Hollywood Movies in Germany – “Krieg der Sterne” becomes “Star Wars” and “Moana” turns into “Vaiana”

These days, many Hollywood movies screened in Germany keep their original English title. But it was not always that way. In the past, especially from the 1940s to the 1980s, there was almost always a special German title created for German audiences. Often the German title simply reflected the film’s story, as with The Caine Mutiny (1954), which starred Humphrey Bogart (voiced in German by O.E. Hasse) as Lt. Commander Philip F. Queeg. The title that Germans saw on their movie screens was Die Caine war ihr Schicksal (The Caine was their fate).

Moana and Maui

Disney’s Moana (left) became Vaiana in Germany, while Maui got to keep his name. Why? See more below. (Also see the Vaiana movie trailer below.)
PHOTO: Walt Disney Animation Studio

North by Northwest

Cary Grant was a victim of “the invisible third man” in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). This is the cover of the German DVD version.

In Germany, the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, is called Der unsichtbare Dritte (The invisible third man), which is only a little less vague than North by Northwest. The classic Bell, Book and Candle (1958), with Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon, bore the rather prosaic title of Meine Braut ist übersinnlich (My bride is paranormal). But Vertigo, another Hitchcock film released that same year, also pairing Novak and Stewart, kept the “Vertigo” while adding the German tag line: Vertigo – Aus dem Reich der Toten (Vertigo – From the realm of the dead).

But it’s another, earlier Hitchcock picture that has one of my favorite German titles. Rope (1948), Hitch’s first color film, is about a murder committed in the New York City apartment of two college students trying to commit the perfect crime by strangling a fellow student with a rope. To create an alibi, they throw a dinner party in their apartment – with the dead body of their victim hidden literally under the guests’ noses inside a wooden chest. The German title: Cocktail für eine Leiche (Cocktail for a corpse).

Rope - Alfred Hitchcock

On this movie poster, the Italian title of Hitchcock’s Rope (Cocktail per un cadavere), like the German title, translates as “Cocktail for a corpse” – but with the added touch of Nodo alla goda (All choked up, “a lump in the throat”). PHOTO: MGM/Transatlantic

Sometimes a remake of a Hollywood film with the same title in English will have two different titles in German. One example is the Western 3:10 to Yuma. The 1957 Yuma release was entitled Zähl bis drei und bete (Count to three and pray), while the 2007 remake was known as Todeszug nach Yuma (Death train to Yuma).

The 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in his first leading role, was an Italian/German/Spanish co-production. The original Italian title Per un pugno di dollari (For a handful of dollars) was retained in most of the other language versions, including the German Für eine Handvoll Dollar.

Sometimes the title of a Hollywood film gets changed for reasons other than language. A recent example is Disney’s animated film Moana (2016). I was puzzled about why Disney decided to alter the title of the German release of this film. Germans would have no problem saying “Moana,” the name of the film’s female titular character. Why change it? The full title in German is Vaiana – Das Paradies hat einen Haken (Vaiana – Paradise has a snag).

It turns out that there were legal reasons for the name change in Germany and other European countries. By German copyright law, no new film can have the exact same title as any earlier motion picture. There was an Italian made-for-TV movie or miniseries entitled “Moana” (2009) about the life and career of the Italian porn star Moana Pozzi (1961-1994), with Italian actress Violante Placido in the title role. The producers also wanted to avoid any confusion over the Italian actress herself. (In Italy the 2016 Disney film was released as Oceania.) An additional reason for dropping the name “Moana” in Europe could be the fact that the Spanish cosmetic maker Casa Margot has trademarked that name for one of its deodorant products.

By the way, the film character Maui keeps his name in the German version. While Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”) lends Maui his voice in the original, when Maui speaks German, the audience hears the voice of German singer-songwriter Andreas Bourani. Vaiana’s German voice is provided by Lina Larissa Strahl, a German film actress and singer-songwriter best known until now for playing Bibi Blocksberg in the German Bibi & Tina film series. The Hawaiian-born actress and singer Auli’i Cravalho is the voice of Moana Waialiki in the original English version.

