***Spoiler Alert for Episode Four of American Horror Story***
Potential Trigger: Clowns
Approximately 90 million individuals speak standard German as their first language, with an additional 30 million people speaking variations (Swabian, Austrian German, Swiss German, etc.) And then, not be forgotten, approximately 80 million people speak German as a second language. I may not be a math major and therefore capable of solving the meaning of life (42, if you wanted to know), but basic addition, that I can handle. 90mil+30mil+80mil= 200mil German speakers, one of whom, is me. When American Horror Story (AHS) creator Ryan Murphy announced that the fourth season of his cult-classic television show would be Freakshow, I got excited. When American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy announced that the fourth season of his cult-classic television show would include German, I, and other German-speaking fans of the show, understandably grew apprehensive. American TV shows are not exactly known for their fantastic pronunciation of languages other than English.
Wednesday, October 8th, 2014 arrived, a blustery day marking the beginning of Fall in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As always, my friends and I gathered excitedly in front of the television screen, eagerly awaiting the creepy strains of the theme song.
Cinematically, AHS breaks barriers, daringly experiments with camera angles, and ultimately falls flat on its Arsch when it comes to German.
Less than 10 minutes into “Monster Among Us,“ (the first episode), I cringed. Jessica Lange’s German accent is passable; painful, but passable. Her German “R’s” which occur in the back of the throat are inconsistent, as are her “V’s” which sound like an “S” and her “W” which sound like a “V.” (Don’t look at me, I didn’t come up with the pronunciations!)
“Das Leben will geliebt werden. Life is to be lived.“ is the first German line spoken by Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars. Immediately my little, German-speaking heart sank.
Although this sentence is grammatically correct, the translation into English is not. Geliebt is the past participle of the verb lieben, which means to love, making the correct translation, “Life is to be loved.” Also a good sentence. If the episode writers truly wanted Elsa to say “Life is to be lived,” they should substitute geliebt with gelebt, the past participle of leben: to live. Additionally, the third person, present tense conjugation of werden (to become), wird, would make the sentence grammatically correct: Das Leben wird geliebt werden.
Thankfully, the German was kept to a minimum of colloquial phrases until episode four, “Edward Mordrake: Part 2.“ The second half of the AHS Halloween special, it should actually be titled “Night of the Living Trope,” as the episode grossly misrepresented the Weimar Republic, confused geographic and political terms, and perpetuated portrayals of Germans as depraved, sexually immoral, inhumane Nazis. I am not saying that the Nazis were not horrible people –they most assuredly were!– however, Germany, its people, and its history, cannot and should not be limited to “Nazis!” simply because the trope is too “difficult” to avoid. As a scholar of the Weimar Republic, I had to leave the room; the show’s disrespectful (and historically narrow-minded) depiction of “sexual deviancy” as vulgar and perverted via a voyeuristically debasing camera angle made me sick. To top it off, the German spoken matched the horrific nature of the scene.
Fourteen minutes into the episode, Edward Mordrake, a freak searching for a depraved soul to take back with him to Hell, forces Elsa to relive her worst memory–the loss of her legs during a snuff film. However, before she could relate the horrific details of her experience, it was necessary to butcher some German.
“Willst die Hunde pissen?” questions Elsa. Translation: Does the dog want to pee? At least, that is what they were going for; the actual translation of this sentence would be along the lines of “Does the dogs want to pee?” The mistakes being made do not involve more than basic, intro-level German; the German 101 students whom I tutor write more complex and grammatically sound sentences, and they have only been studying the language for two months! First, die Hunde is the plural of der Hund (the dog); as there is only one human pretending to be a dog in the scene, the plural is not necessary. Next, subject and verb agreement. In German, the subject of the sentence determines the form of the conjugated verb. The verb used here is wollen: to want to, to will. Willst is the du form of the verb, as described in the table below.
Ich will (I want) Wir wollen (We want)
Du willst (You -informal- want) Ihr wollt (Y’all want)
Er/Sie/Es will (He/She/It wants) Sie/sie wollen (You formal/they want)
Had Elsa wished to ask the man a question, she should have said, “Willst du pissen?” This question is also useful if she is actually talking to a dog. Had her intention been to completely dehumanize the man and ask “Does the dog want to pee?” Elsa would need to say, “Will der Hund pissen?“ Instead, she mixed the two forms and accidentally used a plural. Did Ryan Murphy even consult a German-speaker for this show?
The answer is obviously a resounding “NO,” as Elsa’s next statement is equally grammatically problematic.
“Nay, nay, nay. Du kannst nichts steihen wie ein Mann.” Translation: No, no, no. You cannot stand like a man. The beginning of the sentence is fine. The subject du (you) and the verb können (can, able to) agree; however, the rest of the sentence makes me wince. Nichts (nothing, none), although a proper German word, does not work in this context; only nicht (not) is needed. The following word, which I understood as steihen (no translation available as it is not a word), is most likely a mispronounced version of stehen (to stand). In addition to being mispronounced, it should follow the phrase “wie ein Mann” which is written correctly.
Dear Ryan Murphy, the infinitive goes at the end.
For another analysis of television’s use of “bad German“, please see Rebecca Schuman’s review of Grimm at Slate.com
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays on FX at 10pm EST/9pmCT.