The Brechtian effect

Bertolt Brecht was an influential figure in 20th-century theatre. He observed that audiences of his time were passive spectators during performances, merely absorbing relatable emotions and identifying with the characters. Brecht sought to transform this dynamic by creating works that would actively engage the audience, encouraging critical reflection by breaking their illusion of reality and identification with the characters thereby reminding them that they are watching a performance. To achieve this, he devised methods to consistently remind the audience that they were watching a play, aiming to maintain their awareness and prevent excessive emotional immersion in the narrative.

He coined various techniques to establish a deliberate distance between the audience and the narrative, such as employing a non-linear or fragmented narrative structure, utilizing satire and parodies, breaking the fourth wall, using sound and music, and incorporating societal and political commentary.

Let’s see how each of these techniques encourages active participation from audiences.

  • Narrative Disruption and Montage: Narrative structures and editing techniques, like montages, disrupt the traditional flow of time and present images in a way that invites the viewer to think critically about their connections.
  • Satire and Parody: Satire and parody are used to challenge and question the status quo, inviting audiences to reflect on the absurdities.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Actors would address the audience directly or step out of character to comment on the action. This reminds the audience that they are watching a film.
  • Music and Sound: Songs and music are used to underline themes, provide commentary and evoke sentiment.
  • Political and Social Commentary: Filmmakers use cinema as a platform for raising awareness and provoking critical thought about the world.

Later filmmakers inspired by Brecht’s idea of prioritizing the audience’s active participation over their emotional absorption into the story begin to utilize his approach in their respective works.

Overall, there are two main approaches to storytelling: immersive and observer. In the immersive approach, the audience is absorbed by the emotional experience, while in the observer approach, the viewer maintains a distance and observes the story from a detached standpoint. Let’s consider examples of both approaches.

Let’s begin with the example of movies that were immersive in my opinion.

I remember watching Oppenheimer a few days ago, and for the next 24 hours, I couldn’t talk about it. I found it difficult to articulate my thoughts. Not due to a lack of ideas to share, but because I was so overwhelmed by the emotional impact of the movie that it deeply affected me. Now I would call it an immersive experience, as I was so engrossed in it and was a part of it as much as the characters appearing on screen. Another recent movie that had a similar impact on me, but this time it was more joyful, is ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ It’s a movie about a girl exploring her religious identity while simultaneously navigating her teenage years. The movie made me cry, laugh, and experience so much more.

Now, let’s examine movies that adopt an observer approach. For this purpose, we can consider the movie ‘Barbie.’ The movie serves as a commentary on feminism and can be considered a perfect example of the Brechtian approach where the intent was not to immerse the audience in its emotional journey but rather encourage viewers to think critically about the world around them and to question dominant narratives and ideologies.

Another significant example could be the documentary style of filmmaking, whose objective is to present reality in a way that encourages viewers to question and analyze it rather than passively accept it. Their use of interviews, direct addresses to the camera, and other techniques create a sense of distance that can be traced back to Brecht’s theories.

It is important to note that whether a film follows the Brechtian approach or not is subjective to the viewer. Each film resonates differently with individual viewers. However, understanding Brechtian principles as a filmmaker provides greater control over one’s creative output. Filmmakers can intentionally craft their products to create either an immersive experience for the audience or to invoke an alienation effect, prompting debate and critical analysis.

Now, some might wonder, can a movie be immersive and, at the same time, encourage active participation? I have an opinion on it wouldn’t like to discuss it as I feel this can vary based on individual experiences, as different audience members might perceive and interpret films differently. So I will leave it to you to decide your answer to it.

Just know that, no approach is wrong as long as you are consciously aware of what you want your audience to experience and feel while watching your movie, and how you intend to achieve that.

Well, I hope you understand the Brechtian effect and this understanding will give you more creative control over your story. In case, you have any questions feel free to leave them in a comment section and I will try my best to respond to each of your queries about the Brechtian effect. I hope this will inspire you to experiment with innovative ways of engaging audiences with your work.