Influence of Film Noir in Se7en

During the 1940s, Film Noir emerged as a style in the American cinemas. The style was influenced by German Expressionism and was known for its dark aesthetics and themes. Film Noir utilized these elements to create a sense of dark pessimism, fear, mistrust and general insecurity that was rampant at that time. In a sense, Film Noir is a harsh depiction of American culture, a culture which was changed by the horrors of World War II. Most Noir films star a morally ambiguous characters that battled corruption and crime a fictional urban landscape which has been neglected and plagued by violence and crime. The setting is a reflection of society’s post-war attributes, symbolizing a damaged world which has become morally anarchistic.

Some characteristic elements in Film Noir:

  • Portrayal of crime and violence
  • Dark themes like moral ambiguity, self-destruction, murder and nihilism
  • Cynical, world-weary male protagonists (wearing the iconic trench coats, suits and fedoras)
  • Alluring and seductive femme fatale that brings about chaos/destruction
  • Dreary and gloomy urban settings, that always seems to be raining
  • Chiaroscuro lighting, low-key lighting, deep shadows
  • Dutch tilt, canted angles (to portray imbalance, instability, madness, dramatic tension)

Neo-noir is a style often seen in modern films that prominently use elements of Film Noir, but with updated themes, style, techniques or visual elements. Neo-noir introduced innovations that were not available with the earlier Noir films. The violence was also more potent than in earlier Noir films.

The film Se7en is one such example of a Neo-noir film. Directed by David Fincher in 1995, the plot revolves around David Mills, a young detective who is partnered with the retiring detective, William Somerset; who are both tasked with tracking down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as tropes in his murders. Somerset is the world-weary male protagonist that is definitive of Film Noir. Like so many of Film Noir’s battered cops, Somerset has amassed a lifetime of dealing with filth and amoral misfortunes. He has nothing more than his profession to define him– upon being asked, the closest he came to normality was almost getting married once. In one scene, the deafening silence of his personal life is filled by the ticking of a bedside metronome.



And of course, iconic of the Film Noirs, the detectives in Se7en are often seen dressed in their fedora hat, trench coat and suits.


Fincher cleverly used the elements of Film Noir/Neo-Noir (low-key lighting, contrasting shadows, dark plot) to emphasize on the film’s theme of moral decay throughout Se7en.

The film’s theme of the decay of morality is most prominent in the murderer’s (John Doe) motivations. “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home and we tolerate it,” he says. “We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. … Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example”. He hates to see the world having deteriorated into sin and immorality to the point that he has gone insane and decides to take things into his own hands.

Characteristic to Film Noir films, the movie is set in a bleak, crime-infested, dirty urban unnamed city that is portrayed through the use of chiaroscuro lighting, silhouettes, and contrasting shadows. It reflects the moral decay of the people in it, and a sense of despair and desolation. Also, the idea of a nameless city is scary because it is similar to a nightmare, crime happening everywhere, garbage floods the streets, low moral, and we are being shown how we are the same way.


se7encorner3884f923fba7525468aef5b1dd6ce1d5Commonly found in Film Noirs, the use of low-key lighting runs throughout the entirety of the film. For example, there are numerous scenes in buildings and apartments with boarded up windows, no lighting in the rooms but from a torchlight held by the detectives or a crack of light through a window, making a contrasted image. The contrasting imagery in the film highlights the dark and conflicting aspects that exists in every one of us. The use of low lighting in these scenes is to create tension and a sense of unease, which provides a brilliant base for the plot as the dark story line unfolds.




Chiaroscuro lighting is also often used in conjunction with obstructions such as bars or rails that help to frame the characters morality and foreshadow their fates.


The setting in the film is also often also obscured by rain, a common aspect of Film Noir often used to emphasize the characters conflicted emotions, and create an atmosphere of hopelessness in which each day blends indistinguishably into another.




The rain also serves to heightening the suspense and drama of a sequence, particularly in the climactic chase scene where John Doe presses a gun to Mill’s temple, the rain dripping forebodingly off it. The rain is also used to create reflections, a stylistic element of early Noir, in which the image of a character, in this case John Doe, is distorted, portraying an ominous presence and making audiences unsure and wary of what or whom they are seeing.




