 (screenwriter Alexandre Arnoux’s 1973 death + 70 years).
The English MLV of Mistress has appeared in two collections by US label Mill Creek, who excel in releasing huge multi-DVD box sets of films and TV programmes that are supposedly in the public domain. They’re the biggest, cheapest collections of such films you’ll ever find and while the quality of prints used can be variable, they’re often the only way to pick up otherwise commercially unviable titles like this one. What’s more, they and their ilk are always R0/NTSC, so will play anywhere in the world.
In early 2018, the French version was announced for Blu-ray by Arrow Video in the US and UK. But there’s an unspecified problem with the restoration so it’s delayed indefinitely; does anyone know what’s happening? Arrow turn out some great releases but are notorious for completely ignoring any and all queries. Whoever (mis)handles their PR and social media should look up the meaning of “public relations” and “social”. Grr.
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