German Expressionistic Influence on Film Noir

             Throughout the semester in global cinema we study films beginning in the silent era around the year 1915 and spanning to Hollywood films of the late sixties. The second film of the semester was F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Similar to Nosferatu were other German Expressionistic films of the time, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) and Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926). In A History of Narrative Film, by David A. Cook, the German Expressionistic era is described as a time for horror, terror, and souls in search of itself. The way that film makers such as Murnau, Lang, and Wiene portrayed this madness out on screen has evidence of influencing the movies in the film noir era we viewed in class later on in the semester, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). The process in which the German Expressionistic style influenced the American film noir era begins with the technical attributions and continues on through the narrative attributes.

             Since films such as Nosferatu and Caligari were silent films, the directors had to place a lot of emphasis on the visual design. Therefore, as the viewer, we first notice the set design. The shapes used in these films were made up of sharp angles and distinct shapes. The doors used in the insane asylum in Caligari were unusually tall and had sharp corners, in order to signify the setting of madness.

             Also the lighting played an important factor. Cook explains that film noir has a literal translation of “black film” because of the characteristics it portrayed in the 1940’s signifying “a strange new mood of cynicism, darkness, and despair in certain crime films and melodramas” (376). So, when comparing the lighting between Nosferatu and Notorious, or basically any German Expressionistic film to another 1940’s film noir movie, one can see that darkness is a visual connection between the two. As stated earlier, terror plus horror was a classical characteristic of the German style, and lighting was a major way that directors were able to portray those feeling out on screen. Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and other directors during the film noir era similarly used lighting to depict mystery. Often this mystery played out in different motifs affected by World War II but the means of getting there came from director such as Murnau.

             This leads into plot line where Cook describes film noir in a way that can also relate to the 1920 German cinema, “these films thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and the utterly unheroic nature of human beings—lessons that were hardly taught but certainly re-emphasized” (377). Greed, lust, and cruelty are certainly played out in Notorious through Sebastian (Claude Rains). In the first half of the film he is in love with Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). No matter what it took, even if it took time away from his political obligations of the Nazi Party, he was determined to be with her. His greed and lust lingered until he caught onto her cover, and then the cruelty arose. Sebastian went from giving everything to Alicia into poisoning her slowly, almost killing her. Similar to this are the motives of the characters in the film Caligari. Caligari had a man under a spell who would go into the night and conduct murders. Their cover was a traveling carnival show for the town’s people. Caligari’s use of the man as a tool for murder and cruelty failed him one night when a girl became the next victim. Instead of a murder, the man under Caligari’s spell tried to escape with the girl. He fell victim to love and lust and failed in the aspect he was trained for.

             In conclusion, the German Expressionistic style developing in the 1920’s can be linked to influence the famous film noir era that played an important role in Hollywood’s history. The directors Murnau, Lang, and Wiene most likely played key roles in influencing the directors such as Welles and Hitchcock in later periods of global cinema.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Greg Humkey

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