Aesthetic distance: Alienation effect

Posted: September 19, 2007 in Literary Terms, Literary theory

The alienation effect (from the German Verfremdungseffekt) is a theatrical and cinematic device “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.”[1] The term was coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht to describe the aesthetics of epic theatre.


The term of Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange or “priem ostranenie”[2], which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky claims is the essence of all art. Not long after seeing a performance by Mei Lanfang’s company in Moscow in the spring of 1935[3], Brecht coined the German term to label an approach to theater that discouraged involving the audience in an illusory narrative world and in the emotions of the characters. Brecht thought the audience required an emotional distance to reflect on what is being presented in critical and objective ways, rather than being taken out of themselves as conventional entertainment attempts to do.

The proper English translation of Verfremdungseffekt is a matter of controversy. The word is sometimes rendered as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation, distancing effect or alienation effect. Fredric Jameson, in his book Brecht and Method, translates it as “the V-effekt”, and many scholars simply leave the word untranslated.


The Alienation-effect is achieved by the way the “artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him […] The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place.” [4] The use of direct audience-address disrupts stage illusion and generates the A-effect. In performance the performer “observes himself”; his object “to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work.” [5]

By disclosing and making obvious the manipulative contrivances and “fictive” qualities of the medium, the viewer is alienated from any passive acceptance and enjoyment of the film as mere “entertainment”. Instead, the viewer is forced into a critical, analytical frame of mind that serves to disabuse him of the notion what he is watching is necessarily an inviolable, self-contained narrative. This alienation effect serves a didactic function insofar as it teaches the viewer not to take the style and content for granted, since the medium itself is highly constructed and contingent upon many cultural and economic conditions.

In theater musical and pantomimic effects are used as barriers to empathy; in film self-reflexive film techniques are employed to disrupt the narrative flow and break the fourth wall to draw attention to the film-making process itself by addressing the viewer.


1. ^ Brecht, Bertolt, “Brecht on Theater”, page 91. Hill and Wang, 1957
2. ^ Brecht, Bertolt “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”, page 99. Hill and Wang, 1964
3. ^ Brecht, Bertolt “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”, page 99. Hill and Wang, 1964.
4. ^ Brecht, Bertolt “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”, page 91. Hill and Wang, 1964.
5. ^ Brecht, Bertolt “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”, page 92. Hill and Wang, 1964.

::source: wikipedia


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s