Film draws from many different pools of inspiration. Around since the late 19th Century, a lot of its formative influences come from more established artforms such as painting, photography, literature, and theatre. When thinking of these influences, it is hard to understate the importance of Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright, whose radical ideas would go on to change how we make and talk about art. Explicitly political, formally daring, his plays, books, and poems stand out as some of the most outstanding pieces of literature of the 20th century. And so, for World Book Day, we’re looking at seven films influenced by Brecht.
Palindromes (2004, Todd Solondz)
Palindromes is quite a peculiar film, centring around 13-year-old Avivaand her family, friends and neighbours. Aviva gets herself into many uncomfortable situations, some of which are highly sexualised, however Solondz manages to capture this in a way that feels less exploitative. To do this, Solondz had numerous actors of various ages, races and genders play Aviva, allowing him to depict the more sexualised scenes featuring Aviva without those scenes feeling like exploitation. The use of multiple actors forces the audience to distance themselves from the film, a technique Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt, known in English as the “alienation effect”. This effect was to be used to make sure the audience were actively thinking about what the work was saying, rather than being distracted by its plot. In Palindromes, Solondz uses the alienation effect to create a space for discussion over what abuse can look like from a child’s perspective (i.e. it doesn’t always look or feel like abuse to them). This is an important, but difficult point to get across in a film, and Solondz does so to great effect thanks to Brecht’s influence.
The Loveless (1981, Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow’s debut feature is unlike the rest of her work. Starring Willem Dafoe, The Loveless is a Bressonian critique of Americana that uses its mise-en-scene and costumes to speak when its characters won’t. The film follows a group of bikers as they wreak havoc on a quiet town before heading to Daytona. Bigelow strips the biker genre down to its core through iconography and sound, using the characters almost as models to project onto. She uses their movements to explore the fetishism and sexuality [GD2] much in the same way Kenneth Anger did in Scorpio Rising (1963). The film uses the aforementioned alienation effect by purposefully having quite hollow, archetypal characters, meaning it is hard for the audience to connect with them, forcing the viewer to reckon with the film’s use of its biker aesthetic.
The Arabian Nights Trilogy (2015, Miguel Gomes)
Historicisation is something Brecht encouraged. He believed depicting historical events as an allegory for similar modern events makes it easier for audiences to consider the times in which they live, and what is going on around them. It is hard to think of a better example in film of this than Miguel Gomes’ The Arabian Nights Trilogy. Although not strictly historical, Gomes uses stories from the classic collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, Arabian Nights, to discuss the effects of the economic crisis in Portugal. By using such a traditional format as Scheherazade recounting unfinished stories to King Shahryar, Gomes allows the audience the freedom to think more critically about the stories being told. The format is familiar, and the stories knowingly parallel modern times, giving us an entry point to the film through which we can be critical and allow ourselves to be informed of the current situation in Portugal. With Arabian Nights, Gomes perfects Brecht’s use of historicisation, and through his influence creates one of the funniest, and most biting pieces of political satire of the past 20 years.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988, Todd Haynes)
Dark Waters director Todd Haynes’ short Superstar and its unique brilliance seems to be being left further and further behind in the discussion of his work. The film tells the heart-breaking story of pop superstar Karen Carpenter, who died tragically in 1983 as a result of her ongoing battle with anorexia. The film takes us through Karen’s life, her success with the Carpenters, and her struggles with the illness. What makes the film so unique, is that all of the films characters are either Barbie or Ken dolls. Haynes’ use of the alienation effect is one that wholly fits the family friendly aesthetic of the Carpenters, as well as presenting a prescient criticism of the societal expectations placed on women from a young age.
Entranced Earth (1967, Glauber Rocha)
Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth is another example of historical allegory, however in this instance, Rocha uses the history of a fictional state. Set in the Republic of Eldorado, the film works as an allegory for the history of Brazil from 1960-1966, documenting its various changes in regime, and the danger of party politics. Brecht was an explicitly political writer, his work being a constant reflection on the state of Germany. Rocha does much the same with Brazil, with his films being placed in the Cinema Novo genre, a movement of film in mid 20th Century Brazil that emphasises social equality in terms of class and race, with many of the movement’s films using Brechtian techniques to discuss inequality in Brazil.
Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
In perhaps the most extreme and faithful example of Brechtian influence on this list, Dogville is a film that takes the alienation effect to the extreme in terms of production design. The film uses an empty soundstage to depict a depression era American town, with tape markings on the floor to indicate buildings. This is a technique Brecht himself used in productions of his performances, once again to alienate the audience and force them to more consciously think of and about the world in which the work is set, rather than having visual reminders (i.e. a set). Always one for the extreme, von Trier uses this technique as well as the historicisation of the piece to lament violence in America.
Kuhle Wampe (1932, Slatan Dudow)
The only film on this list in which Brecht was an active participant, Kuhle Wampe was penned by the playwright, who also took over direction of the film’s final scene, a political debate between strangers over the world coffee market. The film explores homelessness, unemployment, and left-wing politics in Weimar Gemany, and is an indictment of the failure of liberal politics in Germany at that time, with many fearing what would come with such a failure. The film is arguably the most directly Brechtian film in existence, with Brecht using the alienation effect to create a space for debate over current issues.Kuhle Wampe is an insight into the resistance present in Weimar Germany, a look at the struggle that was fought before one of the most defining and evil regime changes in modern history. The film also acts as a solid entry-point to Brecht, his ideas, and his beliefs, which would go on to influence film for the next 100 years.