Elsaesser, Thomas. “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject: Fassbinder And Germany.” Cinetracts 11 (1980): 43–52.

Primary Identification and the Historical Subject: Fassbinder And Germany

Thomas Elsaesser

from Ciné-Tracts 11

The entire cinematographic apparatus is aimed at provoking... a subject-effect and not a reality-effect. – J.L. Baudry

Film Studies returns to the question of identification1 in the cinema, which used to be one of the main concerns of mass-media studies in the '40s and '50s, with a symptomatic ambivalence. American social psychologists like Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites2 — indebted to Siegfried Kracauer and, at one remove, the Institute for Social Research — represented the very type of approach from which film theory dissociated itself in order to establish a "theory of the visible." And yet, by a completely different route, Baudry and Metz seem to confirm a fundamental insight of media-psychology: the cinema as an institution confines the spectator in an illusory identity, by a play of self-images, but whereas media-psychology sees these self-images as social roles, for Baudry they are structures of cognition.

Two kinds of determinism seem to be implied in the perspectives opened up by Baudry's description of the 'apparatus': a historical one, where the development of optics and the technology of mechanical reproduction produce the cinema, as a specific visual organization of the subject, and an ontogenetic one, where the cinema imitates the very structure of the human psyche and the formation of the ego. The 'apparatus' seems to be locked into a kind of teleology, in which the illusionist cinema, the viewing situation and the spectator's psyche combine in the concrete realization of a fantasy that characterizes 'Western man' and his philosophical efforts towards self-cognition.

While in Baudry's writing, one can still make out a historical argument which, however remotely, underpins his ideas about the condition of a contemporary epistemology, Metz has used Baudry in The Imaginary Signifier in order to establish a classification system rather than an ambivalently evolutionary ontology. With this, 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.

Metz' and Baudry's arguments have several important implications for film-studies. For instance, part of the aim of auteur — or genre-studies and close textual analysis has been to identify levels of coherence in a film or a body of films. In the light of The Imaginary Signifier one might be better advised to speak of a 'coherence-effect,' and to call the very attempt to establish coherence a displaced subject-effect. The task of analysis or interpretation comes to an end at precisely the point where the spectator-critic has objectified his or her subjectivity, by fantasmatizing an author, a genre, or any other category, to act as a substitute for the 'transcendental subject' that Baudry talks about. The perversity of this conclusion can only be mitigated, it seems, if one reminds oneself that Metz' distinction between primary and secondary identification is a procedural one, defining a certain logic operation. Or as Alan Williams put It: "The first and most fundamental level of meaning in cinema is (...)that of the coherence of each film's overall surrogate 'subject.'"3 This leaves open the possibility that the surrogate subject is differently constituted from film to film.

The more immediately apparent consequence of accepting Metz' position affects independent or avant-garde film-making practice.4 Baudry's argument implicitly and explicitly designates the cinema as 'idealist' in the philosophical sense, not because of a specific historical or ideological practice, such as Hollywood classical narrative, but by its "basic cinematographic apparatus." An unbridgeable subject/object division renders the object forever unknowable, and consciousness grasps the outer world only in terms of its own unconscious/linguistic structure. The cinema, in this respect, is an apparatus constructed by a Kantian epistemologist. Metz' distinction of primary identification amplifies this point. The filmic signifier is an imaginary one because perception in the cinema always involves between spectator and image the presence of a third term which is hidden: the camera. It is the repression of this absence and deferment in the act of perception that turns the subject/object relation into an imaginary one. Primary identification designates the unperceived and unrecognized mirroring effect that such a constellation produces for the viewer, with the consequence that all possible identifications with the characters in particular are modelled on and circumscribed by a structure of narcissism which inflects the viewer-screen relationship at any given moment.

Perception in the cinema is voyeuristic not 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. They hold the subject in a position of miscognition or self-estrangement, regardless of whether the film in question is representational or not, avant-garde or narrative-illusionist. A film either fetishizes the characters or it fetishizes the apparatus. According to Metz, there is no escape from this closed circle.5 In this respect, the cinema is indeed an "invention without a future" because it systematically ties the spectator to a regressive state, in an endless circuit of substitution and fetishization.

Such pessimism has been questioned, not least because it seems to invalidate the political and cognitive aims of radical avant-garde film-making. Suspecting a logical flaw, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith6 has challenged Metz' distinction, by arguing that it is difficult to see how one can talk about primary and secondary identification, if one means by this an anteriority, in a process that is essentially simultaneous and dynamic. Consequently, Nowell-Smith wants to argue that "pure specularity," the transformation of Freud's secondary narcissism into the imaginary reintegration of the subject's self-image, is an abstraction, and no more than a misleading theoretical construct. In any concrete act of viewing, the spectator is involved in identifications which are 'primary' and 'secondary' at the same time (if only by the metonymization of shots), and every fragmentation, be it montage, point of view shots or any other principle of alternation breaks down primary identification.

