Last updated: April 20, 2019
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The movie Citizen Kane demonstrates the use of cinematography to create expressionist and realistic impressions within its frames (Toland, 4). The film points toward the subjectivity of point-of-view in the depiction of characters within uncharacteristic situations. Though the situations are not normal to the regular person, the filmmaker Orson Welles uses such techniques as lighting, isolation, long takes, and other devices of realism and expressionism to demonstrate a believable and unique reality for the characters. He also uses these techniques along with a commentary on the American Dream to depict the reality of riches and power’s effect on people. The believability of the scenes that depict certain incredible situations demonstrates the realism that characterizes the films. However, expressionism can be seen as a method used in the film to create that effect, in which the ideas, feelings, and attitudes of the characters help to make their individual experiences unique and subjective.

Expressionist films like Citizen Kane have heavily relied on realism as a source of their effect (Toland, 4). Yet this movement has added other techniques to the expression of reality in order to create an even greater impression upon the audience.  Expressionism in film has been based upon the idea of placing subjectivity within the frame of the camera. Therefore, realism is never completely removed from the expressionist shot, though the interpretation of the film’s meaning becomes vested in the mind of the viewer. No universal interpretation is superimposed upon the scenes; rather, scenes become representative of the inner turmoil or other experiences of the characters within them. In fact, realism is highlighted in expressionist films often through such techniques as the incorporation of long intervals of silence or by allowing the audience to stay with the character through the uneventful stages of a long walk toward a momentous event.

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The isolation of Kane and other characters in the movie Citizen Kane represents an effect of the expressionist style of its creator. Certainly, a man in the position in which Kane finds himself might be apt to feel as isolated as he does—and this fact highlights the realistic quality of the film in that context. Isolationism is achieved in director Welles’ use of setting to emphasize the concept of the characters’ loneliness and separation. The scene in which Susan and Kane converse and are separated by a fireplace resembling a chasm is representative of the state of their marriage and the emotional void that separates them. This tendency toward isolationism is realistic (and contemporary) in the sense that many persons do actually find themselves together with a spouse that seems to have drifted far away from them—so that a chasm separates them like the fireplace.

The complete isolation of Kane is subsequently shown (as depicted below) through is being place upon a hill of papers, elevated yet isolated. One critic comments on this: “There are echoes of this selfish impulse in contemporary American separatist militia and other isolationist groups, who often believe that they can escape what they perceive as the madness of the world around them by sequestering themselves in the forests or mountains” (Harper, 2005). This speaks of the realism of the film as well as the expressionist idea in which physical situation of isolation mirror the feelings of the characters, who close themselves off from the world as they believe they are alone and can trust no one apart from themselves.

This isolationism can be appreciated in this particular shot from the film. Since the movie depicts the title character as a man who has fallen from grace, here one finds him standing on top of all the newspapers in a scene that demonstrates how the news has spread of his fall. The fact that he stands alone on this mound demonstrates the isolation from everything and everyone around him. He was no longer perceived as a part of the community in which he lived. The director of this particular scene is able also to achieve the mood of isolation through the viewing angle of the camera. It takes on the impersonality of a microscope as it looks down on the character as though upon an experiment. One also gets the idea that the viewers are moving away from Kane, as his isolation becomes complete.

Another way in which the movie demonstrates realism is in the use of long takes and its adherence to long and un-distilled dialogue (Henderson, cited in Editing 13). The camera shots used in Citizen Kane are usually still frames that mirror the point of view from which an observer would witness the events of the film. The emphasis on the characters within the frame comes about through the methods of focusing used by the cinematographers. This is also representative of the observer’s point of view and the ability of the human eye to focus within the still frame of vision. At other times, still frames are sometimes used with wide panoramic views that take in the entire setting in one view and force the audience to perform the action of finding the target object on which to focus.

