Verfremdungseffekt

The idea of alienation techniques within art, or Verfremdungseffekt, as named by Bertolt Brecht, are rooted in the idea of compelling an audience towards critical thought vs. losing themselves within escapist entertainment. Common alienation techniques in film and theatre include direct address to the audience (thus breaking the illusion of a separate reality), and full acknowledgment of the production of the artwork on view, such as demonstrated in the above clip from Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va bien. A series of cheques are signed and ripped off in extreme close-up in front of the camera, each to the major participatory workers in the creation of a film. While cheekily introducing those responsible, Godard’s camera also reveals the work and money that goes into the creation of a filmic “reality.”

Brecht’s goal in the pursuit of Verfremdungseffekt throughout his works, was to prompt an intellectual consideration of the dilemmas faced by his characters, rather than a sympathetic, less critical reaction. Audiences lose their anonymity and separate role as mere observers, and are pulled into the drama / artwork unfolding in front of them as direct participants. Forced to react on an entirely different level, Brecht’s goal of social and political goals were manifest within the audience.

While the act of “breaking the fourth wall” has become a somewhat more common, less politically-motivated form of storytelling (most often, incidentally, occurring in comedies such as the above clip from 30 Rock, and also commonly in the films of Woody Allen), there are other such examples of narrative disruption that bring the act of Verfremdungseffekt forward.

These effects can include:

Jump-cutting (for example, this sequence from Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry):

Surprise lapses in narrative flow – obvious examples of “watching a film” (such as this sudden musical sequence from Agnes Varda’s Cleo 5 to 7, which, incidentally also includes examples of rhythmic jump-cutting):

“Intellectual montage”, in which images are combined in such a way so as to create ideas vs. strict narrative flow and development. Sequences and images collide in the formation of a combined effect, most common in early Russian cinema (such as the following clip from Eiseinstein’s Strike):

Intended as “barriers to empathy,” the use of Verfremdungseffekt has most definitely changed since the period of Brecht and Eisenstein (and even since Godard’s continual use of alienation in his film works from the 1960s and 1970s). By now, the act of breaking the fourth wall has largely lost its political undercurrent (although it is at least slightly evident in the above clip from 30 Rock, if only winkingly so, and as stated earlier, is most often used at this point for comedic effect), and no longer brings with it the element of shock and realization that it would have carried in these earlier periods.

QUESTIONS:

01. Has the use of Verfremdungseffekt in film, television, or theatre ever prompted a political response in your own experience?

02. How different are audiences of today in comparison with audiences from Brecht’s time (and furthermore, even from Godard’s time)? Are we too trained, for lack of a better term, to instantly follow the lapses in sophisticated Verfremdungseffekt tricks without gaining the underlying political current?

03. Can you name an example of Verfremdungseffekt that affected you on a deep enough level to affect major change in your life?

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