How cinematic visuals evoke claustrophobia in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse is one of those rare modern films where the means have generated as much buzz as the end (perhaps more). Here, the cinematic visuals evoke claustrophobia not only through its aspect ratio, cinematographic details, and lighting. Careful arrangements of blocking and character movements also contribute towards this. These aspects have been analyzed here.

Nowhere to Run

Right from the very beginning, the film restricts our vision to extremely confined spaces. In an already limited frame, we can see even less. It gives us an indication of what is about to come even before the two protagonists arrive at the lighthouse. But Thomas and Winslow have no clue of this. This is one such situation where the viewer knows more than the protagonist.

The two characters land on the shore and end up in cramped spaces. We see the ceiling, the floor, and the two walls on two sides confining them in these rooms. At one point the tall Winslow gets a bump on his head. We get the hint. They have nowhere to run.

Such cinematic visuals evoke claustrophobia within us. A sense of dread seduces us which also hooks us into the film as we start anticipating the destiny of the protagonists. The plot developments are minimal. It is these visual limitations that play in our subconscious minds. The characters are subjected to confined spaces on innumerable occasions. At times they are aware of their restriction of space, while in other moments only we realize that they are imprisoned. Instances of these can be observed in the screenshots below.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke stated in an interview for American Cinematographer that the key visual objective was to evoke the central idea that these characters were entrapped. The blocking of the film continuously subjects its characters to restricted spaces. Often they find themselves confined with the distorted version of the other character in front and a wall behind their back. Furthermore, the characters sometimes do not have a nose room before them while they speak. Because of this suffocating feeling, the audience forgets everything else around them and concentrates completely on this cinematic frame.

A Rigid World

While in most modern films the movement of the camera is quite common, and often unnecessary, The Lighthouse is almost dead in this regard. The camera neither tilts nor pans. Doing so would enable us to discover more spaces which the film could not allow us to do. The only few occasions where it moves is when it takes us from one wall to another. It gives indications of the spatial limitations of these people. The lack of space feels suffocating for us. Consequently, the camera never concentrates on the endless horizon of the sea, because it will take the focus away. Instead, it keeps following the two players and never leaves them.

Many filmmakers nowadays prefer a constant shaking of the camera in order to generate tension. The Lighthouse refrains from doing this. Contrastively, the stillness of the camera adds to the loneliness arising from the seclusion of these characters. The camera turns restless towards the end only when the story allows it to become so, thus forming a jarring contrast.

The overall approach conforms to the style of the 1920s German films, a period that heavily inspired Robert Eggers. He channels this influence not only into his cinematography and mise en scène but also in the way his actors perform. The two actors, especially Willem Dafoe, is more facially expressive with his emotions than can be generally seen in modern films. In the silent era actors used to express more with their faces since the lack of words prevented them from delivering their emotions verbally. If we close our ears, Dafoe will feel like an actor of the silent era (he deserved the Oscar this time around for the gigantic risks that he takes in this film).

A Roller Coaster Ride

As such austere cinematic visuals evoke claustrophobia, Eggers places his players in such a way that probes into the vertical dimension of the screen. Like a roller coaster ride, the characters go up and down. They are either much above the middle line, dominating the frame from above, or else sunken somewhere far below. Examples of such can be seen in the screenshots given below.

Such movements conform to the drastically altering wavelengths of their emotions which keep the proceedings from garnering a monotone. They also complement the literal vertical movements of Thomas and Winslow as they go up and down the lighthouse. This puts the focus on the lateral movements observed in the film. The two protagonists mostly move either up or down. Or else they move towards us or away from us. Movements lateral to the frame are seen very little, and mostly while the men are at work.

Lateral movement in general terms gives hints of a sense of mundaneness. Consequently, here we see this movement only when the characters are working. Contrastively, characters moving towards us evoke more sensations as the viewer can directly connect with the movement (remember that train which moved towards us back in 1895?). In one particular scene, Winslow stops work (he was walking laterally to the camera while working) and runs to see something. Moments later, afraid, he moves away from it and starts running towards us. We feel the fear more especially because he is running towards us.

Final Note:

The spaces within which the characters are put, their movements, and the degree to which we are allowed to see, contribute a lot in developing a fear from entrapment in The Lighthouse. By doing so, these aspects finely complement the cinematography and lighting of the film whose main objective is to evoke this sense of claustrophobia.


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