w w w . b r e n t o n p r i e s t l e y . c o m

Citizen Kane, M, Expressionism
and Point of View (2003)
Brenton Priestley



Orson Welles perhaps left a red herring in the form of his oft-cited claim that he prepared for directing Citizen Kane by John Ford’s Stagecoach forty times[1]. ‘Even allowing for the hyperbole of the forty times,’ asks Pauline Kael, ‘why should Orson Welles have studied Stagecoach and come up with a film that looked more like The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari?’ Cook concedes that

Ford’s influence on the film is pronounced, but it is equally clear that Welles was steeped in... German Expressionism... If Kane’s narrative owes much to the example of Ford, its visual texture is heavily indebted to the chiascuro lighting of Lang, the fluid camera of Murnau, the baroque mise-en-sc�ne of von Sternberg. (393)

Even though Welles claimed that he was largely unfamiliar with Expressionism when he started film-making[2], Kane is unmistakably an Expressionist film. And, according to film critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, of all the German Expressionist films, it is perhaps most closely comparable to Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M:

... in spite of all the pages wasted on the alleged influence of Stagecoach or The Power and the Glory on Citizen Kane, [Fritz Lang’s] M is clearly - visibly and audibly - the major predecessor of that movie’s low and high angles, its baroque and shadowy compositions, its supple and wide-ranging camera movements, its tricky sound and dialogue transitions, and above all its special rhythmic capacity to tell a ‘detective story’ by turning most of its characters into members of a chorus, delineating a social milieu and penetrating a dark mystery at the same time... it would be difficult to look at Citizen Kane again without thinking of M repeatedly. (Online article)

Kane and M clearly open themselves up to comparison to one another. This discussion will specifically examine, compare and contrast the ways in which they both exploit particular elements of Expressionist mise-en-sc�ne - staging, framing and lighting. Finally, it will analyse the means by which both films engage shifting points-of-view and the broader ideological implications of doing so.

* * *

The custom in early cinema was the that the individual shots from which the film was built – visually - were uninflected. Meaning was derived either from the content of the shot, as in Griffith, or in the juxtaposition of one shot against another, as in Eisenstein. What Expressionism did, taking its cue from Expressionist painting and theatre, was to make the shot itself subjective. The visual construction of the image reflected the inner states and emotions of the characters, their status, their relationships with one another. Beckert, Lorre’s character in M, for example, is frequently filmed by himself, surrounded by empty space on otherwise busy sidewalks – emphasising, literally and Expressionistically, his isolation through the mise-en-sc�ne. After his failed attempt to abduct a little girl in front of the silverware shop, all Beckert wants to do is escape and hide. This, again, is made visually concrete by his sitting behind the foliage at the caf�, hidden from the audience. Likewise, at the lowest ebb in the marriage between Kane and Susan, there’s the shot in which they carry on a cold, distant conversation with one another, separated by the dark, gaping maw of the fireplace.

Kane’s self-absorbed alienation from the world and everyone in it is conveyed by the growing distance which separates him from all other characters within the frame. In these instances, Welles’ use of depth perspective involves an expressive distortion of space which creates a metaphor for something in Kane’s psychology. (My italics) (Cook 395)

Comparing Kane to another masterpiece of German Expressionism,

Nosferatu’s [Expressionism] is almost purely cinematic, relying on camera angles, lighting, and editing rather than production design. Nosferatu... is frequently photographed from an extremely low angle which renders him gigantic and monstrously sinister on the screen (a device not lost upon Orson Welles, who would employ it obsessively throughout Citizen Kane). (Cook 117)

Kane remains a revolutionary film because it not only rejects the Classical Hollywood ethos of making style and continuity as invisible and seamless as possible, but also because it reinforces this emphasis on realism[3] through the use of long takes, in which extensive dialogue and action play out during a (usually) static camera shot. The long takes of which Kane is composed are especially notable for the way in which they use depth, proximity and proportion expressively. Kael writes:

In Kane, as in the German silents, depth was used like stage depth, and attention was frequently moved from one figure to another within a fixed frame by essentially the same techniques as on the stage – by the actors’ moving into light or by a shift of the light to other actors. (134)

