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Characteristics of a Modernist Film

Fritz Lang, director of the film
Sean Gallup/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Since film itself came to maturity during the modernist period (between World War I and World War II), all film has a "modernist" element in terms of time period. As a movement, modernism largely rejected realism, sentimentalism and other forms of expression that were popular in the late 19th century and put a greater emphasis on subjectivity and using effects to create visuals that did not necessarily reflect realistic experience. While this term is most often used for literature and art, film also exhibits many modernist elements.


Montage is a moving-picture equivalent of a collage, which was a literary and visual-arts method that puts together disparate things to create an effect. Montage is an important element in modernist film. Modernists tried to create art that provided multiple perspectives and allowed the reader to experience an implicit impression of a narrative instead of an explicit narrative. Montage is a way to visually convey many different scenes and points of view. Montage is still commonly used in contemporary film.

Symbolism and Imagery

Modernist writers and artists frequently used symbols and imagery to convey information and create an emotional response in readers or viewers, and filmmakers, too, use this method. Symbols refer to objects that stand for something else, while imagery refers to images used to convey meaning. While all film involves images, the use of images that convey meaning on their own fall under the category of symbolism and imagery. For example, directors such as Stanley Kubrick primarily expressed meaning through specific images and visuals, not only through plot or exposition through spoken dialogue. In addition, recurring imagery and symbolism is common in the work of Alfred Hitchcock.


While the term expressionism is most commonly associated with German art and cinema, characteristics of expressionism have appeared in all kinds of film. Expressionism refers to art that emphasizes the interior states of individuals and therefore often distorts the actual physical appearance or speech of characters to better express an internal state. The film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," directed by Fritz Lang, is a prime example of this kind of film-making.


Surrealism falls under the larger umbrella of modernism. This term refers to art that focuses on dream-like imagery that is not necessarily logical. Many modernist filmmakers have used surrealist imagery to create emotional and psychological reactions in viewers that are not related to realistic depictions or plot. A prime example of a surrealist film is "Un Chien Andalou," directed by Louis Brunel and written by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Alfred Hitchcock, in the film "Spellbound," also used surreal imagery to express the main character's psychological state.

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