The Filmmaker’s Handbook: What is a Dutch Tilt?
A trademark of German Expressionism was the cinematic style’s ability to make the viewer feel uneasy. Scenes were frequently dark, set design was elaborate and exaggerated to emphasize madness and discontent, and so birthed a cinematic technique known as the “Dutch tilt,” or “Dutch angle.” The Dutch tilt (or canted angle) is a camera shot where the camera is tilted to create a disoriented, crooked shot. Its first notable use came from the Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), where it was used to emphasize the fantastic and off-center nature of the film’s production design, which mirrored the social destruction of the Weimar Republic in Germany at the time.
Since Expressionism, the Dutch tilt naturally carried into the film noir genre with prominence. In modern filmmaking, directors heavily influenced by the Expressionist and noir genres, such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Sam Raimi, use the technique readily. Today, they are most often found in horror pictures.
Dutch angles are sometimes montaged in a manner where the tilts are presented in opposition of each other (right-tilt, left-tilt, right-tilt, etc.). Sometimes these montages move in on a subject while flipping angles to create a maddening effect. Dutch tilts are further used to give the effect of atmospheric disquiet, intoxication, frantic energy, or psychosis, depending on its context. They can be static in nature, or coupled with simultaneous zooming or panning.
Not all critics and film analysts appreciate the shot in modern filmmaking—The Lumiere Reader calls it “an artless maneuver, unsubtle and lacking in imagination. In grammatical terms, it’s the equivalent of a needless exclamation mark when inserted blatantly into a scene, and while part of the familiar visual language of cinema, it’s seldom warranted.”
The Third Man (1949) extensively used Dutch angles to show the main character’s alienation and isolation in a foreign location. Encountering Directors by Charles Thomas Samuels recounts that The Third Man director Carol Reed later joked that he received a good deal of teasing for the film’s preference for Dutch angles: “I used it so much in The Third Man, however, that I remember William Wyler, after seeing the film, made me the gift of a spirit level. ‘Carol,’ he said, ‘next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you!’”
Dutch angles were used constantly in the 1960s Batman TV series and 1966 Adam West film, satirical pieces of entertainment wherein each character had their own identifying Dutch angle. (Some even re-dubbed the Dutch angle the Batman angle.)
Battlefield Earth (2000) drew criticism for its overuse of the technique. Roger Ebert said, “Roger Christian has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.” He gave the film his lowest possible rating.
In comparison, James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) is an effective early use of the Dutch tilt in horror cinema.
Another aging example, from the 1960 Twilight Zone (1959) episode “The Howling Man.”
The Dutch angle is an effective means of conveying various forms of distress and unease. Its overuse in cinema language has given it a somewhat bad reputation, losing favor over time, suggesting it only be used for proper reasons and not as a cinematic gimmick.