An obvious example in M of the use of depth is the scene in which the burglar confesses to Lohmann that he and his cronies had captured Beckert in the office building. Lohmann, his back to the burglar, his face to us, lets the cigar drop from his mouth in astonishment, unknown to the burglar. M also illustrates, for example, discrepancies in power by the placement of characters – such as the little old man who is towered over by the giant workman who accuses him of being the child-murderer – usually on a single plane of the image: it is their relative size to one another that achieves the effect. The of deep-focus[4] for Kane, enabled a fusing of these techniques of on-screen depth and size, and offering a evolved Expressionist palette. One of the most effective uses of deep-focus and depth staging in the mise-en-sc�ne is the shot in which Mrs Kane signs her son over to Mr Thatcher while young Charlie unknowingly plays outside, glimpsed in the far background through the window, his marginalisation visually literalised. In a shot like this, writes Cook, ‘Welles is able to communicate a large amount of narrative and thematic information which would require many shots in a conventionally edited scene’ (396).

* * *

The majority of black-and-white films really deserve to be called ‘grey’ when compared to films like Kane and M, which paint the screen with high-contrast light and shadow. The use of chiaroscuro, along with all of metaphoric implications of the colours black and white, helps to create the distinctive look of both films, using the Expressionistic trademarks of stark shadows. Actually, this is something of an exaggeration, for both films begin fairly brightly lit:

There are two major lighting styles in Kane – the sharp, high-contrast daylight style associated with Kane’s youth and rise to power, and the dark, expressionistic ‘low-light’ style which characterises his corruption and decline. (Cook 396)

The lighting scheme of M is similar. The majority of the scenes in the first half of the film are set during the day. The further that M progresses into darker thematic territory, the more the shadow overwhelms. The second half is almost exclusively set at night, and the denouement is literally set underground.

The lighting of the characters is constantly used in expressive ways. The first the audience sees of Beckert is the menacing shadow of his head cast across the word ‘murderer’ on a wanted poster. Likewise, one of the first glimpses we get of Kane is the silhouette of his face as the nurse pulls a sheet over it. These initial impressions not only create mystery surrounding the characters, but also hint at the darkness inherent in them.

The scene in which Kane writes down his Declaration of Principles is particularly striking in its use of lighting for dramatic and Expressionistic purposes. Kane, Leland and Bernstein are initially all well lit. Kane fiddles with the gas lamp burning on the wall and says ‘I've got to make the New York Enquirer as important to New York as the gas in this light.’ He then goes over to the desk at the front-centre of the frame, is immediately plunged into shadow, and begins to write down the Declaration, saying the Principles as he goes. He finishes, walks away from the desk, and enters the light again, while Leland says he believes the piece of paper on which the Declaration is written will become very important one day. The use of lighting acts, perhaps, as both a foreshadowing of the eventual fate of Kane’s principles as well as his with Leland[5].

It is a tactic of both films to conceal the identity of characters using lighting. The reporter, Thompson, in Kane, is never seen JUSTIFY-on, properly lit, he is always a shadowy figure at the corner of the frame, a substitute for the audience. Kane’s script cautions:

It is important to remember always that only at the very end of the story is Thompson himself a personality. Until then, throughout the picture, we photograph only Thompson's back, shoulders, or his shadow - sometimes we only record his voice. (Welles, Citizen Kane: The Screenplay 161)

Beckert, like Thompson, is similarly disguised for the first half of the film. The audience sees him as a shadow, in shadow, from behind, distorting his own face, emphasising his facelessness, his mutability.

