© 2016 M.L. Bream

Cinematic Identification: Holding a Mirror up to the Spectator through the Theories of Metz and Elsaesser

September 24, 2016


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 542).

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.

Works Cited

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.

91-97. Print.

---. “The Imaginary Signifier.” University of Toronto Libraries Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 7

Feb. 2014.

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