Fincher has truly did an outstanding job in bringing across the message and theme of Se7en through the usage of several Film Noir stylistic elements; showing us a meditation on the frightening pervasiveness of evil. A bleak vision of the world we live in.

German Expressionism in Tim Burton’s films

German Expressionism originated during the World War I period, when Germany faced isolation from other countries. In 1916, the German government had banned foreign films, and this led to an increase in local film production. In many ways, the German Expressionism movement is a reaction to the devastation and horrors of the war faced by the Germans.

The themes behind German Expressionism films often revolved around insanity, chaos, death or fear, which embodied what the German people faced during World War I. The films are usually characterized with dark, stylized sets, exaggerated acting, distortions of space and heavy use of shadows. Chiaroscuro lighting was also used in these films. The extreme contrasts of light and dark creates dramatic shadows.


The legacy of German Expressionism still lives on in the modern Hollywood films. Tim Burton is one of the prominent filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood influenced by German Expressionism. His most popular films contain characters and sets that have many striking similarities to German Expressionist cinema. These similarities are most noticeable in Burton’s use of chiaroscuro, the use of shadows, fantastical, geometrical, and angular sets, brooding and mysterious characters, and intellectual plots.

Take Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007) for example, the setting and mood for the entire film was gloomy, dark and sinister-looking, a result from the use of chiaroscuro lighting, deep shadows and angular shapes. These elements are commonly found in German Expressionism films.



Note the similar use of slanting angular shapes, harsh shadows, and disproportionate windows in Sweeney Todd and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, portraying madness and alienation from society.



In a large part of the scenes, Sweeney (Johnny Depp) is partially covered and hidden by shadows, to amplify the menacing nature of his character.


Distortions of body or objects are also characteristic of German Expressionism. The distortion of the character’s faces suggests insanity; and the cracked mirror symbolizes the shattered life and personality of Sweeney, and also possible foreshadowing of his impending death.


Another of Tim Burton’s successful film, Edward Scissorhands (1990), is also heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Similar to Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands contains many visual and stylistic elements of German Expressionism.

– Dark, gloomy sets with sharp, angular and irregular shapes (buildings with varying heights, pointed roofs, disproportionate windows, angled stairs, etc) upset the sense of equilibrium and bring out the fear and chaotic imbalance of the world:



– Low-key and chiaroscuro effect:



Another noteworthy similarity characteristic of German Expressionism is the exaggerated Gothic makeup of the main characters in Tim Burton’s films. The main character in Sweeney Todd and the character of Edward Scissorhands bare a close resemblance to the character of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They all have pale faces contrasted by black hair that are unruly and out of place, dark shadows around all of their eyes, and also the obvious lack of joy in their faces.

"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt


EDWARD SCISSORHANDS US 1990 C20TH FOX JOHNNY DEPP Date 1990, Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection(10312117)

I find it very interesting that Tim Burton also incorporates certain elements of German Expressionism into his animated picture films. One example of such is The Nightmare Before Christmas. The animated picture draws inspiration from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Both have an angular landscape and the characters are standing on a ledge in the distance, their bodies pointed and bent. Also, everything in the scene is in the shadows, while the main character has a background of light.








Although not technically “shot” by a real camera, Tim Burton manages to achieve the “chiaroscuro effect” in The Nightmare Before Christmas, with deep shadows and “low-key lighting”. In the animated picture film, the environment is made up of structures without geometric shapes. There are no squares or rectangles in Halloween town; all the houses are spiraled and curved, the windows crooked, the ground tilted up steeply, and the buildings lopsided. There is no order in the buildings or the environment. These same styles were characteristic of German Expressionism to show the chaos and instabilities of the world.




German Expressionism indeed has influenced a lot of different film makers such as Tim Burton. Most of the current directors has modified and incorporate the influence of German Expressionism to form their own style of film making. Personally, I feel that Tim Burton did an excellent job in using the influences from German Expressionism in his films to enhance the narration and bring out the essence of the story that he was trying to tell.