If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Likewise, if a man lives without ever being seen, does he exist? These questions both
suggest that in order for something or someone to be considered “real,” they must be
perceived, namely by a sentient being. At the base of this classic philosophical thought
experiment is the nature of observation and the perception of reality and identity—the
same foundations of the cinema, which provokes similar questions through the process of
viewing a film.
The process of spectatorship and its acknowledgement (or lack thereof) on the
part of the spectator and the implications this has on viewer identification are of great
interest to theorists Christian Metz and Thomas Elsaesser. Responding to Metz’s model
of Freudian psychoanalysis and theory of “cinematic identification” in his works “The
Imaginary Signifier” and “Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism),”
Elsaesser offers his own revisions with a new focus on the role that a historical context
plays, in “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject.” Each of these theories will
be explicated in turn, aided by an analysis of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage
of Maria Braun (1979).
For Metz, the motivation behind his writing is as fascinating to him as the
material itself. Reducing his intentions to their most basic form, Metz finds his central
aim is to answer: “[w]hat contribution can Freudian psychoanalysis make to the study of
the cinematic signifier?” (28). Reduced further, Metz seeks to explain why it is we as
humans watch films, through a psychoanalytical understanding. Accordingly, Metz posits
that the cinema satisfies three unconscious desires that we possess. Before these can be
understood, though, it is first necessary to outline the cinematic signifier—the specific
characteristics of the filmic medium—as conceived by Metz.
What foremost defines cinema’s signifier is that it is “perceptual,” engaging one
visually as well as aurally, while other art forms involve only visual perception, like
painting, or auditory perception, like music (Metz 46). The theatre and the opera play on
these combined senses too, Metz notes (47), but it is the manner by which the spectator
interacts with these different types of spectacles that considerably distinguishes them.
With theatrical performances, the audience experiences sights and sounds as they are
produced live in front of them; with films, nothing takes place at the same time of
viewing, it is all recorded, marked by a physical absence of what is displayed onscreen
(Metz 47). This replication of reality is why “[m]ore than the other arts, or in a more
unique way, the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception [through
the dual senses], but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is
nonetheless the only signifier present” (Metz 48).
As Metz’s article title suggests, the cinematic signifier’s involvement with the
imaginary is significant. With this illuminated, it is possible to examine the first
unconscious human desire that the cinema fulfills, the desire for ego. Following Jacques
Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory of the “mirror phase,” in which an infant’s ego is formed
through his recognition in a mirror of himself held in his mother’s arms as an “other”
distinct from her, Metz says the film screen is like the Lacanian mirror, except it does not
reflect the spectator who looks at it (48). Because recognizing oneself as an “other” in the
mirror is the process of primary identification, i.e. the infant identifying himself, Metz
wonders whom the spectator identifies with on the screen if not his own reflection (49).
In this instance, the screen is not a mirror and the spectator is not perceived onscreen, he
is the “all-perceiving” and “all-powerful” entity in the auditorium upon which “this
perceived-imaginary material is deposited...[meaning] the spectator identifies with
himself, himself as a pure act of perception” (Metz 51).
Although the spectator does notsee and identify with a reflection of himself in the mirror-screen, he recognizes himself as
the necessary perceiver of the film’s imaginary images and sounds, which without him
could not be actualized (again the question arises, if a film is not perceived, does it not
exist?). Through these feelings of omnipotence, the ego is inflated and satisfied.
Additionally, Metz finds that at the same time the spectator identifies with
himself, he identifies with the camera, as it acts as his head, panning left and right or up
and down to look at the images onscreen (52). Metz also states that the spectator can
identify with the character(s) or even the actor(s), but that this is only possible with
“narrative-representational” films and films that indeed have humans to identify with, as
opposed to those with landscapes or inanimate objects (49).
Having established the spectator as the perceiver of the film and the cinematic
signifier as imaginary, that is, as reduplications of reality, we are able to locate how the
cinema satisfies the desire for voyeurism. Metz makes an important distinction between
the desire to see and hear things, and the desire to see and hear things secretly. The
former is fulfilled by the theatre’s exhibitionist quality—the actors know that they are the
objects of the audience, aware that they are being watched, and specifically want this to
happen (Metz 94). The latter is satisfied by the voyeuristic nature of the cinema—because
a film’s actors are not directly present in the same place at the same time as where the
film is viewed, there is a sort of lack of consent on their part (Metz 63), enabling pleasure
for the audience in the feeling of watching undetected.
Finally, along with satisfying the spectator’s desire for egotistic self (primary)-
identification and desire for voyeurism, Metz believes the cinema satisfies a fetishistic
desire. Employing Freud’s theory of castration as a model, Metz describes the disavowal
and fetishism displayed by the spectator of film. Metz compares the disavowal
demonstrated by a child who, despite discovering through observation that not all humans
are born with penises, maintains to some degree his initial belief that all humans are born
with penises but some get castrated (68) to the process by which the spectator suspends
his knowledge of the film’s unreality to believe in its fictional diegetic events (70).
