Application of Auteur Theory to Christopher Nolan

Modified: 8th Feb 2020
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The term Auteur embraces the thought that the director, who oversees all elements of the film, is to be considered more of the ‘author’ of the movie than is the screenplay writer. That is movie making techniques such as lighting, scene lengths, camera placements, narrative, convey the message clearer than the plot line on its own.  Originally used to differentiate global film directors from those in Hollywood, Andrew Sarris created the term “Auteur Theory” in 1962 through his essay: Notes on the Auteur Theory. Sarris defined an Auteur by having three fundamental characteristics; they must have technical competence of a director as a criterion of value, a distinguishable personality, and an inner interior meaning towards the film (Sarris, 1962, p.2).Christopher Nolan is a prime example of an auteur deserving of the title, from his creation of mind-bending and timeless pictures.

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Christopher Nolan, both writer and director, was born in London, England and over the course of 15 years has risen from a low-budget director to one of the most acclaimed, award nominated directors of present day. Some of his notable works include: Memento 2000, Insomnia 2002, Batman Begins 2005, The Prestige 2006, The Dark Knight 2008, Inception 2010, Interstellar 2014, and Dunkirk 2017. Most of Christopher Nolan’s films explore big philosophical concepts, without offering answers. It is evident his peek interest is memory; how it works, how it can be altered, how our memory shapes who we are and even form what we consider to be reality.

One of the unique aspects that makes Nolan an auteur is from the way he tells his stories; having a non-linear fashion.  From the complex Inception to the Dark Knight, Christopher often uses techniques such as flashbacks or opening a scene that is not in chronological order.  This appears in The Dark Knight were Nolan uses flashbacks to Bruce Wayne’s childhood. Having it start at the present and ending in the past. Nolan has been recognised to have used this technique for his lower budget films, testing its success, and then continued this technique for his higher budget works.  This positions Nolan, English director, as an auteur as he has applied the ‘same meticulously detailed and deeply thought-out psychological approach to the material as in his earlier, low-budget efforts’ (Molloy 2010, pg. 5).

This non-linear technique of Nolan, not only highlights the themes of truth and identity, but also helps to place the audience into the shoes of the protagonist. Narrative and contrast are used to connect the three leading characters, in The Dark Knight. Combining flashbacks with present day, seen in the opening act, Nolan plays with the use of time and how memories create identity.

In the opening scene of Inception, we see what is really one of the final scenes. Nolan enjoys pushing the idea of time by having a multi levelled narrative, or in other words a story within a story. From highlighting that identity can be perceived differently to each person, Nolan forces the audience to engage with the text.

Nolan’s strong lighting choices are distinguishable throughout all his films, from his bleak urban settings, black and white scenes and usage of dark chiaroscuro lighting. Nolan uses contrasts of light and dark throughout his films to display characters emotions and growth or decay within the text, which allows the audience to see deeper meanings and themes. Having skilful lighting, allows Nolan to adjust and manipulate impression that are conveyed on the screen (Millerson, G 2013, pg. 16)

Nolan’s strong and clever lighting choices can be distinguished throughout all his films. In his film Inception, low-key lighting is applied to achieve dramatic effect. The intense use of dark shading, with high contrasts between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene creates a serious, dramatic and mysterious mood on the film. The use of the bright outdoor lighting in the beginning and ending sequence, helps the audience to build a connection between the past and the future.

In The Dark Knight, the city of Gotham is instantly recognisable through its dark gloomy cityscape. The constant use of chiaroscuro lighting sets the mood of the Batman universe to be tense and oppressive. Nolan choice of lighting in The Dark Knight shows the true nature of the characters, one that is very distinguishable is the dark and harsh lighting on The Joker and the mob of other criminals. From this light it creates a dim and menacing mood.

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Visually, Nolan often includes a twisting turning shot in his films called the barrel roll camera technique. This appears most prominently throughout both his films; Inception and The Dark Knight. Nolan employs this technique at key moments in the film, pushing the audience to sympathise with the protagonist, while their world is turning on its head. Used mostly throughout Inception, Nolan helps the audience to make connections between the characters and their intent. The end scene of the film is a good example in how he implements the techniques, as we can see the protagonist from a new light. Witnessing Cobb ending up questionably killing wife Mal, it can explain to us how Cobb succeeded with convincing his wife that she was stuck in a dream and what seemed to be reality was not. Having Cobb and Mal lying face down on the train tracks, ready to take their lives, we start to question our trust towards Cobb. As our lack in trust decreases in Cobb, Nolan implements the creative camera movement and they suddenly appear to be the right-side up.

