The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 7, No 1 (2019)

An Austrian in Hollywood: the representation of foreigners in the films of Billy Wilder

Delia Chiaro,Giuseppe De Bonis


This paper examines the work of Billy Wilder whose rich cinematic production frequently involves the collision of different languages as well as the clash of dissimilar cultures. As an Austrian living in the USA, the director had the privilege of gaining insight into his adopted culture from the point of view of an outsider – a bilingual ‘other’ who made 25 films in almost 40 years of working in Hollywood. His films recurrently depict foreign characters at which Wilder pokes fun whether they are English, French, German, Italian, Russian or even the Americans of his adopted country. More precisely, the paper offers an overview of the multi-modal portrayals of diverse ‘foreigners’, namely Germans, Russians, French and Italians, with examples taken from a small but significant sample of Wilder’s films. The subtitling of dialogue in the secondary language for the target English-speaking audience and the specific translation solutions are not within the scope of this discussion, instead we focus on the comic collision of two languages and more importantly, on the way Wilder implements humour to highlight the absurdity of cultural difference. In other words, our main goal is to explore two or more languages in contrast when they become a humorous trope.


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Films & TV series cited

Avanti! (USA, Italy, 1972)

Fawlty Towers (UK, BBC2, 1975-1979)

Irma La Douce (USA, 1963)

Love in the Afternoon (USA, 1957)

One, Two, Three (USA, 1961)

Sabrina (USA, 1954)