* * *

Kane in particular shatters the unities of time or space, beginning with the death of a man and cycling through five accounts of his life given by those who knew him - there is no objective, truthful point-of-view. M, too, is built from short vignettes, favouring no particular voice, with

Lang steadily crosscut[ting] between the efforts of... three separate factions [the police, the criminals and the beggars], the public at large, and the murderer himself ... graphically describing each stage of the pursuit and at the same time exposing the inner life of the city. (Rosenbaum)

Unlike Griffith’s camera, which provided an objective glimpse through the fourth wall of the proscenium, the objectivity of the camera in Kane or M is sullied by the Expressionism: if the image mirrors the characters’ internal states, how can we trust it? Sometimes, as in M, it adopts a particular character’s optical point-of-view (such as the aforementioned example of the altercation between the little old man and the workman.) At other times, it implicates the audience as voyeurs by forcing them to view the characters at their most painful moments; Beckert’s desperate pleading to the lynch mob, Kane’s destruction of Susan’s bedroom. And at other times, it becomes completely omniscient, unfettered by the laws of gravity or physics, free to rove wherever it pleases. Bordwell identifies the shots in Kane where the camera prowls freely as being a ‘pattern of our penetration into the space of a scene’ where it ‘moves toward things that might reveal the secrets of Kane’s character’ (361). There are several instances of these ‘virtuoso moving camera shots’ (Cook 396), one being the shot in which the camera passes through the El Rancho sign, through the skylight and into the nightclub where Susan is sitting. M also features a long mobile shot which pans past the beggars, their cigars, cards, their food, up past a wall, through a window and into an office[6]. The effect of these [7] is to mimic a person’s optical point-of-view, moving towards something interesting, glancing at relevant details.

The effect of using of all of these camera techniques to indicate point-of-view is to reject the Manichean worldview of The Birth of a Nation in which what you see is what you get. The multiplicity of points-of-view in Kane and M raises the question in the minds of the audience: The truth about Kane and Beckert is ambiguous. Can it be known?

Like Kurosawa’s Rashomon ten years later, the germ of Kane originated, according to Welles, from

an old notion – the idea of telling the same thing several times – and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view... It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on whom was talking about him. (This is Orson Welles 53)

Kane is built around Thompson’s quest to discover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, ‘Rosebud’ in the hope that it will somehow act as the key to explaining Kane’s life and personality. The five different accounts of Kane’s life reveal that Kane was conflicted, enigmatic capable of extremes of emotion, and certainly not explicable by a single word, no matter how much mystical significance is invested in it. As Thompson ultimately concludes,

No, I don't think it explains anything... I don't think any word explains a man's life. No - I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle - a missing piece. (Welles, Citizen Kane: The Screenplay 308)

M similarly examines the danger in trying to judge or synopsise an individual; ‘Child-Murderer’ is to Beckert as ‘Rosebud’ is to Kane, a label which divests him of his humanity and personality. As in Kane, the constantly shifting point-of-view reveals the fallacy of this logic, which is ultimately clinched by Lorre’s wrenching scene in which he

turns the accusation against his accusers – effecting a complete turnaround in sympathies, not just because we understand that he is helpless to combat his sickness, but because he has turned into a victim of persecution. (Milne 703)

* * *

The media, by practice and necessity, subscribes to this reductionism of boiling down personalities and events to simple traits and explanations. This may account for the prominent of the media in both films[8], even while both profoundly reject it. It is the way that both films treat point-of-view as being subjective, and human personality as being inexplicable which lend them their power and longevity – which made them so modern at the time of their release, and which make them seem so ‘classic’ nowadays. And, ultimately, that is why Expressionism, with its rejection of objectivity and emphasis on making subjective states visible, is such an apt aesthetic form for these films to take.











Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1996.

The Birth of a Nation. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Epoch, 1915.

Kael, Pauline. ‘Raising Kane’. Citizen Kane: The Complete Screenplay. London: Meuthen, 2002. 3-151.

Rashomon. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Daiei, 1951.

M. Dir. Fritz Lang. Nero Film, 1931.

Milne, Tom. ‘M’. Time Out Film Guide. Ed. John Pym. London: Penguin, 2001. 703.

Nosferatu. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Prana, 1921.

Rosembaum, Jonathan. ‘Fascinating Rhythms: A Review of
Fritz Lang’s M.’
<http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/0897/08087.html> August 2003.

Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich. This is Orson Welles. Ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum. New York: Da Capo, 1998.

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

Welles, Orson and Herman J. Mankiewicz. ‘Citizen Kane: The Screenplay’. Citizen Kane: The Complete Screenplay. London: Meuthen, 2002. 154-310.

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