Die Hard and Foreignness

A couple nights ago I was watching Bruce Willis’ 1988 classic, Die Hard, with a good friend. Beyond being a generally enjoyable action movie, it also has some curious uses of language. No, I am not referring to John McClane’s famously profane catchphrase, but rather to the German sprinkled throughout the film. The terrorists who take over the hotel are almost all from Germany, and bear stereotypically German names such as Hans and Heinrich.

Throughout the film, the terrorists use (poor) German intermittently. Lines like “Komm sofort. Schnell!”, and “Die Polizei!” are typical. Respectively, they translate into “Come at once, quickly!” and “The Police!”. In the first case they are running after someone already, and the second is accompanied by a shot of arriving police cars with their sirens. In other scenes, they awkwardly switch between German for directions (“links!”) and English for when they are talking about important details, such as their motivations. Clearly the filmmakers were using the German language not to communicate information about the plot but in order to give the terrorists the feel of “foreignness”. This is a common technique in the film industry, as shown by almost any movie about Nazi Germany.

What is more interesting about Die Hard is that, for the German release, the names of the terrorists were all changed to their English equivalents and they were loosely identified as some international criminal organization (link in German). We always want the bad guys to be “the other”, as it makes it easier to define our own group in contrast to them. Language is a powerful and instantly recognizable way of casting outsiders as such. Thus, the Germanic origins of the terrorists were emphasized for the English release, and for the German release their names were Anglicized. As I’ll show in forthcoming posts, language is more broadly used in politics to communicate group identity.

-dp

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~ by danplechaty on January 4, 2010.

One Response to “Die Hard and Foreignness”

  1. […] Else Can a Language Say? Previously, I have argued that language is a useful barometer for group identity, using the example of German […]

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