How German Expressionism Gave Rise to the “Dutch” Angle, the Camera Shot That Defined Classic Films by Welles, Hitchcock, Tarantino & More

Expres­sion­ism was an art move­ment that set out to take the internal—emotions, the human con­di­tion itself—and make it exter­nal, with paint­ings that made no attempt to recre­ate real­i­ty. It was a break with the clas­si­cal schools of art that had come before. It was mod­ern, very mod­ern, very col­or­ful, and excit­ing as hell. And it was soon to run head­long into that most mod­ern of art forms, film­mak­ing, in the 1920s.

In the above mini-doc on the Dutch Angle, that cant­ed fram­ing so beloved of film noir, and appar­ent­ly every shot in the first Thor movie, Vox traces its roots back to Expres­sion­ism, and par­tic­u­lar­ly back to Ger­many of the 1910s where schools like Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reit­er were assault­ing real­ism with bru­tal paint­ings. They sensed some­thing was chang­ing in the sub­con­scious of peo­ple and in the coun­try itself. And the movie The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari was the cul­mi­na­tion of that hor­rif­ic vibe.

Three expres­sion­ist painters, Her­mann Warm, Wal­ter Reimann, and Wal­ter Rohrig designed the crooked, bizarre, and night­mar­ish sets for that film. They look like the paint­ings of Ernst Lud­wig Kirch­n­er or Fritz Bleyl, but denud­ed of col­or. Expres­sion­ism had entered film. (Warm, Reimann, and Rohring had worked on, and con­tin­ued to work as set designers/art direc­tors for many films at that time, but most are lost or destroyed.) Ger­many being cut off from the Hol­ly­wood film indus­try at the time had led to this strange new direc­tion, but once Hitler rose to pow­er, many artists came to Hol­ly­wood, and expres­sion­ist tech­niques infect­ed Hol­ly­wood.

The Dutch Angle (real­ly, the Deutsche Angle, before being Ger­man became prob­lem­at­ic) was a way of turn­ing ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal lines in a scene into diag­o­nals. They sug­gest some­thing had gone wrong, that real­i­ty has been knocked off its axis. It became part of the vocab­u­lary of film noir, which was also filled with expres­sion­is­tic light­ing, high con­trast black and white, light and shad­ows.

Those direct emo­tion­al par­al­lels have been leached from the Dutch angle from its overuse. It’s been used in many a film as a way to jazz up a scene, or some­times just as a way to get sev­er­al ele­ments into a tight frame. It’s ubiq­ui­ty in music videos and com­mer­cials has made it almost invis­i­ble.

But when the Dutch angle is used the right way by tal­ent­ed direc­tors, from Hitch­cock to Spike Lee and Quentin Taran­ti­no, the effect still works. The angle makes a shot stand out, it can jar us, it can show inte­ri­or con­fu­sion and moral may­hem. And when that hap­pens it can take us back to the Expressionist’s orig­i­nal goal. It can reveal our inner truths, and remind us of the times when we have felt off cen­ter, when the world was not on the lev­el.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

60 Free Film Noir Movies

10 Great Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Films: From Nos­fer­atu to The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

From Cali­gari to Hitler: A Look at How Cin­e­ma Laid the Foun­da­tion for Tyran­ny in Weimar Ger­many

How Ger­man Expres­sion­ism Influ­enced Tim Bur­ton: A Video Essay

Watch The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari, the Influ­en­tial Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Film (1920)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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