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Charlie Chaplin, ‘House of Cards,’ and Bertolt Brecht’s Alienation Effect

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Charlie Chaplin’s first major talkie, The Great Dictator from 1940, was a vicious satire on Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Fascism in Italy. Chaplin, who wrote, directed and stars in the film, occasionally turns to the audience to grimace in a way that makes us privy to the joke, yet reminds us that this is only a film, not real life.

Bertolt Brecht

The technique is called the Alienation Effect. We see its use by the ruthless congressman played by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. It is widely used in comedy, and is so central to Woody Allen’s film persona, we are never entirely sure where to draw the line between the actor and his characters.

The Verfremdungseffekt, or V-effekt, was devised by the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, not to prepare audiences for laughter, however, but for the dark dangerous politics of the age.

The Alienation Effect is intended to distance audiences from emotional involvement in the play or film by reminding them of its artificiality. Actors step out of character to give summaries, or show illustrations that make a mockery of the scene; sets do not relate to the locations and allow audiences to glimpse props, ropes and flaps on stage, the technicians on film. By controlling the audience’s identification with the characters – or lack thereof – Brecht believed they would “see” the “real” world masked by the drama.

The Belgian surrealist René Magritte did the same with his painting The Treachery of Images, which shows a pipe with the caption: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – This is not a pipe. Marcel Duchamp engraved a coffee mill on glass and called the work The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. The title makes no sense. But it makes you think.

That was what Brecht was doing during the rise of Nazism through the 1930s. While Hitler was forcing Germany to the extreme right, intellectuals were rowing against the tide carrying the counterweight of socialism and communism.

In the prevailing paranoia, Brecht crafted the Alienation Effect, not as an aesthetic device, but as a way to educate audiences to the threat of war gripping Europe. The surreal scenes in Brecht’s dramas echoed the absurd lies and posturing of the Nazis. By distancing audiences from the events on stage, he wanted people to distance themselves from Nazism and resist its relentless rise.

Brecht never achieved his goal. When Hitler came to power in February 1933, Brecht was forced into exile, and the Alienation Effect has taken a new course, flowering without the seeds that brought it into existence. Woody Allen’s film characters express an angst that is personal, not political, and Spacey’s political drama is less about politics than cold-blooded personal ambition.

As for Charlie Chaplin, with his remarkably similar moustache and gift for mimicry, he seemed destined – or doomed – to play Hitler, and his use of the Verfremdungseffekt in The Great Dictator had unexpected consequences. After playing the role with flawless perfection, the Little Tramp was haunted by the Fuhrer for the rest of his life.

The two men came from similar backgrounds but their fates were opposites. The world wept because of Hitler. The world laughed thanks to Chaplin. “But it could have been the other way round,” as Charles Chaplin Jr told Jessica Singer for Film Notes.

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About Chloe Thurlow

I am the girl at the bar at 2.00 in the morning who looks like she should have gone home and maybe has no home to go to. In case you see me, I'm the one with the notebook. I write in the dead hours as the night planes follow the Thames into London, where I was born and where I moved from west to east like a migrating swallow. Each of my five novels has taken a year from conception to birth. I love them. They are my children. I never sleep. I have no time to sleep. A candle is always burning at
  • David Gardiner

    My feeling is that you’ve made rather a lot of Chaplin’s occasional knowing glances at the audience in this film.My own interpretation of his doing that was that he wasn’t really comfortable with the material he was presenting, as you put it ‘viscously’ satirising people who were at the time major actors on the world stage. Not only major actors, but leaders of countries that had just invaded neighbours which, as in the First World War, America might well find itself defending. At this time though it was a foreign war in which America was not involved and about which it might even be called upon to arbitrate. The politics were, I think, beyond Chaplin’s grasp, but he was genuinely offended by Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and he did see Hitler and Mussolini as madmen whose ideas were detestable and rise to power potentially catastrophic. I think though that he saw himself as the unsophisticated village barber who just wanted people to stop hating each other and hurting each other. His 700-plus word speech begins:

    ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.’

    I’m almost sorry that he didn’t stop there, because as he continues I think he steps out of character and delivers a long and meandering sermon that often descends into platitude. The simple fact is, this was Chaplin’s first real excursion into talkies and he didn’t quite know how to use the new medium. He said in his later autobiography that if he had known the true extent of Nazi brutality he would not have made the film, but I have never met a Jewish person who didn’t admire and applaud his efforts.

    • Chloe Thurlow

      Some excellent points, Mr Gardiner, and I will most certainly get the film out and watch it again.

  • Ray Norsworthy

    Regardless of Chaplin’s view, through a wineglass darkly, of the ignominious totalitarian rise to power in Europe, he had the great creative instincts all great artists have, & while I don’t consider “The Great Dictator” his masterwork, there is more to learn from the least of Chaplin than the best Hollywood has to offer today. Other great artists like Picasso on the left & Ezra Pound on the right were politically naive. The Communists thought Picasso was juvenile & the fascists thought Pound was merely a useful propaganda tool. Back then it was hard not to be politically unaware unless one bore witness to the grinding of the Bratwurst. Brecht was somewhat naive himself in
    thinking that the Alienation Effect would inhibit an emotional response
    from the audience while advancing his anti-Nazi polemics. Still, there is no doubting that Brecht was a fellow artistic genius. Milan Kundera rebutted a hostile biography of Brecht, rejecting the idea that “the truth about an artist is to be found in his worst failings.” Woody Allen’s films might not be a good corollary because they weren’t made to advance a political view or tweak the heartstrings. He was like Chaplin, an instinctive, but meticulous artist who crafted his comedies primarily to tickle the funnybone, secondarily to feature his vision of his beloved New York, his favorite nostalgic music, & his sentimental childhood for the world. I don’t remember ever tearing up while watching a
    Woody Allen movie (unless it was from laughter), but there are moments in Chaplin where a dab with a tissue is a typical response.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article, Chloe, & if I rambled somewhat incoherently, I blame it on my alienation defect!

  • A Holt

    I had thought actors turning to camera and confiding with the audience was new but once again it seems the old adage is true, there’s nothing new under the sun.