Further, Metz claims that in the same way the child who is intensely intrigued by the
sight of his mother’s lack of penis subsequently fetishizes a physical object that hides or
precedes it, like a piece of clothing (68), the spectator fetishizes the cinematic equipment
that enables his suspension of disbelief for its very ability to do so—he goes to the
cinema “partly in order to be carried away by the film (or the fiction, if there is one), but
also in order to appreciate as such the machinery that is carrying [him] away” (72).
Recontextualizing the terminology used in Metz’s aforementioned works on
cinematic identification, Elsaesser critiques Metz’s theory and puts forth his own,
emphasizing the historical specificity of spectator identification through the case of the
New German Cinema and Fassbinder’s films. Enacting a reading of The Marriage of
Maria Braun—specifically the scene of Hermann’s first return— will serve to examine
Elsaesser’s concepts and the effectiveness of his revisions to Metz’s.
The scene of Maria’s husband, Hermann, returning home from World War II is
particularly germane (as it were) to an exploration of Elsaesser’s theory for a number of
reasons. Most significantly, the context of WWII and Nazi Germany that Hermann’s
return reinforces is what Elsaesser believes to be the crux of cinematic identification—for
Germans, in this specific instance, but more generally, Elsaesser means an identification
that is informed by “a particular historical subjectivity” (544). Around this is how
Elsaesser structures his conception of primary identification and where he finds Metz’s
claims to be most lacking.
In Metz’s theory, Elsaesser argues, “the historical determinants seem to be
entirely displaced towards other parts of the ‘institution cinema,’ and the question of
identification—in the concept of primary identification—is recast significantly, so as to
make as clear a distinction as possible between his work and work concerned with role
definition, stereotyping, and role projection” (536). While Metz explains cinematic
identification through what he believes are universal psychological responses (like the
desire to fetishize), for Elsaesser, the impact of the spectator’s subjective geographic and
historical context on his cinematic identification is too significant to ignore. This is
especially the case with films made by German directors like Fassbinder who disable
identification with characters almost entirely by presenting characters that enact roles
rather than embody their parts (Elsaesser 539). The characters do this, Elsaesser notes, as
a result of their issues with sexual and social identity (538)—“[t]hey play the roles with
such deadly seriousness because it is they only way they know how to impose an identity
on aimless, impermanent lives” (542).
The aimlessness of Fassbinder’s characters is echoed by seemingly aimless
camera movements (Elsaesser 538), as demonstrated by this scene where the camera
follows neither the perspective of Maria nor her lover, Bill. The camera always maintains
the perspective of an objective observer, never providing a POV shot from Maria or Bill,
except for one brief instance of a shot reverse shot between the couple as Bill stops in the
doorway. Even when Hermann arrives home to the sight of Maria undressing Bill, the
spectator is never once given what would be a perfect opportunity to view the scene
through the horrified eyes of Hermann as he stands unnoticed at the door that Bill left
open just a few moments prior. Rather, the spectator watches Hermann watching Bill and
Maria. This example marks a characteristic of Fassbinder’s filmmaking and points to an
important conceptual difference between Elsaesser’s and Metz’s theories. Elsaesser
notes, “[p]erception in the cinema is voyeuristic not [as Metz suggests] because of any
particular kinds of representations or points of view. It is not the implied hidden spectator
which a scene sometimes addresses, but the always hidden camera which the scene
cannot exist without that turns all object relations in the cinema into fetishistic ones”
While Metz finds that the cinema is voyeuristic for its absence of explicit viewer
consent like that offered by the theatre, Elsaesser argues that this is especially not true of
Fassbinder’s films, which he believes demonstrate exhibitionism. Conversely to Metz’s
notion that film characters are unaware of their being watched, with Fassbinder, “[t]he
audience is inscribed as voyeurs, but only because the characters are so manifestly
exhibitionist” (Elsaesser 542). The reason for this comes back to the issue of identity and
validation. Fassbinder’s characters, like Maria, who is defined by the very absence of her
husband, play (not embody) roles in the hopes that someone will play the part of the
spectator, confirming them as subjects—“to be, in Fassbinder, is to be perceived”
Elsaesser’s points return us to the same basis that Metz’s work is predicated upon;
both explore the relationship between perception and identity within the cinema and what
this means for the spectator, but neither theory offers a complete answer to the question
of the process of cinematic identification. Elsaesser reveals that Metz’s theory makes
assumptions of universalism and fails to account for the significant implications of the
spectator’s historical specificity. Yet, though Elsaesser considerably expands Metz’s
scope by emphasizing the impact of geographical and historical location on the
spectator’s cinematic identification, he too neglects to adequately address other factors
that play a crucial role, like the spectator’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and age.
Elsaesser, Thomas. “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject: Fassbinder and
Germany.” The Historical Imaginary. France: Cine-Tracts, 1980. 535-549. Print.
Metz, Christian. “Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism).” Imaginary
Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
---. “The Imaginary Signifier.” University of Toronto Libraries Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 7