The distancing effect (from the German Verfremdungseffekt), or alienation effect, is a theatrical and cinematic device coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht "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. Brecht's term describes the aesthetics of his Epic Theatre (in German: epische Theater).
The proper English translation of Verfremdungseffekt is a matter of controversy. The word is sometimes rendered as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation, or distancing effect. In Brecht and Method, Fredric Jameson abbreviates Verfremdungseffekt as "the V-effekt"; many scholars similarly leave the word untranslated.
Verfremdungseffekt is also commonly translated as alienation effect. Its literal translation into English, making (the familiar) strange, signifies estrangement, or alienation from the familiar.
In German, verfremundungseffekt signifies both alienation and distancing in a theatrical context; thus, "theatrical alienation" and "theatrical distancing". Brecht wanted to "distance" or to "alienate" his audience from the characters and the action and, by dint of that, render them observers who would not become involved in or to sympathize emotionally or to empathize by identifying individually with the characters psychologically; rather, he wanted the audience to understand intellectually the characters' dilemmas and the wrongdoing producing these dilemmas exposed in his dramatic plots. By being thus "distanced" emotionally from the characters and the action on stage, the audience could be able to reach such an intellectual level of understanding (or intellectual empathy); in theory, while alienated emotionally from the action and the characters, they would be empowered on an intellectual level both to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world, which was Brecht's social and political goal as a playwright and the driving force behind his dramaturgy.
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 or her of the notion that what he or she 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-reflective 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.
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