VAIANA Trailer – Deutsch (2016)

The original 1977 Star Wars was released in Germany as Krieg der Sterne (“War of the stars”). In Germany the 1980 sequel was released as Das Imperium schlägt zurück (The Empire Strikes Back). But nowadays, Hollywood and British films often run in Germany under their English titles: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). At most these days, the German version may add an explanatory German tagline: Star Wars: Episode II – Angriff der Klonkrieger (Attack of the Clones, 2002). Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) used English plus German: Ice Age 2 – Jetzt taut’s (Ice Age 2 – Now it’s thawing).

Many recent Hollywood movies have been released in German-speaking Europe without any changes to the original English title. Some examples: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Fast & Furious 6 (2013), Gravity (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Inception (2010), Independence Day (1996), Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Suicide Squad (2016), and Transformers (2007).

On the other hand, if a film is based on a bestselling book, the film title may retain the German book title. For instance, The Hunger Games book trilogy was known as Die Tribute von Panem (The tributes of Panem) in German-speaking Europe. The three German book volumes were: 1. Die Tribute von Panem – Tödliche Spiele (“Deadly games”), 2. Die Tribute von Panem – Gefährliche Liebe (“Dangerous love”), and 3. Die Tribute von Panem – Flammender Zorn (“Flaming rage”). In all, the Hunger Games novels by the American writer Suzanne Collins were translated into 26 languages.

The four German Hunger Games films, released from 2012 to 2015, kept the familiar German “Panem” book title, but with an English tag line for each part: 1. Die Tribute von Panem – The Hunger Games (2012), 2. Die Tribute von Panem – Catching Fire (2013), 3. Die Tribute von Panem – Mockingjay Teil 1 (2014), and 4. Die Tribute von Panem – Mockingjay Teil 2 (2015).

The Harry Potter and Hobbit films, also based on books, kept the German book titles for the screen versions: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) = Harry Potter und der Orden des Phönix; The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) = Der Hobbit: Die Schlacht der Fünf Heere. All of the films in these series follow this pattern.

Another book example is The Reader (2008), a German-US film co-production that was based on Der Vorleser, a German novel by Bernhard Schlink, first published in 1995. Although the cinematic version, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, was filmed in English in Germany, the English film title is actually a translation of the original book title – and not a very good one at that. The problem is that “Vorleser” in German means “someone who reads aloud to someone else” – all conveyed by the single German noun Vorleser. (The verb is vorlesen, to read aloud.) English “reader” fails to evoke the original German meaning, but “the out-loud reader” doesn’t really make a very good movie title. In any case, the German film version was known as Der Vorleser.

Here are some more interesting German film titles of popular Hollywood movies:

  • Airplane! (1980) = Die unglaubliche Reise in einem verrückten Flugzeug (The unbelievable trip in a crazy airplane)
  • Allied (2016) = Allied – Vertraute Fremde (Intimate strangers)
  • Analyze This (1999) = Reine Nervensache (A pure matter of nerves)
  • Avatar (2009) = Avatar – Aufbruch nach Pandora (Headed for Pandora)
  • Die Hard (1988) = Stirb langsam (Die slowly)
  • Double Indemnity (1944) = Frau ohne Gewissen (Woman without a conscience)
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) = Ferris macht blau (Ferris skips out)
  • Finding Dory (2016) = Findet Dorie (Find Dorie)
  • The Graduate (1967) = Die Reifeprüfung (School-leaving exam for university entrance; “maturity test”)
  • The Great Escape (1963) = Gesprengte Ketten (Broken chains)
  • Inside Out (2015) = Alles steht Kopf (Everything’s on its head, upside down, in turmoil)
  • Jaws (1975) = Der weiße Hai (The white shark)
  • Midnight Cowboy (1968) = Asphalt-Cowboy (Asphalt cowboy)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994) = Die Verurteilten (The condemned)
  • Skyfall (2012) = James Bond 007: Skyfall
  • Some Like It Hot (1959) = Manche mögen’s heiß (Some like it hot)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) = Boulevard der Dämmerung (Twilight Boulevard)

Do you have a favorite German movie title for a Hollywood film? If so, let me know in the comments.