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.
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.