Another film that displays this camera movement is in his well-known movie, The Dark Knight. The ending sequence of the film shows the Joker in near reach of convincing Batman his world-views. Batman has finally captured the Joker and has left him hanging up-side-down. Telling a lengthy bombardment of ideas, the Joker tries to convince Batman to break his ‘one rule’ and kill him. Starting to consider the idea, Nolan enforces his technique and the camera rolls to its side, achieving distortion as the Joker now appears the correct-side up and in turn the world behind him is upside-down, leaving the audience to question reality. This technically and visually impressive shot not only creates a disorienting effect, but depending on the context, can add a layer of surreal excitement, leaving the audience puzzled.

Preferring to do things from his own vision, Nolan takes on a lot of creative control, from writing and producing all his movies he directs. As said by Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy  “Nolan’s reluctance to employ a second-unit, preferring instead to shoot the entire film himself, is further testament to his desire for full control of his artistic vision.” (2015, p. 6)

Nolan likes to work with the same actors and crew, showing his personal and creative preference for his entourage. Since the Batman Trilogy, Hans Zimmer has composed the soundtrack for every film. Co-producing with Zimmer, his signature in all his films consist of big sounds and bold scores. You will notice throughout his film career, Nolan has worked repeatedly with many outstanding actors such as Michael Caine, seen in The Dark Knight and Interstellar, Cillian Murphy; starring in The Dark Knight and Inception, Anne Hathaway; in The Dark Knight and Interstellar and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; starring in The Dark Knight and Inception. Nolan implements a strong impact towards the personal creative vision of his films proving his auteurship.

Looking at all these elements that make an auteur, whether its cinematography, thematics or personal directive, I think it is safe to say that Christopher Nolan has distinguished himself as one and perfectly embodies Andrew Sarris’ criteria. Nolan has proven himself to be interested in both entertaining the audience and making them think, by pushing the boundaries with often complicated ideas and risks he takes with his filmmaking. Through both films explored, we can reflect on the major similarities of filming style. In both The Dark Knight and Inception, they display a non-linear narrative, from using flashbacks in The Dark Knight and linking the beginning and end in Inception. Nolan has a strong use of visual style from creating lighting which sets the mood and tone, as well as contrasting between light and dark to display characters emotions within the text. His creative camera movements help us to establish his films. Nolan consistently produces stunning, instantly recognisable imagery and always finds innovative ways to tell a story that is visceral and intellectual all at once and after viewing his unique signatures we can say to ourselves, “Oh yes, this is definitely a Christopher Nolan film.”


  • Sarris, A 1962, Notes on the ‘Auteur’ Theory in 1962, Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences.
  • Furby, J & Joy, S 2015, The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, Columbia University Press, Columbia.
  • Molloy, C 2010, Memento, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Millerson, G 2013, Lighting for Television and Film, Focal Press, Burlington.


  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2000, Memento, motion picture, Summit Entertainment & Newmarket Films.
  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2002, Insomnia, motion picture, Alcon Entertainment, Summit Entertainment, Section Eight Productions & Witt/Thomas Productions.
  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2005, Batman Begins, motion picture, DC Comics, Legendary Entertainment, Warner Bros & Syncopy Inc.
  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2006, The Prestige, motion picture, Warner Bros, Touchstone Pictures, Newmarket Films & Syncopy Inc.
  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2008, The Dark Knight, motion picture, Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Comics, Legendary Entertainment & Syncopy Inc.
  • Nolan, c (dir.) 2010, Inception, motion picture, Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures & Syncopy Inc.
  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2014, Interstellar, motion picture, Warner Bros, Legendary Entertainment, Lynda Obst Production & Syncopy Inc.
  • Nolan, C (dir.) 2017, Dunkirk, motion picture, Warner Bros & Syncopy Inc.


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