The very fact that something is posited as primary should make us instantly suspicious. To say something is primary is simply to locate it further back in the psychic apparatus. It does not, or should not, invite any conclusions about its efficacy. I would argue, therefore, that the so-called secondary identifications do tend to break down the pure specularity of the screen/spectator relation in itself and to displace it onto relations which are more properly intra-textual, relations to the spectator posited from within the image and in the movement from shot to shot.7

Metz might well reply that he is not talking about a perceptual anteriority, but a conceptual a priori, and that he is not interested in concrete acts of viewing as much as in a classification of distinct categories, However, much of Metz' argument is buttressed by Baudry's essays, whose Platonic ontology of the cinema is historicized only at the price of turning it into a negative teleology. At times, it appears that Metz accepts or is indifferent to the suggestion that the cinema is inescapably idealist. Confronted with the question whether 'primary identification' is coextensive with the cinematic apparatus as analyzed by Baudry and to that extent, unaffected by textual or historical production, Metz conceded, without much enthusiasm or conviction, that conceivably, if the nature of the family were to change radically, so might the cinematic apparatus.8

Film Studies has responded to these problems not only by a renewed interest in theory. Equally significant is the attention given to alternative or deviating practices in the history of cinema regarding the relationship of spectator to film, and the kind of 'materialism' or 'specularization' which it undergoes. The Japanese cinema (Ozu, Oshima, Mizoguchi) has become a privileged area for such investigations, in terms of narrative space, point of view shots, or culturally different codes of representation and identification.9 This paper is an attempt to isolate another deviating practice, within the European context, which has developed as closely as the Japanese cinema in a reciprocity and rivalry with the 'dominant' practice of classical narrative. The recent German cinema seems to me to represent both a confirmation of Baudry's and Metz' arguments, and at the same time offers a textual practice which might make apparent a dimension elided or repressed in The Imaginary Signifier. In particular, I am wondering whether the mirroring effect of cinema, the specularization of all subject/object relations, their rigid division (which is the 'other scene' of primary identification), and the return of a transcendental subject may not point to internalized social relations whose dynamic has been blocked, a blockage that Metz and Baudry have theorized and systematized.

In choosing the films of Fassbinder, I am guided by the fact that his work has given rise to the most widespread discussions about spectator-positioning and types of identification/distanciation. Thus, a certain familiarity can be assumed for the terms of the argument and the examples cited.

Most of Fassbinder's films are centered on interpersonal relationships and problems of sexual and social identity, in a way that is recognizable from classical Hollywood cinema; and yet, even on casual inspection, his work seems to confirm quite strongly a heavy investment in vision itself, and a concentration on glance/glance, point-of-view shots and seemingly unmotivated camera-movements that foreground the processes of filmic signification. Accordingly, one finds two Fassbinder's in the critical literature. a) the German director who wants to make Hollywood pictures and whose audience-effects keep a balance between recognition and identification through genre-formulae and the use of stars, while at the same time distancing the spectator, placing him/her elsewhere through stylization and artifice. Tony Rayns, for instance, sums up some of these points when he argues that "Sirk taught Fassbinder how to handle genre, which became an important facet of his audience-getting strategies."10 b) the modernist in Fassbinder, whose cinema is self-reflexive to the point of formalism, and whose deconstruction of narrative involves him in fetishizing the apparatus. Cathy Johnson writes:

Fassbinder's highly visible cinematic signifier points to a fetishization of cinematic technique. Because all fetishism is an attempt to return to the unity of the mirror stage, one suspects Fassbinder of indulging in the very pleasure he withholds from his audience. Fassbinder is finally a director who approaches the Imaginary by means of a powerful attachment to and manipulation of cinematic technique as technique, while simultaneously barring entry to those of his audience who seek the Imaginary in the invisible cinematic signifier."

I think one needs to argue that these positions contradict each other only insofar as they see audience-getting and audience-frustrating as opposite aspects of a basically unproblematic category, namely the spectator. It seems to me that Fassbinder's highly systematic textuality is not so much a fetishization of technique as the result of inscribing in his films and addressing a historical subject and a subjectivity formed by specific social relations. What is historical, for instance, in films like Despair, The Marriage of Maria Braun, or Germany in Autumn is the subject — as much as the subject-matter.

