Noir and German Expressionism

Originally appearing on the (now defunct) Apex Publications blog, March 2013


Ahhhh film noir: black and white and gritty, low-budget never looked so good. But one of the most striking things about film noir is its roots in German Expressionism.

German Expressionism is a twentieth century art movement focused in Germany (natch) from the pre-WWI era through WW2. So while the rest of Europe and America was doing Art Deco, Germans were experimenting with…well, everything. Art, sculpture, theatre, film…if there was media the Germans expressed it. Expressionism was supposed to be the answer to, the reaction to Impressionism. Whereas Impressionism was meant to capture a moment in time, a memory, an impression, if you will, the purpose of Expressionism was to capture an emotion and convey it to the viewer.

This has led to some pretty awesome, but also pretty weird stuff. Sit tight, I’m going to lay some art history on you, but it’s okay, I’m a professional.

Take for example this sculpture by Ernst Barlach. It’s called The Avenger (and not one of The Avengers):


Image credit: espaces art and objets Stampfli & Turci




There was a lot of gung-ho lemme-at-em FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT rah-rah-rah going into World War I. Mostly by people who had never actually been in a real war. And certainly by no one who could imagine a war like the “Great War” where folks were riding mounted cavalry (yes, on horses) headlong into machine-gun fire. The utter brutality and hopelessness of the first World War is often overshadowed by the barbarism and destruction of the second. But WWI, although often overlooked, really left a mark on that generation. So, take this image. The man’s flaring coat and huge sword at the ready conveys the idealism of the hero rushing into battle. It reminds me of an anime or a video game, really. But look at his face. This is a man who has realized his cause is futile or that he is charging towards his own doom. He knows this, but yet he rushes on. The face and the body seem to belong to two different characters, this man showing two vastly different emotions and leaving the viewer in a state of…at least being perplexed if not entirely confused. (and it should be noted that this is a relatively small piece, about two feet tallish, which I think adds to the mystique and appeal of this sculpture- if it was massive and overwhelming it might make its point too clearly. Which is a bad thing in Expressionism. Expressionism is a highly subjective artform, everyone is supposed to take from it what they feel and what they see based on their own life experiences. But I digress…)

Expressionism is not limited to visual arts, but performing arts as well. Bertolt Brecht is one of the best-known Expressionist playwrights. You know of him, even though you don’t realize it. He wrote The Threepenny Opera where the song “Mack the Knife” originates. He also wrote a staggeringly awesome anti-war play called Mother Courage and her Children about a woman who tries profiteering from war and loses all three of her children. It is set in the 17th century but was certainly understood at the time (as well as now) to be a reflection on the rise of fascism and the Nazi party in Germany and the various kinds of corruption and destruction that war creates in people. Oh, and it’s a musical. Because why not?

Image credit: Wikimedia commons







Hitler was not a big fan. He didn’t like ANY of the Expressionists’ stuff and called the whole art movement “degenerate,” but in true fascist style, organized exhibitions of visual art and presentations of the dance and dramatic arts so people could look upon it and scoff, SCOFF I TELL YOU! Because people totally scoffed, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, surrealist art (think Salvadore Dali and Rene Magritte) was also taking off during this time- having a lot of the same see-what-you-want/need-to-see ideas being used, as well as some heavy metaphor for bad juju going on in the world. Expressionism and Surrealism collide in the Expressionist film movement. As a theatre major and art history professor, I’m going to admit to being a tad out of my depth when talking about film, but bear with me.

See, the Expressionists wanted to set up cinema experiences that were a lot like live theatre experiences and which were a lot like their visual art experiences- thought-provoking and individual. In theatre, this is a lot easier as the energy of the live actors on stage fosters a sense of community and connection and where world of the play is literally created there in the theatre and brings everyone present along for the ride. So how can that be achieved in film?

One way is by really interesting sets- a popular format was a set of really steep stairs or a long alleyway or an architecturally significant/interesting interior. Another way is by really interesting lighting- movies were primarily black and white at this time, Technicolor was way too expensive, especially for artsy Expressionist types, so why not exploit that black and white film and make it a primary feature of the experience with heightened light and shadow. Starting to sound a little like noir, doesn’t it?

Film noir is translated from French as “black film,” referring to both the dark quality and heavy shadows of the lighting but also the violence and brutality often associated with noir storylines, plus a little brooding anti-hero. (And really, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like a brooding anti-hero. I’m sure those people are out there, all I’m saying is that I don’t know any of them!) Noir is a shockingly broad category, not just hardboiled pulp style with dames and private dicks, although that is what most people think since that is what the Americanized/Hollywood/popular version of Noir became, but films such as Citizen Kane, Strangers on a Train, and Casablanca all have strong stylistically Noir ties that lead back to German Expressionism. Simply put they address some kind of dichotomy in life, a split between light and dark, hope and despair, but convey it through a deeply personal story often told by an inherently flawed (and probably brooding) antihero. Thematically, this falls right in line with artists like Barlach and writers like Brecht. Cinematically speaking, the high contrast shadows, the use of line and light to highlight and obscure are directly reflective of Expressionist art which often used bold colors and strong angles to evoke emotions from the viewer.


Franz Marc, Rehe im Walde (Deer in Woods), 1914

Image credit: wiki media commons





Now imagine that deer with a gun…

To quote Italian writer Alberto Arbasino, “L’espressionismo non rifugge dall’effetto violentemente sgradevole,” which is to say “Expressionism doesn’t shun the violently unpleasant effect.” In fact, it revels in it. Which, if for no other reason, lands it squarely in the back pocket of classic film noir.


  1. john v burke
    Oct 31, 2020

    Totally agree about noir’s links to German Expressionism, which I think it’s safe to say were reinforced when the Nazis drove a whole artistic community to become refugees, many of them (Brecht included) in Hollywood. I think Fritz Lang is a key figure, from his German movies–M, Metropolias–to his bleak American ones (Human Desire, The Big Heat et al.) The refugees began to worry, after the war, that Fascism was coming to America; Brecht was subpoenaed by the Un-American Activities Committee, gave a performance best described as ironic, and left the country, but Lang stayed. In The Big Heat, Glenn Ford recruits a group of his war buddies as a vigilante crew to fight the gangsters who have corrupted the official police. Was Lang recalling the Nazis’ paramilitary formations in the years before Hitler came to power?

  2. Cecilius
    Jun 21, 2021

    Undoubtedly one of the most iconic and influential films of all time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is justly famed for the skewed, anxiety-inducing angles of its painted backdrops, and for the nightmarish tension of its macabre storyline, in which Francis ( Friedrich Feher ) attempts to solve a series of murders that he suspects to be the work of an insane carnival hypnotist, Dr Caligari ( Werner Krauss ), and his somnambulist sideshow attraction, Cesare ( Conrad Veidt ).


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