The expressionistic style and the theatricality in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: A


Table Of Contents


The German Expressionism and its influence on Kubrick

Expressionism and theatricality in “A Clockwork Orange”



“When someone says Expressionism, they mean the drama in the pictorial structure.” 1)

I don’t know many filmmakers within their films are more pictorial structures than in the films of Stanley Kubrick. In the following essay, “A Clockwork Orange” will be analyzed in terms of expressionism and theatricality. There not only the pictorial structure of the shots, but also the structure of the entire film is very interesting. The film has three main parts. The first one contains Alex’s violent performance, the second is Alex’s cure in jail and the third one is a kind of “the empire strikes back”. Many scenes of the first part come again but in a mirrored version; now Alex is the victim. ”A Clockwork Orange represents the director’s most complete experiment in presenting cinematic material in a subjective mode. (Falsetto, A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, p. 90) Therefore other characteristics of the film, especially the 1st person voice over, or the point of view shots, are very important to mention in terms of creating this subjectivity. But one of the most important aspects in the film’s subjectivity and theatricality is Alex’s performance. Also the expressionist décor and lightning plays its important part in the film. The expressionistic style is deeply connected with elements of theatricality, in particular through the performance of the actors. Before analyzing “A Clockwork Orange” concerning these elements, I will describe the development of the German expressionism and its historical context in general. After that I will point out the development of theatricality in cinema and in what relation theater stands to cinema.

The German Expressionism and its influence on Kubrick

The term German Expressionism, describes a specific film style, which occurred in Germany during the years 1919 - 1924. “German expressionism has been applied to cinema by analogy with the preoccupations of the expressionist movement in modern art of the early part of the twentieth century whose aim was to convey the force of human emotion and sexuality.” (Hayward, p.172) Kubrick’s goals are not so different from those of the expressionists. Especially in “A Clockwork Orange” but also in “Eyes Wide Shut”, Kubrick presents a very deep analysis of the human society. In both films the major theme is about voyeurism and sexuality, connected with violence and power. Stephen Mamber goes even further in his essay “A Clockwork Orange”.

“In fact it is useful to consider Clockwork as the third part of a futuristic trilogy also encompassing Dr. Strangelove and 2001. […] A Space Odyssey […] after “The Dawn of Man” section there are no further views of life on Earth beyond occasional transmissions to space crafts. As in Dr. Strangelove. […] A Clockwork Orange fills in the “meanwhile, back on earth”, quickly placing itself in a parallel time period to 2001 during the attack on the drunk.” (Mamber, Steven. A Clockwork Orange in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, p. 179 ff)

As in Dr. Strangelove or in 2001, Kubrick creates also in Clockwork a certain irony within the way the human characters behave. In the War Room in Strangelove for example, the characters perform their exaggerated style in a “hermetic” (Mamber, p. 179) and very stylized world, as they also do in Clockwork. Some scenes rather look like expressionist paintings than film. For Example the opening scene of Clockwork o r the long shot from the war room in Dr. Strangelove.

According to Hayward the expressionist movement further was famous for its crudely painted forms and vibrant colors. Especially in Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick also uses vibrant colors, like very strong red or deep blue or the mixture of these two colors: Violet. In both films the colors orange (Clockwork) or gold (Eyes Wide Shut) stand for “good” situations; or at least they should seem as such, like the Party scene just at the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut or the second Home scene in Clockwork, where Mr. Alexander wears orange clothes.