In West Germany, the 'spectator' is a problematic category first of all in a sociological sense. Given that most film-production is state — and TV-financed, the audience does not recruit itself through box-office mechanisms but via diverse cultural and institutional mediations. And yet, filmmakers want to create an audience for themselves, not only by being active in restructuring the distribution and exhibition machine of cinema, but also by trying to bind potential audiences to the pleasure and habit of "going to the cinema." Paradoxically, however, the most common form of binding in the commercial cinema, through character identification, is almost completely and consistently avoided by directors like Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Syberberg or Kluge as if somehow in the absence of a genre tradition, or an indigenous commercial cinema, audiences needed to be addressed at a different level.

It has been argued that the German cinema, and Fassbinder in particular, show in this respect the influence of Brecht: characters do not embody their parts but enact roles. But it seems to me that the viewer/film relation and the relation of the characters to the fiction which they enact is considerably more complex. In one sense, the two structures mirror each other infinitely and indefinitely, yet — as I shall argue there is built into them an asymmetry, an instability that brings the relations constantly into crisis. Where Fassbinder seems to differ from both classical narrative and from modernist, deconstructive cinema is in his attitude to voyeurism and fascination. It is rarely fetishized in the form of action or spectacle, and does not seem to derive from primal scene or castration fantasies, as in the suspense — or horror-genre. Yet neither is it ascetically banished, not even in the long frontal takes of the early films. Instead, the awareness of watching marks both the entry-point of the spectator into the text, and the manner in which characters interact and experience social reality. One is tempted to say that in Fassbinder's films all human relations, all bodily contact, all power-structures and social hierarchies, all forms of communication and action manifest themselves and ultimately regulate themselves along the single axis of seeing and being seen. It is a cinema in which all possible subject-matter seems to suffer the movement between fascination and exhibitionism, of who controls, contains, places whom through the gaze or the willingness to become the object of the gaze. It is as if all secondary identifications were collapsed into primary identification, and the act of seeing itself the centre of the narrative.

Faithful to a persistent Romantic tradition, German directors seem to be preoccupied with questions of identity, subjectivity, estrangement. Foundlings, orphans, abandoned children, social and sexual outsiders wherever one looks. Yet narrativization of these quests for identity are almost never coded in the classical tradition of conflict, enigma, complication, resolution. Instead of (Oedipal) drama, there is discontinuity, tableau, apparent randomness and fortuity in the sequence of events. On might say that in Fassbinder, but it is also true of Wenders and Herzog, there is a preference for paratactic sequencing, with little interest in action-montage. Identity is a movement, an unstable structure of vanishing points, encounters, vistas and absences. It appears negatively, as nostalgia, deprivation, lack of motivation, loss. Characters only know they exist by the negative emotion of anxiety — the word that in the German cinema has become a cliché: Angst vor der Angst, the title of one of Fassbinder's films, and also an important line in both Alice in the Cities and The American Friend. As in Die Angst des Tormann's beim Elfmeter, it almost graphically marks the place, the position where the ego, the self, ought to be, or used to be, but isn't. It is the empty center, the intermittent, negative reference point which primarily affects the protagonists, but which in another movement, is also the empty place of the spectator; and one of the most striking characteristics of the films of Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog are the ingenious strategies employed to render the position of the camera both unlocalizable and omnipresent, de-centred and palpably absent.

"I would like to be what someone else once was" is the sentence uttered by Kaspar Hauser, the foundling, when he was first discovered standing in the town square. The historical phrase appears in Herzog's Enigma of Kaspar Hauser as "I want to be a horseman like my father once was." As an attempt to formulate one's identity, such a project is symptomatic in its contradiction and impossibility. It tries to inscribe an Oedipal supercession in a temporal — historical succession: l/someone else, I/my father is the unthinkable equation, immersed in the Heraclitean flux of identity, difference, deferment. In Wim Wenders' Alice In the Cities, the same impossibility articulates itself in terms peculiar to the cinema. Traveling through America in search of himself, the hero takes pictures with his polaroid. But by the time he looks at them, they never show what he saw when he saw it. Delay and difference as functions of an identity mediated by the presence/absence of the camera. Visiting a former girl-friend in New York, the hero has to agree with her when she says: "You only take pictures so you can prove to yourself that you exist at all." The cinema as mirror confirming an illusory identity, in the form of a double matrix of estrangement. Film and subjectivity find a common denominator in the German word Einstellung, whose polysemic etymology is often drawn on by Wenders in his writings. In filmmaking, the term applies both to the type of shot (i.e. the distance of camera from object) and the take itself (e.g. a long take). But outside filmmaking it means 'attitude, perspective, moral point of view,' and is literally derived from 'finding oneself or putting oneself in a particular place.' Language here anticipates the image of a spatial and specular relation, which only the cinema can fully realize.

