How Did German Expressionism Shape Film Noir?

Before German Expressionism of the 1920s changed cinema forever, it would make its way to Hollywood and shape the hard-boiled detective genre of Film Noir.

Nov 9, 2023By Kat Bello, BA in Visual Arts & Art History

german expressionism film noir


The silent terror of German Expressionism and the corrupting city streets of Film Noir have forever defined what we think of dark cinema. Two film movements that grew in the shadows and chaos of the early 20th century, German Expressionism and Film Noir introduced us to a cinema of anxiety, wickedness, and fatalism. Cloaked in slick shadows and foggy morals, these movements pushed cinema to new heights while exploring the darkest depths of human existence.


A Brief Overview of German Expressionism and Film Noir

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Peter Lorre as a child killer on the run in M, directed by Fritz Lang, 1931, via IMDB


As far as cinematic movements go, few have become so iconic (or have been so hotly debated) as German Expressionism and Film Noir. Developed an ocean and two decades apart, these two movements shaped a dark, brutal cinema that has influenced filmmaking ever since. German Expressionism was a broad artistic movement encompassing visual art, theatre, literature, and architecture that developed in Europe in the early 1900s.


Expressionism sought to free art from bourgeois logic, negating realistic or impressionistic representations of conventional reality. It broke away from social conventions and reached into the raw energy of human emotion. Expressionist cinema developed in the 1920s, after World War I. Amid the social convulsions of postwar Germany, expressionist films explored themes like insanity, crime, corruption, death, mindless violence, and underlying social anxieties.


Conrad Veidt in (The Hands of Orlac, directed by Robert Wiene, 1924. Via Film-Grab


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German Expressionism established narrative and visual conventions that would shape cinema forever, such as subjective points of view, non-linear narratives, twist endings, unchained camera movements, oblique filming angles, expressionistic set design, and chiaroscuro lighting. These groundbreaking filmmaking techniques have impacted films across genres, but their influence is particularly effective in the cynical crime thrillers of Film Noir. The classic period of Film Noir features a cycle of pictures produced in Hollywood between the 1940s and 1950s. Dealing with the aftershocks of the Depression and World War II, these films were crime thrillers with a distinctive bleak tone and experimental look that distinguished them from Hollywood’s usual offerings.


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Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, 1941, via IMDB


Like the authors of German Expressionism, Film Noir artists were interested in the underbelly of society, the psychology of crime, and social neuroses. To create its dark, fatalistic urban stories, noir took note of expressionistic techniques like low-key lighting, unbalanced composition, and subjective narrative, luring viewers into a gloomy nightmarish world.


Film Noir was far from the only inheritor of Expressionist cinema. The influence of this type of cinema can be seen in 1930s horror movies, other European films d’art, and Orson Welles’ seminal Citizen Kane.


Yet, Film Noir and German Expressionism share remarkably parallel histories and conceptual connections. This was the dark cinema made by and for generations destroyed by war, poverty, and broken dreams. These movements created a film language that shed light on the subterranean anxieties of the time.


Early Century Anxieties 

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Nosferatu, directed by F.W Murnau, 1922, via film-grab


Few periods in history have been as turbulent as the first half of the 20th century. In four decades, the world saw the unprecedented large-scale destruction of the World Wars, the rise of mechanized battle, the economic devastation of the Great Depression, one of the most devastating genocides in human history, and the advent of nuclear weapons.


The psychological impact of these events on society and its artists was immeasurable. This was the backdrop wherein German Expressionism and Film Noir were developed. The release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in February 1920 marks the start of German Expressionism, not even two years after the end of World War I. In the post-war period, Germany dealt with human loss, the physical and psychological destruction of battle, economic devastation, and the collapse of the German government and national identity.


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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920, directed by Robert Wiene, via film-grab


America went through a similar process of social convulsion and collapse of national pride following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The economic shock of the Crash led to a decade-long period of desperation known as the Great Depression, which had global repercussions. Unemployed and destitute, with their savings and futures gone overnight, American citizens felt cheated, disillusioned with the American Dream, and increasingly pessimistic.


In Germany, the Crash of 1929 threw back into freefall a Weimar Republic that had just started stabilizing. In light of a return to post-war penury, Europe saw a rapid rise of fascism. Nazism in Germany and World War II led many artists to flee the continent and move to America. Filmmakers and film talent went to Hollywood and many became consecrated names of Classic Hollywood.