The colors also played an important role in the German expressionism. For example blue in the most cases meant night or dark, while red in the most cases symbolizes the inside of rooms or for something that has to with love. In “A Clockwork Orange”, the red color always appears when Alex performs in his own world, as he does in unit 6[1] at his parent’s house. The blanket in Alex’ bed for instance is red, while the pillow is blue. In between these two lines there is a thin orange line. It seems as if there are two personalities united together in the orange one - the clockwork orange. In the next scene Alex’s mother and the father of Alex are sitting at the table having breakfast. Their clothes are both blue, but the room is rather red. Maybe a sign for the fact, that his parents don’t understand their own son very well. (Unit 7) In the mirrored scene (unit 24), his parents are the most of the times shown in front of a blue background, while his mom is wearing red clothes and his father is dressed in an orange shirt. Alex is not welcome at home anymore, but his parents are nevertheless closer to him, than before. Furthermore, in the first HOME sequence (unit 4), the main color is rather red and warm. Mrs. Alexander is wearing a red jumpsuit and Mr. Alexander is writing on a red typewriter. In the mirrored Home sequence (unit 27) for example the entire atmosphere is rather cold and sterile and Mr. Alexander also writes on a blue typewriter, but he is wearing an orange suite.

Kubrick knows exactly that colors work emotionally and therefore he is absolutely aware of using the right colors in the right moments. They need not necessarily be meant in a symbolic kind of way, but at least Kubrick uses colors consciously – as he used nearly all elements consciously, which filmmakers can use anyway.

Not only limited to painting, expressionism spreads into various kind of arts, such as literature, architecture, theatre and finally cinema. Especially concerning the mise-en-scène, that means costumes, lightning, sets and properties, but also concerning the narrative and the performance, expressionism found its outlet in theater and cinema. “German Expressionism depends heavily on mise-on-scène. Shapes are distorted and exaggerated unrealistically for expressive purposes. Actors often wear heavy make-up and move in jerky or slow, sinuous patterns.” (Bordwell and Thompson, p. 473)

Carol Zucker, examines in her analysis of Josef von Sternberg’s Dietrich films “The Idea of the Image”, examines the expressionistic and theatrical styles of Sternberg’s way of filmmaking and furthermore points out several conventions of theatricality used in Sternberg’s films. A few of these arguments can also be used to analyze Kubrick’s film.

“The elements of mise-en-scene are used with great frequency […] to express different aspects of the characters’ sexuality”. (Zucker, p. 52) The lightning often “exemplifies the movement […] toward exaggeration. […] These shots are deeply shadowed in cross-hatched lightning.” (Zucker, p. 55) “Simultaneously these shots describe a space of light and shadow, an abstract and dream-like domain.” (Zucker, p. 57)

The use of high-contrast chiaroscuro lightning became the main strategy of the German expressionist films. All filmic periods, which were based more or less on the German expressionism, like the “Film Noir” for example, used such deeply shadowed lightning. It was one of the most significant elements of film noir - its expressive lightning.

These expressionist elements are used by Kubrick especially during the dream sequences, which appear always before something important changes. The first dream sequence (Unit 6) takes place after the “perfect” evening – perfect from Alex’s point of view. There you see Alex dressed like a vampire, a woman dying and different kind of explosion scenes. The entire sequence is very expressionistic in terms of costumes, décor and camera angles (Kubrick uses strange camera positions) and movements. There are several sequences like this in the film. The next one could be the continuation of the previous scene. Alex is in his room, with these two girls, making love. (Unit 8) It seems unreal because the entire scene is in fast motion and the soundtrack also seems to make fun of the scene. There is another dream sequence, where Alex takes place as a roman soldier striking Jesus Christ himself (Unit 15) and the last scene of the entire film, where Alex seems to have sex in front of a kind of strange audience applauding for Alex’s show. (Unit 35) Here, as the sequence is in a kind of slow motion, the situation seems to be nearly the end of a fairytale. Everybody is happy in a rather exaggerated way, while watching Alex having sex and the décor and the costumes are very stylized and expressionist, too.


[1] The numbers of the Units are the same as in Falsetto, Mario. Stanley Kubrick – A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, p.183 and 184

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The expressionistic style and the theatricality in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Concordia University Montreal  (Mel Hoppenheim School Of Cinema)
Stanley Kubrick Seminar
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Stanley, Kubrick, Clockwork, Orange, Stanley, Kubrick, Seminar
Quote paper
Oliver Schill (Author), 2003, The expressionistic style and the theatricality in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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