In Fassbinder's Merchant of Four Seasons, Hans, the hero — another outcast seeking an identity by trying to take the place where someone else once was — explains how he lost his job: "The police had to sack me from the force for what I did. If I couldn't see that, then I wouldn't have been a good policeman. And I was a good policeman. So they had to fire me." Such double-binds, where identity is coextensive with its simultaneous denial, fatally flaw all attempts at reintegration in Fassbinder, and they form the basis for a structure of self-estrangement that in other films appears as a social problem before it becomes a definition of cinema. In Margareta von Trotta's film, Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness one finds the line: "It's not me that needs you, it's you who needs me needing you." The story concerns a woman who systematically tries to turn her younger sister into a double and idealized self-image of herself, until the weaker one commits suicide in order to punish the stronger one. As a symptom of the split subject, the configuration described here has much in common with recent trends in the commercial cinema, especially as reflected in sci-fi and horror thrillers. To find the same material in the German cinema reminds one of its origins in German Romanticism and expressionist cinema. The situation where a character seeks out or encounters an Other, only to put himself in their place and from that place (that Einstellung) turn them into an idealized, loved and hated self-image, is of course the constellation of the Double, analysed by Freud in terms of castration-anxiety and secondary narcissism. If one can agree that, especially in the light of Metz' and Baudry's use of Lacan's mirror-phase, the problematic of Other and Double has emerged as the cinematic structure par excellence, then its predominance in the representation as the cinematic theme par excellence of German films seems to demand further exploration. In classifical narrative, the double and the split subject make up the repressed structure of primary identification. It appears that in the German films, because this structure is actually represented on screen, it points to a repression elsewhere, which in turn might serve to 'deconstruct' primary identification.

Fassbinder's filmic output is instructive in that a certain line of development becomes clear in retrospect. What gives the impression of continuity despite the change of genres — gangster parody, melodrama, international art-film — is that an obsession with mirroring, doubling, illusory self-images evolves from being a generalized cinematic theme to becoming a specifically German theme, or at any rate, the occasion for historicizing the obsession.

In the early gangster films (Gods of the Plague, American Soldier) the heroes' desire revolves not around the acquisition of money or women, but is a completely narcissistic desire to play their roles 'correctly.' Both men and women have a conception of themselves where their behaviour is defined by how they wish to appear in the eyes of others: as gangsters, pimps, tough guys, prostitutes, femmes fatales. They play the roles with such deadly seriousness because it is the only way they know how of imposing an identity on aimless, impermanent lives. What authenticates these roles is the cinema itself, because it provides a reality more real, but it is a reality only because it implies spectators. The characters in Katzelmacher are passive not because they are marginals, and spectators of life. Their endless waiting wants to attract someone to play the spectator, who would confirm them as subjects, by displaying the sort of behaviour that would conform to the reactions they expect to elicit. The audience is inscribed as voyeurs, but only because the characters are so manifestly exhibitionist. Substantiality is denied to both characters and audience, they de-realize each other, as all relations polarise themselves in terms of seeing and being seen. Except that to this negative sense of identity corresponds an idealism as radical as that of Beaudry's 'apparatus': to be, in Fassbinder, is to be perceived, esse est percipi. To the imaginary plenitude of classical narrative, Fassbinder answers by showing the imaginary always constructing itself anew.

The sociological name for this imaginary is conformism. The melodramas seem to offer a social critique of pressures to conform and the narrow roles that prejudice tolerates. But what if conformism was merely the moral abstraction applied to certain object-relations under the regime of the gaze? An example from Fear Eats the Soul might illustrate the problem. Ali and Emmi suffer from social ostracism because of a liaison that is considered a breach of decorum. But the way it presents itself is as a contradiction: the couple cannot be "seen together," because there is no social space (work, leisure, family) in which they are not objects of extremely aggressive, hostile, disapproving gazes (neighbours, shop-keepers, bartenders). Yet conversely, they discover that they cannot exist without being seen by others, for when they are alone, the mutually sustaining gaze is not enough to confer or confirm a sense of identity. Love at home or even sex is incapable of providing the pleasure that being looked at by others gives.

