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screamDutch angle

Definition: A shot introduced by German Expressionist directors made with a tilted camera that causes the horizon in the shot to be diagonal to the bottom of the frame. 

History: “Dutch” does not refer to Holland; it is a distortion of “Deutch,” which is German in German. The Dutch angle, also called the Dutch tilt and canted angle, originated with German filmmakers during World War I when an Allies naval blockade prevented films from being imported to and exported from Germany. Unlike Hollywood, which was serving happy-ending storytelling to a salad-days America, the German film industry was part of an Expressionist movement in art and literature trying to digest the insanity of world war. Subjects of Expressionist films included betrayal, suicide, psychosis, terror and other dark mental states that filmmakers like F.W. Murnau, Erich Pommer and Fritz Lang evoked with set designs, costumes and unusual camera shots.

Dutch angleOne of their techniques was the Dutch angle, a concept rooted in the fine arts’ discovery that compositions following horizontal and vertical lines are easier to assimilate. Conversely, compositions that largely follow diagonal lines are “dynamic”—that is, they convey motion, something that requires more effort to assimilate. With assimilation comes various responses evoked by the image’s dynamism—e.g., anxiety, power, humor, aggression, tension. (Joy, love, beauty are thought of as unchanging.)  No doubt former art student Adolf Hitler was aware of dynamic theory when he designed the Nazi flag. In any case, unlike fine art, film is dynamic by definition. Film is motion. The Dutch angle—presenting moving pictures diagonally—is filmmaking’s way of visually evoking responses comparable to those evoked by dynamic art.

In the late 1930s, the techniques of German Expressionism went Hollywood. The Dutch angle was employed by innovative directors such as James Whales in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), Orson Wells in “Citizen Kane” (1939), John Huston in the “Maltese Falcon” (1941), Alfred Hitchcock in “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), and Carol Reed in “The Third Man” (1949). Reed employed the Dutch angle so often in the “The Third Man” that his crew gifted him a level at the wrap party. More recent movies using Dutch angles include “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), “Batman Begins” (2005), “Slum Dog Millionaire” (2008), “Doubt” (2008), and "Star Trek: Final Stand" (2010).

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