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Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once, directed by Fritz Lang, 1937, via IMDB


These artists brought a wealth of filmmaking know-hows and sensibilities to Hollywood. When it comes to Film Noir, the importance of immigrant talent was enormous. Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, Otto Preminger, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, Miklós Rósza, Billy Wilder, and many more have worked on multiple seminal noir works.


The beginning of Film Noir in 1941 coincides with the entrance of the United States into World War II. Though noir had a down period in 1942 and 1943 when national pride was high on account of the war effort, it came back with a vengeance in 1944. The cruelty of the conflict and the anxieties towards the social changes caused by World War II fed the cynicism and brutality of Film Noir.


The Dark Outlook

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Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder, 1950, via film-grab


Many wondered if the European temperament and the experiences of antisemitism, fascism, and war were the things that shaped the dark cinema of Film Noir. Despite the debate surrounding its definition, Film Noir fits most comfortably in the crime and psychological thriller genre. German Expressionism shares many similarities with (and is indeed considered a precursor of) supernatural horror and dark science fiction. From the suffocating body horror of The Hands of Orlac (1924) to the paranoia spread by the omnipresent criminal in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), expressionist films tend to be more unrealistic, frantic, and more surreal than their successors. These works can veer into the speculative, exoteric, and even spiritual.


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James Cagney in White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh, 1949, via film-grab


The psychotic ventures of Film Noir, in comparison, are more sublimated. Greatly influenced by the Depression-era American pulp fiction and French poetic realism, Noir was grounded in a grittier urban reality. From the maze of betrayals in The Maltese Falcon (1941), or Out of the Past (1947), to the corrupted officer and off-the-deep-end criminals in The Big Heat (1953) or Touch of Evil (1958), Film Noir is pervaded by a cynicism that seems even more bleak than the fatalistic expressionist violence. Perhaps therein lies the difference between a shell-shock cinema riding the waves of war and a delayed response to compounded experiences of the violent 1900s.


Style and Psychology in German Expressionism and Film Noir

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Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles, 1958, via film-grab


The earliest Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Genuine, From Morn to Midnight, and Waxworks are the few films agreed to be fully expressionistic. Their painted sets, painted shadows, and theatre makeup were not featured heavily in other pictures, but their sinister outlook, off-kilter composition, and nightmarish setting certainly were. From Nosferatu (1922) to The Lady from Shanghai (1947), the menacing and oppressive expressionist ambiance was achieved by manipulating light, framing, and camerawork on realistic sets.


Chiaroscuro lighting is one of the most fundamental shared characteristics of German Expressionism and Film Noir. It features harsh contrast between light and dark, with overly dramatic lighting (done at deep angles) that creates unrealistically deep shadows. The world, especially in times of danger, crawls with shade and is overtaken by darkness. Shadow cuts across actors’ frames and presses down on them from all sides.


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Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder, 1944, via IMDB


German Expressionism and Noir pictures utilize oblique camera angles that distort the subject, deliberately seeking imbalanced compositions. Much like the screenplays are maze-like and perplexing, the camera movement and placement are meant to disorient the image rather than stabilize it. The settings and props in these films are heavily symbolic. The sets are filled with objects that give us insight into characters and their fates. These include clocks ticking down lost time, reflections hinting at duplicitousness or fractured psyches, and wide empty streets and monumental city buildings.


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The Lady from Shanghai, directed by Orson Welles, 1947, via film-grab


There is much surrealist influence in German Expressionism. Moments where the semblance of reality is done almost entirely away with, like the dizzying sequence of the breakdown in The Last Laugh (1924) and the surreal montages in Metropolis (1927). In Film Noir’s realism-nudged-to-the-left world, this influence is rarer. It often appears in instances of dream sequences, drug hazes, and hallucinations.


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Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, 1927, via film-grab


Beyond filmmaking techniques, what German Expressionism and Film Noir share, at their core, is a conceptual sensibility. These visuals aren’t simply backgrounds where the action takes place or decorative fanfare. They contain the essence of these films, telling the story alongside the dialogue and screenplay.


Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder, 1950, via film-grab


The shadow of German Expressionism and Film Noir looms over media today. Many Expressionist and Noir pictures are enduring classics, still striking decades, even a century past their release. Horror, thriller, and dark fiction across multiple media types still reflect, reinvent, and replicate the innovations established by these movements.

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By Kat BelloBA in Visual Arts & Art HistoryKat is a visual artist, writer, and juggler of too many passions. She holds a BA in Visual Arts and Art History from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). Her research and art production focuses on cityscape painting and historiography of landscapes. Art, cinema, traveling, history, and writing about art, cinema, film noir, traveling, and history are some of her favorite things in the world.