The final scene resolves the contradiction. At the hospital where Ali is recovering from an ulcer, a doctor keeps a benevolent eye on the happily reunited couple. It is a look which only we, as spectators can see, in a mirror placed on a parallel plane to the camera. The need which is also an impossibility of being perceived by others and nonetheless remain a subject, produces both the sickness and the cure (in this case, a wishfulfilling regression to a mother-son, nurse-invalid relationship under the eyes of an institutionally benevolent, sanitized father-figure). Only the spectator, however, can read it as such, because the mirror inscribes the audience as another — this time, "knowing" gaze.

It is a configuration strongly reminiscent of Petra von Kant. As the drama of double and Other unfolds between Petra and Karin, the spectator becomes ever more aware of Marlene as his/her double within the film. Instead of adopting the classical narrative system of delegating, circulating and exchanging the spectator's look, via camera position, characters' points of view and glance-off, Fassbinder here 'embodies' the spectator's gaze and thus locates it, fixes it. Marlene's shadowy presence in the background seems to give her secret knowledge and powers of mastery. Yet this other character virtually outside or at the edge of the fiction, is offered to the spectator not as a figure of projection, merely as an increasingly uncanny awareness of a double. But to perceive this means also to perceive that Marlene only appears to be the puppeteer who holds the strings to the mechanism called Petra von Kant. As soon as we recognize our double, we become aware of the camera, and in an attempt to gain control over the film, fantasmatize an author, a coherent point of view, a transcendental subject. We are plunged into the abyss of the en abîme construction: Marlene is inscribed in another structure, that of the camera and its point of view, which in turn stands apart from the structure in which the spectator tries to find an imaginary identity. Petra von Kant is dedicated to "him who here becomes Marlene": who, among the audience, realizing that the dedication addresses them, would want to become Marlene?

Fassbinder's characters endlessly try to place themselves or arrange others in a configuration that allows them to re-experience the mirror-phase, but precisely because the characters enact this ritual of miscognition and dis-piacement, the spectator is not permitted to participate in it. Explicitly, this is the subject of Despair, in which the central character, attempting to escape from a particular sexual, economic and political identity, chooses as his double a perfect stranger, projecting on him the idealized nonself, the Other he wishes to be. When this surrogate structure collapses, the hero addresses the audience by a look into the camera, saying: "don't look at the camera — I am coming out." If in Metz' term, the screen becomes a mirror without reflection, in Fassbinder's films we see characters act before a mirror, but this mirror is not the screen, except insofar as it coincides with the place where the camera once was. A dimension of time, of delay and absence is inscribed, in such an insistent way as to make it impossible for the spectators to use the screen as the mirror of primary cinematic identification.

Instead, one constantly tries to imagine as filled the absence that provokes the characters' self-display. The paradox which I have been trying to describe is that in Fassbinder's films the protagonists' exhibitionism is only partly motivated by the action, however theatrical, and does not mesh with the spectators' voyeurism, because another, more urgent gaze is already negatively present in the film. Another Fassbinder film, in which this absent gaze is both named and erased is The Marriage of Maria Braun. Hermann, Maria's husband, has a role similar to that of Marlene in Petra von Kant. His disappearance, coinciding with the fall of Hitler, becomes a necessary condition for the fiction to continue. The idée fixe of true love, on which Maria bases her career, is only disturbed by the periodic return of the husband, from the war, from prison, from making his fortune in Canada. It is for him that she does what she does, but only on condition that his place remains empty — reduced to the sign where someone once was. Absence turns her object-choice into an infatuation, which — expelled and fatasmatized into an idée fixe, — becomes a transcendental but alienated self-image. Maria represses the return of the source of idealization, thereby also repressing the knowledge of the source of her economic wealth. Her life and identity appear under the sign of a marriage whose consummation is forever postponed and deferred.

The apparent perfunctoriness and lack of plausibility that strikes one so disagreeably about motive and motivation in characters like Maria or the hero of Despair render palpable that not only is the visual space centered elsewhere, but so is the narrative. The characters, motivated by attracting a confirming gaze and simultaneously repressing it, display a symptomatically 'paranoid' behaviour. An ambiguity arises from the fact that the split corresponds to a repressed desire, where the anxiety of knowing oneself to be observed or under surveillance is overlaid by the pleasure of knowing oneself looked at and looked after: Fassbinder's cinema focuses on the pleasure of exhibitionism, not voyeurism.