One of the most important expressionist techniques found in the film Citizen Kane is the use of light as a method of focusing attention on characters or objects. This is a technique borrowed from the stage and that has been slighted in films in favor of the ability to cut-to one object or another. Citizen Kane uses light to create the idea of Kane’s good fortune in his youth during which time he gains power. Darkness is associated with his subsequent corruption that leads eventually to his downfall. Light in this film also accompanies depth. The relatively new ability to perform deep focusing with the camera worked together with the use of lighting (Priestley). This is evident in scene in which Mrs. Kane gives her son over to Thatcher. At this time, Charlie is visible far in the background through a window, and the outer light is visible in contrast with the shaded interior. This expresses the idea that Charlie is marginalized, and the effect is almost entirely carried out through the cinematographic methods of expressionism (Priestley).

Stephen Harper, 2005

Related to this is the use of chiaroscuro, which directly involves the focusing and direction of light. This can be seen in the scene where Kane transcribes the declaration of his Principles. It begins with Kane in the light of a wall lamp, yet he is immediately obscured by shadow as he goes over to the desk to begin the writing of his dark Principles. The expressionism here is used to highlight the intentions of this man Kane, whose voice (only) can be heard uttering the declaration, while his obscure and darkened form mirrors the ideas present in the principles.

The use of time and space are also ways in which the movie Citizen Kane demonstrates its realism and expressionism. However, it manages to do this in different ways. Citizen Kane, according to Priestley, “shatters the unities of time and space” in the beginning stages of the movie where the account of a dead man is given via five different points of view. The expressionism is found here in all these accounts’ being recounted at one time. Space is also transcended through the use of the camera, this time in moving shots that rove through the scene to alight on different objects of importance. One example of this is the movement of the camera through the sign “El Rancho,” to find Susan in a room en route through a skylight. These many perspectives add to the subjectivity of the film, as it highlights the different points of view that can and do occur in reality, and raise doubts about the believability of things seen even by the eyes of an “omniscient” camera.

The movie Citizen Kane can also be seen as one of the earliest films that have made an unfavorable commentary on the possibilities of the American Dream. The isolation of expressionism is also at work in doing this. During childhood, the film depicts Kane as a happy child who has fun in the snow despite the poverty of his family. However, once Kane has been taken away from this security and is given a life of affluence, Kane finds that his happiness recedes as he becomes isolated within his social environment. This gives the idea that the American dream of wealth and riches leads more to misery than to happiness. In accepting the American dream, Kane is shown also to have made an unfavorable exchange. He trades happiness for sadness, security for insecurity, and social acceptance for social marginalization. The hollowness of the dream is also depicted in the behavior that Kane exhibits once he achieves the American dream. The wealth and power he attains is used not for making others happy or even to entertain himself, but to attempt to purchase a love (which the dream is shown as not having the power to buy) or to increase the misery of those around him in proportion to his own misery. He is finally isolated from all others, and this can be seen as having occurred as a result of the American dream. He dies alone, surrounded only by the objects that could not satisfy him.

Realism as expressed in Citizen Kane is characterized by adherence to the aspects of everyday life that are usually removed from films in order to increase momentum. Such characteristics as the “long take,” chiaroscuro, and verisimilitude are upheld in Citizen Kane. Though the film might be considered equally realistic, the expressionism that is exuded by Citizen Kane does more to appeal to the audiences for interpretation. The movie also provides a sad commentary on the state of the American dream for many persons. Though Kane is able to achieve the dream’s wealth and power, these things actually add to the expressionist quality of the film by increasing Kane’s isolation within his environment. Throughout all this, the film is reminiscent of documentary films and cinéma verité, and the impressions created by Citizen Kane highlight the very subjectivity of reality.
Works Cited

Citizen Kane. Dir. Orson Welles. RKO Pictures, 1941.

Editing: Doing the Washing Up. London, UK: Wallflower Press,  2007  

Henderson, Brian, “The Long Take.” Film Comment. New York, Summer 1971.

Priestley, B. (2003). “Citizen Kane, M, expressionism and point of view.” Brenton Priestley.      Retrieved on August 13, 2007 from  

Toland, G., “Realism for Citizen Kane.” American Cinematographer, August 1991: 4-55.