The arrival of the sound film immediately brought another problem with it: the language barrier. Whereas silent films were relatively easy to adapt for screening in various countries and regions, this was obviously quite different for sound films. In general, people didn’t understand other languages, and dubbing or subtitling wouldn’t be implemented for years to come. Additionally, people were faced with the problem that the production of sound films was substantially more expensive than making silent films.
A solution to these problems was found in the form of multi-language versions, in which different language versions of a film were produced at the same time. Individual scenes from a film were recorded multiple times, each time using a different cast that spoke the dialogue in their own native language. The first multi-language film that was produced was the German UFA film, Atlantic (E.A. Dupont; 1929). German, English and French versions of this film were made.
Plans for films never realised
This also seemed to be a lucrative way to make Dutch films. There were plans to make a German version of the film De Jantjes. The director Jaap Speyer had already directed a multi-language film earlier (Moritz macht sein Glück/Meyer & Co: 1930) and was also responsible for the German version of De Jantjes: Die drei Matrosen. This was never released, however.
Other attempts foundered as well. There were supposed to be German versions made of both Dood water by Gerard Rutten and Suikerfreule, by Haro van Peski (who was formerly employed in Germany), but in both cases, these plans never materialised.
In the first half of the 1930s there was only one multi-language version made, Wasch gemakkelijk… wasch voordeelig by the German director Johannes Guter. This was one of the many versions of the advertisement film Wäsche – Waschen – Wohlergehen for Persil, a brand of laundry detergent. There were no Dutch producers or financers involved in this nearly two-hour-long feature film, only a number of Dutch actors and actresses. The film was shown mainly in the morning for a specific target audience: Dutch housewives.
The fate of multi-language versions
On 29 March 1935, the first in a series of six simultaneous multi-language productions appeared in Dutch cinemas: De vier Mullers by the Austrian director Rudolf Meinert. This was the Dutch version of the Austrian film, Alles für die Firma. Five films would follow, but they weren’t particularly successful. General opinion was that these were still foreign films that just happened to have a Dutch cast.
As the 1930s passed, the number of multi-language films decreased internationally and after a brief pickup between 1935 and 1937, the production of these films dropped off. In the 1950s and 1960s, a couple of Dutch multi-language versions were made, but after that, the phenomenon disappeared completely.
Incidentally, the Netherlands – in contrast to many other countries – chose to subtitle films in which Dutch was not spoken. Loet C. Barnstijn had a few films dubbed in the early 1930s, but after that, it was soon over. One of the films he dubbed was Der Geheimagent (1932) featuring the German actor Harry Piel, which was released in the Netherlands as De onbekende passagier.
Dutch multi-language films before WWII:
De vier Mullers (Alles für die Firma)
Fientje Peters – Poste restante (Hilde Petersen – Postlagernd)
’t Was één april (April, April)
Klokslag twaalf (Quand minuit sonnera)
De man zonder hart (L’homme sans coeur)
Drie wenschen (I tre desiseri)