Increasingly, and explicitly, this exhibitionism is identified with German fascism. In Despair, for instance, Nazism appears as both the reverse side and the complementary aspect of the protagonist's dilemma: to escape the sexual and social demands made on him, Hermann's personality splits — into a paranoid and a narcissistic self, and he dresses up in someone else's clothes. Meanwhile, in the subplot, the personality split is metonymically related to economics, the change from small-enterprise capitalism to monopoly capitalism, and the proletarianization of the middle classes, who believe in the world-Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy as a way of relieving anxiety about the future. The white-collar supervisor Muller, who works in Hermann's family firm, resolves his identity crisis also by dressing up: one morning he appears at the office wearing the brownshirt uniform of the SA. The exhibitionist-narcissist of practically all of Fassbinder's films here assumes a particular historical subjectivity: that of the German petit-bourgeois, identifying himself with the State, and making a public spectacle of his good behaviour and conformism. Compared to Muller, Hermann's paranoia is sanity itself and to narcissism as repressed paranoia in Hermann corresponds exhibitionist aggression in Muller. Conformism appears as the social side of the Imaginary which breaks down and constructs itself always anew in Fassbinder's films. To vary Brecht's poem The Mask of Evil, one might say that Fassbinder's films, optimistically, show how painful and difficult it is to fit in, to conform.

The structures of self-estrangement, of mirroring and miscognition, of positionality and identification with the Other, the double binds, structures that have habitually been interpreted as coinciding with the construction of the basic cinematic apparatus: might they not here be equally amenable to a historical reading? For instance, in terms of fascism, or more generally, as the need even today of binding a petit-bourgeois audience in the 'social imaginary' of secondary narcissism. What, Fassbinder seems to ask, was fascism for the German middle- and working-class which supported Hitler? We know what it was for Jews, for those actively persecuted by the regime, for the exiles. But for the a-political Germans who stayed behind? Might not the pleasure of fascism, its fascination have been less the sadism and brutality of SS-officers, but the pleasure of being seen, of placing oneself in view of the all-seeing eye of the State. Fascism in its Imaginary encouraged a moral exhibitionism, as it encouraged denunciation and mutual surveillance. Hitler appealed to the Volk but always by picturing the German nation, standing there, observed by "the eyes of the world." The massive specularization of public and private life, diagnosed perhaps too cryptically by Walter Benjamin, as the "aestheticisation of politics": might it not have helped to institutionalize the structure of 'to be is to be perceived' that Fassbinder's cinema problematizes? But what produces this social imaginary, once one conceives of the Imaginary outside of cinema or the individual psyche? And conversely, what or whom does the cinema serve by reproducing in its apparatus socially paranoid and narcissist behaviour?

Such questions raise the political context in which Fassbinder works, what is usually referred to as the 'repressive climate,' the 'counter-revolution' that has taken over in West Germany. As the government perfected its law-and-order state in over-reaction to terrorist acts and political kidnapping, the experience of the semi-politicized student movement and many of the intellectuals was a massive flight into paranoia. In the face of a bureaucratic surveillance system ever more ubiquitous, Fassbinder toys with another response: an act of terrorist exhibitionism which turns the machinery of surveillance — including the cinema — into an occasion for self-display. For in his contribution to the omnibus-film Germany in Autumn, he quite explicitly enacts the breakdown of authority, the paranoid narcissistic split which he sees as the subjective dimension of an objectively fascist society. In this film — structured around the question of the right to mourn and to bury one's dead, of letters sent by dead fathers to their sons, of sons of the Fatherland forced by the state to commit suicide, so their bodies can return home for a hero's funeral, of children who kill father-figures and father-substitutes, and then commit suicide inside state prisons — Fassbinder concentrates single-mindedly on himself. Naked, in frontal view, close to the camera, he shows himself falling to pieces under the pressure of police-sirens, house searches, and a virtual news blackout in the media. During the days of Mogadishu, when German soldiers carried out an Entebbe style raid to recapture a hijacked plane he enacts a spectacle of seedy, flamboyant paranoia: that of a left-wing, homosexual, drug-talking artist and film-maker (the Jew of the 70s?) hiding out in his apartment, while his mother explains to him the virtues of conformism in times of political crisis and why she wishes the state was ruled by a benevolent dictator whom everyone could love. Fassbinder makes the connection between paranoia and narcissistic object choice by a double metaphor, boldly cutting from his mother saying that she wishes Hitler back, to himself helplessly embracing his homosexual lover, as they roll on the floor, just as in Despair the employee Muller puts on a Nazi uniform; while Hermann goes off in search of a double.

