Esperanto and Cinema

There has not been a big relationship between cinema and the international language Esperanto, it must be said from the start.

Contrary to the contribution of this language to literature, which is quite important, both from original works and translations, and also to the music generated in the language, in the case of the cinema the dispersion of its speakers is a factor hindering the distribution of films, and has prevented the mass creation of films directed specifically to their speakers, or in which the Esperanto movement features as the protagonist of its stories. Even theatre has had more luck, since it can use the very familiar Esperanto meetings (known as Congresses) for the public presentation of original works or translations, from professional as well as amateur troupes.

However, Esperanto has indeed had some connection with the film industry, and it may be interesting for the curious reader to know that this language has been used in some films, or it has played some role, more or less prominent. In the whole, we can distinguish three different cases, which sometimes overlap: on the one hand, there are the films released in Esperanto, on the other, those that reflect some element of the language itself or the community of its speakers. Finally, we will consider the cases in which Esperanto is used to convey some effect in the plot, to represent foreign, exotic or international scenes.

Films in Esperanto

The feature films with some interest, shot entirely in Esperanto, in traditional format, are two: "Angoroj" and "Incubus".

"Angoroj" ("Anguish", in Esperanto) is a film shot by a team of Esperanto speakers, directed by Jacques-Louis Mahé. This is a conventional film, i.e. filmed exactly the same way as it might be filmed in any language, with a plot typical of the detective movies. Starring Marc Darnault, the actors belonged to a theatre group with the participation of some amateurs, some of them well known in the Esperanto movement. Its diffusion was very low, and practically nonexistent outside the circuit of speakers of the language.

Movie poster of "Incubus"The case of "Incubus" (significantly, a Latin word, not Esperanto) is very different. It was filmed entirely in Esperanto, to give the film a special effect of mystery, as suits its plot: it is a kind of demonic fable about the dominance of evil over good. Directed by Leslie Stevens and featuring actor William Shatner (the Captain Kirk from "Star Trek"), the team did not really master the language, and their pronunciation is atrocious, so in fact it is not appreciated by the true speakers of Esperanto. However, it has become a cult film among fans of such genre, partly due to the circumstances surrounding its distribution: the original was burned in 1965 and for many years it was missed until a copy was recently retrieved by chance, and it has been possible to distribute a new version on video.

Among the short films in Esperanto, we can mention "La eta knabino" (The little girl), filmed in Switzerland in 1997, directed by Samir. It was projected in the prestigious 2004 International Week of the Cinema in the Spanish town of Valladolid (Seminci)

Of special interest is the recent short film "Senmova", by Turkish director Tugce Sen, whom I interviewed for the web magazine "Libera Folio".

Films in which Esperanto plays a role

Some films have used the language incidentally, to feature people with some connection to the language or active in its promotion (the so called Esperanto movement). Among these we may cite two Spanish films.

The most recent one is "The pedal car", premiered in November 2003 at the Festival of Cinema of Huelva. Directed by Ramón Barea, starring Pablo Gómez, Álex Angulo and Rosana Pastor, and set in the Spain of the 50s, its plot uses Esperanto because several of the characters speak the language, partly as a way of showing the protagonist's utopian character. The translation of the corresponding scenes of the script was supervised by the Spanish Esperanto Federation.Poster of "La ciutat cremada"

The language also appears in a quite famous film, "The burned city" (La ciutat cremada, in Catalan), directed by Antoni Ribas in 1976. It features the historic events of the so called Tragic Week in Barcelona in 1909. In recreating the anarchist environments it includes a scene of a clandestine gathering of people from this ideology learning Esperanto.

A similar use is made in the Yugoslav film "Vec vidjeno" (original Serb-Croatian title; internationally it was released as "Dejà Vu"), by Goran Markovic (1987), in which the main character is a teacher of Esperanto.

The most recent use of Esperanto in a widely broadcast film has been "Captain Fantastic", directed by Matt Ross and starring Viggo Mortensen (who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance). It is about a family with an alternative lifestyle and education, and in one of the scenes two of the sisters talk to each other in Esperanto, which serves to show another element of their unconventionality.

Esperanto as a special effect

A large group of films uses Esperanto to some special effect, whether exotic, foreign or universal, as mentioned above, and as we have seen in the case of Incubus.

Film "The Great Dictator"Let’s start with the universal effect, as this is the case of the first and best known of these works: "The Great Dictator" by Charles Chaplin. In it Esperanto has a small but very symbolic role, since in this language (with some errors) are written the posters that appear in the ghetto. Surely, Chaplin decided not to use Yiddish, an a priori more logical choice, to give his story a broader scope than the purely Nazi and Jew, in the same way that he altered the name of the country (Tomania) and changed the symbols used by the totalitarian party.

Esperanto has a bigger role in a Japanese animated film, "Ginga Tetsudô no yoru" (the Japanese title could be translated as "Night on the Galactic Railroad", 1985), directed by Sugii Gisagurô from an original story by Miyazawa Kenzi, that enjoyed a significant success in Japan and other countries. It must be said that it is not a film for children, even though it might seem so, as its starring roles are featured by cats.

Esperanto has been used in several movie titles to represent a foreign language in general, without specifying. The most recent is "Blade: Trinity", the third part of the "Blade" saga, premiered in Spain in January 2005. According to director David Goyer, he wanted to stress that most cities are bilingual, and so is the city where the plot is set. For this reason, many of the signs and posters appear in two languages, English and Esperanto. In one scene, Kris Kristofferson speaks in Esperanto with a newspaper vendor. There is even a tribute to "Incubus", a scene of which is once shown in a television in the background.

