During Monday’s screening of Die Hard, many of you expressed excitement at seeing Alan Rickman on screen. (There was even a tweet referencing his role as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series.) One of the aspects about his character that fascinates me is how closely it is tied to accent, intelligence, and above all a “European” version of effeminacy. Hans is educated, well-dressed, and extremely shifty. Rickman, of course, isn’t German, and his portrayal of a German accent is far from perfect (those of you who have taken German surely caught on to this).
One of my favorite moments for Hans Gruber is when he first manages to meet John McClane in the flesh without either of them gaining the upper-hand. This, of course, is after hours of radio-enabled communication and taunting (flirting?). Gruber manages to escape being killed or used to McClane’s through an alteration of his voice. Not only does he change his accent to match what you might hear in Southern California (tricky villain!), but he also alters his speaking pitch.
German accent at a low pitch
Southern California accent at a high pitch
Pitch and accent both allow actors to get into character. In a 2011 video on using the “original pronunciation” of Shakespeare’s English at the London Globe, one of the advisors describes how different accents work better with different speaking registers.
The shift in Hans Gruber’s accent and pitch is what allows him to spend more time with McClane to give him some additional advantages in the scenes that follow (especially through exploiting McClane’s vulnerability of running around in bare feet). In the responses I have received so far for Die Hard, many of you have already noted how the film seems to be especially conscious of race and class. And yet Hans’s vocal shiftiness pushes education (class) and gender to the forefront in an interesting inversion. Clear and low pitch = villain; rough and high pitch = hero. For most of the film, John McClane’s speaking timbre is thin and rough while Hans’s is resonant and low. He is passing for an American through vocal dexterity. Could you imagine the down-to-earth, working class John McClane effectively passing for a German? What would he have to sacrifice of his working-class authenticiy to gain that kind of vocal dexterity?