What becomes problematic for Fassbinder is ultimately the question of sexual and social roles, and the impossibility of deriving stable role-models from a 'normal' Oedipal development. In the absence of constructing identity within the family (Fassbinder always demonstrates the violence and double binds that families impose on their members), the need to be perceived, to be confirmed, becomes paramount as the structure that regulates and at the same time disturbs the articulations of subjectivity. This means that the cinema, spectacle, the street, as places where the look is symbolically traded, become privileged spaces that actually structure identity outside the family, and in effect replace the family as an identity-generating institution. A film like The Marriage of Maria Braun on one level, depicts a socialization process that enforces identity not through Oedipal conflict, substituting an object choice to escape the threat of castration, but through a structure modelled on the reaction formation to the loss of a particularly extreme substitution of the ego by an object. And under these conditions, the individual's most satisfying experience of subjectivity may be paradoxically as an exhibitionist, a conformist, in the experience of the self as object, not for anyone in particular, but under the gaze of the Other — be it history, destiny, the moral imperative, the community, peer-groups: anyone who can be imagined as a spectator. What may once have been the place of the Father, the Law, Authority and its castrating gaze,12 here manifests itself as the desire to identify with a lost object, the benevolent eye of the 'mother' as we know it from the mirror-phase. It would therefore be wrong to say that the palpable absence of the camera marks necessarily the place of the Father.

Conformism used to be the big subject of American schools of sociology and ego-psychology. David Riesman's idea of 'inner-directed — other directed' (The Lonely Crowd), Erik Erikson's "approval/disapproval by a significant other," Melanie Klein's "good/bad object" in various ways all used Freud's papers on narcissism or his Mass Psychology and the Ego to conceptualize changes in social behavior in the face of a weakening family structure. In Germany, two books by the director of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt, Alexander Mitscherlich, discuss the social psychology of German fascism and the post-WW II reconstruction period. In Society without the Father, for instance, Mitscherlich argues that fascism, in its appeal to Germans of all classes, represents a regressive solution to the "fatherlessness (...) in a world in which the division of labour has been extended to the exercise of authority."13 Instead of assuming that Hitler figured as the Father, one has to imagine him fulfilling the role of a substitute for the primary love-object:

(The mass leader), surprising as it may seem, (...) is much more like the image of a primitive mother-goddess. He acts as if he were superior to conscience, and demands a regressive obedience and the begging behaviour that belongs to the behaviour pattern of a child in the pre-Oedipal stage. (...)The ties to the Fuhrer, in spite of all the protestations of eternal loyalty, never reached the level (i.e. Oedipal) so rich in conflict, where the conscience is formed and ties with it are etablished.14

According to Mitscherlich, this helps to explain why Hilter vanished so quickly from the minds of Germans after 1945 and why the collapse of the Third Reich did not provoke the kinds of reactions of conscience, of guilt and remorse that 'the world' had expected. In The Inability to Mourn he writes:

Thus, the choice of Hilter as the love object took place on a narcissistic basis; that is to say, on a basis of self-love (...) The possibility of any dissociation from the object is lost; the person is in the truest sense of the term "under alien control" (...) After this symbiotic state has been dissolved, the millions of subjects released from its spell will remember it all the less clearly because they never assimilated the leader into their ego as one does the model of an admired teacher, for instance but instead surrendered their own ego in favour of the object. (...) Thus, the inability to mourn was preceded by a way of loving that was less intent on sharing in the feelings of the other person than on confirming one's own self-esteem. Susceptibility to this form of love is one of the German people's collective character traits. The structure of the love-relation of the Germans to their ideals, or the the various human incarnations of those ideals, seems to us to underlie a long history of misfortune. (...) Germans vaccillate all too often between arrogance and self-abasement. But their self-abasement bears the marks not so much of humility, as of melancholy (...).15

The West German economic miracle was sustained psychologically by defense mechanisms. The work-ethic, ideologies of effort the performance principle took on such ferocious proportions because of the "self-hatred of melancholia."16 Why did West Germans rebuild such a conservative and conformist society? Democracy came to them imposed from without, and once again "under alien control," they reconstructed their Imaginary in the image of American consumer- capitalism. In parabolic fashion, this is the story of The Mariage of Maria Braun, whose heroine's ambiguous strength lies precisely in her "inability to mourn." Benevolent eyes, such as those of Chancellors Adenauer or Schmidt. gaze in ghostly fashion out of portraits whose frame once contained that of Hitler.

To support a film-analysis, however cursory, with such metapsychological observations courts many risks: can complex social and historical developments be reduced to and modelled on psychoanalytical concepts derived from clinical practice with individuals? Are generalizations about the national character not bound to remain at best abstractions, at worst mystifications that involve a mysteriously collective unconscious? Implicitly analogizing capitalism and the family structure as Mitscherlich does runs counter to the work, say, of R.D. Laing, or Bateson, where it is the family that becomes the place of contradictions specifically produced by capitalism. More serious stili is the danger of collapsing a particular form of textual production such as the cinema, with a naive reflection theory, so favoured by sociologists of film or literature.

