German lessons, play acting and some lip sync for a German film - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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German lessons, play acting and some lip sync for a German film

When I had first arrived in Berlin, I started having German lessons from a truly delightful lady called Frau Emmy Lempfuhl. I was introduced to Frau Lempfuhl by a diplomat friend in the British Military Government (BMG), an organisation that had its HQ in what had been Berlin's 1936 Olympic Stadium. He told me that Frau Lempfuhl gave German lessons to many British servicemen from the highest rank down to the lowest and I was assured that she had been vetted by the security people.

Above: The area around the famous Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstraße in the American Sector of Berlin, was very congested! Everything on this image, beyond the fence in the foreground, was in the Soviet Sector
Like countless young German girls in 1945, Emmy had suffered great indignities at the hands of the Soviet troops as they swept unbridled into Berlin in the final days of the war (my briefers told me that, not Emmy herself). I found to my delight that Emmy taught the language my way - the old-fashioned way! She believed that it was essential to learn grammar as well as vocabulary and I progressed rapidly with her one-to-one instruction. At her suggestion, we agreed to use first names during lessons, but I continued to greet her as Frau Lempfuhl when I first arrived for a lesson and only reverted to calling her Emmy partway through the lesson. That seemed more polite to me until we got to know each other better, and in any case it helped me to get to grips with the two forms of the German second person singular.

Emmy knew that I was a Russian linguist and she clearly knew where I worked, although I never mentioned either to her. I always suspected that she knew far more about my job than she ever let on, but we never discussed 'shop' and I never mentioned the Soviet Union or spoke Russian in her presence. After about six months of having my weekly private lessons in Brooke Wavell Barracks in Spandau, where Emmy held her regular formal classes for British soldiers newly arrived in Berlin, she invited me to continue the lessons in her flat where she lived with her sister. As a matter of routine, I reported that to the security people and, thereafter, most of my lessons were held in her flat. I cannot now remember exactly where the flat was, but it was on the 2nd or 3rd floor of one of the typical large, pre-war Berlin town houses. Emmy's sister shared the flat with her, but I met her only once and she didn't speak any English - not in my presence anyway.

After a year my spoken German was adequate but obviously still not perfect. When I went into Reception at a Hotel way down south in beautiful Garmisch-Partenkirchen and expressed my requirements in German, the lady receptionist replied in English. However, someone (an Englishman) told me later that Bavarians are very jealous of their particular version of German and enjoy correcting tourists who use 'standard German'.

Above: This was an image that  most 'tourists' were encouraged to take - so I took one too. This building was just across the border at Checkpoint Charlie, clearly visible from the viewing point in West Berlin. Note the baby doll trapped on the upstairs window ledge. I pointed it out to every VIP visitor I escorted. The building had been left derelict when the Berlin Wall was erected ín 1961, so this baby doll had been there ever since then. How poignant is that?
One day I told Emmy in general conversation that I had somewhat reluctantly been appointed Officer in Charge of the RAF Gatow Theatre Club and that I had subsequently been persuaded to 'tread the boards' for the very first time since appearing as Prince Charming in my primary school production of Cinderella in 1943 when I was eight years old. At the time I took over as Officer i/c, the club members had already decided that their next production would be The Diary of Anne Frank. It turned out that the Producer was short of a 'mature' man to play the minor part of Dr Dussel the dentist and the Producer persuaded me to step in. Imagine the fuss created in high places by choosing to put on that particular play in Berlin. A staff officer, who happened to be visiting Berlin from HQ RAF Germany in Rheindahlen, asked me the loaded question: "Are you sure it's appropriate to put on The Diary of Anne Frank in Berlin?" I considered my career prospects and then decided to back the club members. I think that was probably not the answer expected of me, but the production went ahead and played to full and appreciative houses.

Intoxicated by the thrill of acting (!!) I then took part in four more Theatre Club productions: Wolf's Clothing by Kenneth Horne (I played Brian Rix's part); The Anniversary by Bill McIlwraith; and Unexpected Guest by Agatha Christie. My final appearance, far less controversial, was playing Toad in what was said to be the German premiere of Toad of Toad Hall by Kenneth Grahame. I was only vaguely familiar with the story and I was dismayed when I realised the vast number of lines I would have to learn. I recorded myself reading the entire play onto my Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder, leaving gaps just long enough for me to deliver Toad's lines when I replayed the tape - which I did many dozens of times until I was word perfect. Not once on any of the six performances (each to a full house) did I need the services of the Prompter. I was not the world's most accomplished amateur actor, but I was quite proud of that feat of memory.

In the last few weeks of my tour in Berlin, immediately after the final performance of Toad, I was invited to take on a small part-time job doing the English 'voice-overs' for a film about German cars that was being prepared for English-speaking release. Someone (Emmy perhaps?) had recommended me to the Producer who gave me an audition and immediately decided that my voice, accent and intonation was just what she wanted. The film studio was in the American Sector very close to the Berlin Wall, quite literally just around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie, and the company was the very one that had dubbed the film My Fair Lady into German. For that they had used a girl with the very distinctive Berlin accent to play Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney girl (Audrey Hepburn in the original).

Most of my task was quite straightforward: all I had to do was read aloud the words from the script as the film was playing silently on a large screen. That part of the job didn't take very long - just a couple of days I seem to recall. Occasionally I was able to suggest small changes to make the English script sound more natural. The many lip-sync scenes, however, were much more demanding; it was a difficult art that I had to learn from scratch. Fortunately, someone had very skilfully translated the German script into English so all I had to do was synchronise my speech with the lips of the German actor on the screen! Filming those lip-sync sequences turned out to be very frustrating and time consuming; they took place over several days and required great patience on the part of everyone in the studio. I sat on a high stool watching a large screen as the film was played, silently of course, a few seconds at a time. Standing by my shoulder was the lady who had written the English words.

I found it was quite impossible to look at the actor's lips on the screen and read my words from the script at the same time. I was always a split-second late in starting, so I had to memorise my scripts and try again. I began to despair of ever getting it right and I could detect tension building up amongst the various technicians, who were probably paying the studio owners by the hour. My mentor told me that I was trying too hard - a common mistake apparently. It seems I was now concentrating too much on the lips of the German speaker on the film and as a result my speech came out haltingly and in a monotone. We tried another method. A red warning light at the side of the screen flashed three times: I was told to breathe in on the first two flashes and start speaking instantly on the third. After some more retakes, all of a sudden like falling off the proverbial log, I got the hang of it. We then progressed rapidly and the studio tension just as suddenly vanished!

The job was completed just a few days before I left Berlin for the final time at the end of my tour. At the run through of the complete film, it was quite fascinating to watch the dozens of lip-synced short scenes where my voice came out over the German actor's face; it really did look as though he was talking and to my surprise, my voice, still with its slight northern English accent, seemed entirely natural. The entire production team had laid on a small, surprise farewell party for me. The Producer told me that I had learned the job faster than many semi-professionals they had to deal with.

My work turned out to be rewarding in the other sense of the word. As I was leaving the studio for the final time, I was handed a surprisingly large fee in cash – and I had thought I was doing it free for the love of the art and Anglo-German relations! I was told that to meet the legal requirements of the German equivalent of UK’s Equity, I had to be paid the approved rate – and I had to sign an official receipt for the cash – a copy of which I attached to my next UK Tax Return. Sadly, I never did see the results of my efforts in an English cinema.

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