Can a Naturalistic Film Be Considered Brechtian ?

Brecht notes in his unpublished ‘Stanislavsky Studies’ of 1953 that the Russian director’s theatre was in fact alive with Verfremdung, but Stanislavsky just didn’t know it. I used to find this a rather glib observation, Brecht trying to find his theatre in anyone else’s and tarring them with his own brush. And Stanislavsky was a particularly valuable ally when Brecht was being attacked for diverging from the master’s practice so greatly in East Germany. Recently, however, I wondered whether Brecht was actually being more honest than expedient in his summation.

It is perhaps worth asking whether naturalism can be considered Brechtian shortly after Kazuo Ishiguro was named Nobel Laureate for Literature 2017. Only recently, I saw the film of his novel, The Remains of the Day (which won the Mann Booker Prize in 1989), and was astonished at how an essentially naturalist aesthetic could tease out so many social details and make them striking. The class system both pre- and post-WWII is depicted with amazing clarity, and the two main characters, Mr Stevens the butler and Miss Kenton the housekeeper, make it patently apparent how uncomfortable they are in their professional positions, despite pretending that all is well. The accuracy of the social details is acute, and exposes contradictions almost automatically.

In addition, the portrayal of Lord Darlington, the aristocratic Nazi appeaser, reminded me of Brecht’s approach to representing Hörder in the production of Johannes R. Becher’s Battle in Winter at the Berliner Ensemble in 1955. That is, Brecht wanted Hörder, a young Nazi soldier, not to be represented as a nasty fanatic, but as a pleasant young man who nonetheless held Nazi views and acted accordingly. This is an important distinction because it suggests that Hörder can change and that he has been influenced by the all-pervasive propaganda. Darlington, too, embodies a great contradiction. To all intents and purposes, he believes he is doing the right thing. We, as a knowing audience, understand his folly, and so we have to reconcile a sympathetic, naive, and principled person with a set of views that appear to go against all these qualities. We don’t see Darlington change (although he starts to have his doubts), as Hörder does, but that’s perhaps not important: the audience is still presented with a challenge. The pro-Nazi figure is not an evil, self-serving monster, but a politically influential figure who has got things terribly wrong.

In short, the film offers a dialectical understanding of reality, yet it doesn’t use Brecht’s preferred ways of bringing out the contradictions. Does that mean that the film can be considered Brechtian? To my mind, it probably does because contradiction suffuses the representation; it is what seems to underpin the director’s interpretation. The analysis is sharp and provocative; the film’s form gestures to this, but doesn’t deploy Brechtian means to exploit its discoveries.


Afterthought, 15 October 2017

Brecht’s critique of naturalist theatre was that it gave no sense that the world was changeable. That is, the representations on stage failed to register contradiction in a clear and striking way, and thus implied that the people on stage effectively ‘were as they were’, prisoners of their own nature. The Remains of the Day doesn’t get caught in such representational traps. There is a sense that the central figures are torn, and indeed, Mr Stevens is a different person after the War than before. So, the film does suggest the possibility of transformation and doesn’t anchor its figures in fixed characteristics. This presentation of mobility is dialectical.

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BRECHT IN PRACTICE - Copyright 2017 © Prof. David Barnett | All Rights Reserved

David Barnett
Professor of Theatre
University of York