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Johann Schmidt and Arnim Zola are the main villains of Captain America: The First Avenger. They both speak German fluently, as do their Nazi colleagues...

...like the ones Schmidt kills using the Tesseract.

So why do they speak English to one another, as opposed to their native German?

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    I watched the film in a cinema in Berlin and they were all speaking German.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 22:26
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    Hmm. Is "because it's a mass-market film and American audiences hate subtitles" a sufficient answer for you?
    – Valorum
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 22:39
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    I'm pretty sure if you dig deep enough, you'll find a Director's comment or a note from one of the actors pointing out that they were indeed speaking German to each other. They do it all the time in Marvel comics, usually with a <set of brackets> around the speech to let the audience know that they're speaking in a foreign language...
    – Valorum
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 22:44
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    This is merely a stylistic choice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All the aliens speak English too.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 29, 2016 at 8:36

2 Answers 2

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It's simply a translation convention for the audience and for the actors. Schmidt and Zola might "actually" be speaking German, but since Toby Jones and Hugo Weaving might not be able to speak German, they adopted the same "accented English" that a lot of movies use instead.

Other examples of this, off the top of my head and not necessarily sci-fi/fantasy, are: The Lord of the Rings: Modern English couldn't possibly have existed thousands of years ago during the Third Age, so Tolkien "translated" the Common Speech of Middle Earth into English for ease of reading.

Ratatouille: The main cast are French, or at least European, in a French restaurant in the middle of Paris, yet everyone speaks "accented English as French".

Star Wars: Most characters are speaking Galactic Basic, which is presented as English despite it being nearly impossible for an identical language to have existed in another galaxy. British accents are labeled as "High Coruscanti" or "High Imperial".

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: How a late 11th Century French knight is speaking modern English to Jones isn't exactly explained but originally they were meant to be speaking in archaic French to each other, so quite possibly both characters are doing so with a "translation".

Gladiator, Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, and pretty much every other movie about Ancient Rome: Well they're speaking Latin, of course! Maybe some "translated" Greek too, but mostly Latin.

The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments: Ditto for ancient Hebrew and ancient Egyptian.

Enemy at the Gates: Russians and Germans are both speaking in accented English when of course they'd be speaking Russian and German.

Valkyrie: Everyone is speaking (variably accented) "English as German".

Warhammer 40,000: This one's a little interesting. Low Gothic, the default language of the Imperium, is presented as current English, but English wouldn't exist in its same form forty thousand years into the future. High Gothic is presented as a not-always-correct form of Church Latin, which likewise shouldn't exist anymore by the time of the setting.

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Translation convention that's been around forever: when you see two characters who logically should be speaking another language in that given situation, unless specifically otherwise indicated assume they are speaking in that language and you're just watching a translated version of the conversation.

Star Trek is probably the best example. When you see two Klingons holding a conversation, you assume they're really speaking in Klingon. Star Trek Discovery played with that. For pretty much the entire first season, the actors playing the Klingons spoke actual Klingon (with English/other subtitles), however, the idea that Klingons are being translated is so ingrained in viewers that when they did speak English, it was specifically pointed out they were. So when L'Rell has a conversation with a captured Lorca, he pointedly makes a comment about her fluency in English. When Kol captures Admiral Cornwell, he speaks in heavily accented, somewhat halting English to make it clear he's really speaking English, not Klingon.

Later on, when Burnham faces off against Kol, they show her using her communicator to translate: she says something in English, the communicator provides simultaneous interpretation in Klingon. Kol says something in Klingon, the communicator spits it out in English. Once that's done, she puts the communicator down and Kenneth Mitchell and Sonequa Martin-Green start chewing the scenery in English, and the communicator isn't heard from again, but the audience understands that it is still the way they're talking to (well, yelling at and taunting) each other.

In the second season, there's a bit where L'Rell address the High Council in Klingon with English subtitles...but then the subtitles morph from English into Klingon as she starts talking in English, clearly indicating she's "really" talking Klingon. They also show the Klingons talking to each other in the traditional "It's English, but we really know it's Klingon" Star Trek manner.

For another version, The Hunt For Red October. The sub's crew is talking in Russian at the beginning of the film until the famous scene where the political officer is reading a Biblical passage, in Russian, that ends with the word "Armageddon" (which is the same as Russian and English), and then continues reading in English. It's clearly to indicate that from then on, when we see the Soviet crews speaking English, we understand they're really speaking Russian.

Later in the film, when the boarding party from the USS Dallas meet the defecting Russian officers, the two groups sort of stare at each other until one of the Russians makes a comment that Ryan laughs at and interprets for the other Americans, at which point Ramius reveals he speaks English. After that, when Ramius is talking to the Americans, one assumes he's speaking English, and when Ryan is talking to the defectors, he's "really" speaking Russian.

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  • Yes, I think Hunt for Red October handled this really well. Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 9:31

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