What is different between the Freud of Riesman, Erikson, Klein on the one hand, and that of Lacan, Metz, or Baudry on the other, is that the latter emphasize over and over again, the specularity of relations which for the former are somehow substantial, physical, like the symptoms displayed by Freud's hysterical patients. Lacan's insistence on the image, the eye, in the deformation of the self — however incomplete this would be without his notion of textuality — shows the extent to which he has in fact read Freud in the light of concrete historical and social changes. Conversely, what separates Fassbinder from Mitscherlich, and what makes me risk speaking of a 'social imaginary without fear of getting it confused with some 'collective unconscious' is Fassbinder's commitment to the primacy of vision and the representation of interaction and action in terms of fascination and specular relations.

If fascism is then only the historical name given to the specularization of social, sexual and political life, then the concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis can indeed be pertinent, once Lacan has taught us how to read them. But by the same token, it suggests itself that Metz' primary identification partakes, as a theoretical construct or a descriptive category, in a historical development call it, for the sake of the argument, the specularization of consciousness and social production — which his categories do not adequately reflect. In particular, to talk about primary and secondary identification as if it were a closed system, risks conflating important distinctions, and, in the case of Fassbinder, and other 'deviant' cinematic practices, tends to institutionalize a deconstructive, overly theoretical reading, where a historical reading might also be essential.

This said, it can be argued that in the case of the New German Cinema, we may actually have an interesting example of a productive misreading. One of the problems of the New German Cinema is that it is only slowly and against much resistance finding the audience inscribed in its texts — German intellectuals and the middle-class. The major successes have been in the capitals of Western Europe and on American university campuses, i.e., with an audience who, ignoring the peculiar historical inscriptions that the texts might carry, have been happy to appropriate the films on the basis precisely of a familiarity with models of narrative deconstruction, modernist self-reflexivity, whether of the kind typical for certain European films, or of the critical readings that film-scholars have produced for the classical Hollywood narrative. In turn, the popularity which the films of Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders have achieved abroad, and above all the critical attention given to them by magazines, at conferences or in seminars, have, in a considerable way, strengthened their directors' chances of gaining more financial support in their own country from the government. This repeats the structure (on the level of production) which I tried to indicate is present in the texts themselves: the Germans are beginning to love their own cinema because it has been endorsed, confirmed and benevolently looked at by someone else: for the German cinema to exist, it first had to be seen by non-Germans. It enacts, as a national cinema, now in explicitly economic and cultural terms, yet another form of self-estranged exhibitionism.



The reader is asked to forgive a rather large assumption made here. In the context of the conference it was necessary to presuppose the audience's familiarity with three essays that discuss (primary/secondary) identification, the 'apparatus' and 'subject-effect': Jean Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus", Film Quarterly, 28, no. 2 (Winter 1974-75); Christian Metz, "The Imaginary Signifier," Screen vol. 16, no. 2 (1975); Jean Louis Baudry, "The Apparatus," Camera Obscura, vol. 1, no. 1 (1976).


Martha Wolfenstein/Nathan Leites, Movies — A Psychological Study, (New York; Atheneum, 1970 1950).


Alan Williams, Max Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire, (New York, 1980).


See Constance Penley, "The Avant-garde and its imaginary," Camera Obscura, vol. 1, no. 2 (1977).


See Interview with Christian Metz, Discourse, no. 1 (1979).


Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "A Note on History — Discourse," Edinburgh '76 Magazine, no. 1, (1976) pp. 26-32.


Ibid., p.31.


Interview, Discourse, no. 1, (1979).


See, for instance, Kristin Thomson and David Bordwell, "Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu," Screen, vol. 17, no. 2 (1976); Edward Branigan, "Formal Permutations of the Point of View Shot," Screen vol. 16, no. 3 (1975): Stephen Heath, "Narative Space," Screen vol. 17, no. 3 (1976); Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer, (London, 1979).


Tony Rayns, ed., Fassbinder, British Film Institute, (London 1980), p.4


Cathy Johnson, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," Wide Angle, vol. 3, no. 4 (1980). p. 25.


See Cahiers du Cinema's reading of "Young Mr. Lincoln," Screen, vol. 13, no. 3 (1972).


Alexander Mitscherlich, Society Without the Father (169), p. 283.


Ibid., p. 284.


Alexander Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn, (1975), pp. 60-61,63-64.


Ibid., p. 63.