The use of Esperanto as a foreign language has been used in some cases in order not to offend the purported enemies (indeed, as the U.S. military did for some time in its maneuvers). One of the films was "Idiot's delight", starred by Clark Gable and Norma Shearer, and in which Esperanto is spoken, ironically, by the characters corresponding in the original to the Italian fascists.

Quite similar is the case of the Japanese film "Jan Arima no Kougeki" (“The assault by Jan Arima”, 1959), directed by Daisuke Ito, in which Esperanto was chosen to prevent protests by the Portuguese, as this was the language in which the speech of the enemies was scheduled to be filmed.

Another possibility is to use Esperanto to give an exotic touch. An example is the film "Road to Singapore" with Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope (the first film of the popular "Road to ..." saga) in which the protagonists happen to reach a Pacific island, in which the songs of the natives are sung in this language.

There is also a brief scene in Esperanto in the film "Lady of the Tropics" also from 1939, with Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor.

Also on an island Esperanto is spoken in a film from the Doraemon manga series: "Doraemon: Nobita and the Island of Miracles - Animal Adventure". Several protagonists speak Esperanto in a couple of scenes (until Doraemon eventually gets a translating machine).

Another role of language has been its use in futuristic movies to represent a common language in a hypothetical future. Thus, in the famous film "Gattaca" (1997) by Andrew Niccol, the language is heard briefly in two scenes (a loudspeaker in a space port).

A similar effect, using signs in Esperanto, was intended in the film by Bulat Mansurov, "Blistaiushchii mir" (Russian title translated as "Bright World", 1984), based on a work by the Russian novelist Aleksandr Grin, which was shown in the Festival of Fantastic Cinema of Porto.

Finally, we have already considered the use of the language to convey a mystery effect, as in "Incubus."

Another special effect is achieved in a film of the year 1934, by Delmiro de Caralt entitled "Memmortigo". This is clearly a word in Esperanto, which means suicide. The film is silent, and the title is the only reference to the language. Delmiro (or Delmir) de Caralt is known as a pioneer and promoter of the avant-garde cinema in Spain. He was also one of the most important collectors of film paraphernalia, and has given his name to the Library of the Catalonian Film Institute.

Other examples

Let’s also mention another interesting case: the famous film "The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse" ("Die Tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse", 1960), the latest work by Fritz Lang, is based on a literary work originally written in Esperanto, "Mr. Tot achetas mil okulojn" by Jan Fethke. Fethke (also known as Jean Forge) was a scriptwriter and director of numerous films in Poland and Germany (before the arrival of the Nazis). In the Esperanto movement he is known as a writer. At least one of his films, "Life will start tomorrow," originally filmed in German, was released in a version in Esperanto in 1934.

We could also cite various television films and series. One that makes an extensive use of the language is the science fiction series "Red Dwarf", where the signs of the spacecraft are bilingual, English and Esperanto.

Moreover, there are some documentary films that use Esperanto or are devoted to it. In most cases, the material deals with events specific to the Esperanto movement itself, or they are films produced by governments or institutions to be projected on meetings held in that language. For example, a 1911 film is conserved, about a celebration in Brussels in favor of the language, and there is also a film about the funeral of the creator of the language, Dr. Zamenhof (1917). We could also mention some recordings of theatre plays and performances and of music videos. In general, they have no interest from the artistic point of view, or to the public not involved in the Esperantist movement itself, so we will not deal with them here. Nevertheless, we should mention the role Esperanto has in two documentary films by Sam Green, "Utopia in four movements", performed in the 2010 Sundance Festival with great success, and "The Universal Language", about the history of Esperanto and its current speakers.

Moreover, in recent years an effort has been made to the dubbing or subtitling of films, mainly for the Internet or the DVD market. A good collection may be seen in the web

Present state

The problems of exhibition and distribution that were indicated at the beginning, which hindered the diffusion of films in Esperanto, have changed with the new technologies and the extension of the Internet. For this reason, in recent years the landscape has changed in the field of production of cinematographic and video products in Esperanto.

Gerda malaperis, la filmoThe first example is the production directly to the DVD market. For instance, in 2006 it was widely publicized the film "Gerda malaperis", based on a book by the same title by Claude Piron. Produced by Brazilian company "Imagu Filmo", and directed by Joe Bazilio, it is a very deign product, of detective genre. It shares with the book the interesting feature of its possible use for practicing Esperanto, as it uses simple language in the beginning, which gradually increases the complexity of its vocabulary and expression. The same team later released a new film "La Patro" ("The father").

But where you can see a lot of material in Esperanto is on the Net, on video services like YouTube, Vimeo or Dailymotion. A search on these platforms shows many examples, although of very different quality. To get some orientation, you can use specialized aggregators in Esperanto, such as or the recent Tubaro. As always, however, the future of all these initiatives cannot be foreseen with almost any certainty.

We end by commenting on the most recent appearance of Esperanto in the cinema, in some of the most successful films of recent years, even if it is a marginal use: the production company created by director Alfonso Cuarón, responsible for films such as "Pan's Labyrinth","Gravity" or "Roma" is called "Esperanto Filmoj", which means "Esperanto movies", in Esperanto. Cuarón's choice was conscious and motivated by his sympathy for the language and by the universal ideas that it carries, according to his own statements.

Toño del Barrio, November 2003 (in Spanish); last updated April 2020.