When does a mirror lose its reflection?

Mirrors and reflections. Function and meaning of the mirror motif in the film

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2. The mirror and its properties

3. Use of the mirror motif in the film

4. The mirror as an instrument for finding one's identity

5. Mirror for visualizing identity crises
5.1. The mirror motif in Black Swan - signs of schizophrenia
5.2. The mirror motif in Dorian Gray - loss of one's own identity

6. Magic mirrors
6.1 The Matrix - The mirror as a door between two worlds
6.2. Mirror in the horror film Mirrors

7. Conclusion

8. Film directory

9. Bibliography

10. List of picture sources and figures

1 Introduction

The mythology, which has grown up around the object of the mirror through folk tales, fairy tales and superstition, has always harbored something mysterious. Mainly, the mirror is always in connection with death. For example, after the death of a loved one, all mirrors in the house are covered to prevent the dead person who may appear in the mirror from bringing another person to him1. Nowadays, however, the mirror has lost some of its mysterious magic, because it is integrated into the furnishings of every household as an everyday object, but only has a cosmetic or aesthetic function there as a utility and decorative object. However, other functions can also be assigned to the mirror. Manfred Faßler says "[...] sometimes mirror stands for image, sometimes for non-identity, sometimes for difference, sometimes for symbiosis, sometimes for self-knowledge, sometimes for 'announcement of the truth' '[...]."2 In literature, the mirror is seen as a symbol of vanity, as in the saga of Narcissus, as a portal to truth, as in Grimm's fairy tale Snow White, and as a gateway to other times and places, as in Lewis Carrol's children's book Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The medium of the film makes use of this semantic complexity of the mirror. This not only functions as a visually aesthetic prop for action, but also has an accumulated symbolic meaning. In the context of the film narrative, mirrors serve as an object and a metaphor at the same time. The occurrence of mirrors and reflections in the film, however, often goes unnoticed by the audience or is not given any further importance. However, attentive viewers will quickly notice that the (frequent) appearance of mirrors is subject to visual semantics and is often an essential element of the narration. A more detailed analysis of the films viewed for the present work shows that mirrors are not used arbitrarily in cinematic design, but are to be viewed as part of a well-constructed visual language. As a metaphor, they advance to an essential motif to visualize self-knowledge, identity crises, ambivalent feelings, inner conflicts, as well as the parallelism of two worlds even without dialogue.

The present work consists of two parts. The first part of the thesis deals with a summary of the various physical properties of a mirror. Particularities and specifics of the mirror motif are highlighted. In order to create a basis for understanding, which is decisive for the further examination of the films analyzed, the various uses of filmic mirror motifs are generally briefly discussed and an outline of the film-historical classification of mirror scenes is provided. The second part of this work analyzes four selected films motivically. In this part, the mirror motifs of Black Swan (2010), Dorian Gray (2009), Mirrors (2008) and The Matrix (1999) are to be filtered out and characterized. The selection of films is based on the function and significance of mirror scenes and at the same time tries to cover the greatest possible variety of possible interpretations. Nevertheless, these four films do not form the only analysis basis of the present work, because several film examples are briefly mentioned, which cannot be discussed explicitly due to their less motivic use, but which, regardless of this, provide a suitable overview for this version. Furthermore, it must be stated that all of the mirror motifs resulting from the investigation cannot be illuminated in detail. It should be noted that the selection of films already offers a wide range of examples and it is therefore impossible to go into every single motif in minute detail within the scope of this work. Karl E. Scheibe also says: "[...] a reflected visual image looks simple enough, but it presents a considerable interpretive challenge."3 Based on this, this work is limited to the three mirror typologies of the search for identity, the identity crisis, as well as the function and meaning of magical mirrors. Even if the first two typologies are largely of a psychoanalytic nature and it is necessary to grapple with the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud in order to understand the identity problem, we must nevertheless restrict ourselves to the motivic function of the mirror scenes. For a literary understanding, however, the following texts serve: The mirror stage as the builder of the ego function as it appears to us in psychoanalytic experience from Lacan, The scary. Essays on literature von Freud, as well as Freud's theories on primary narcissism, in which the self is an object of love4. It is necessary to look closely at the various mirror stages of Lacan, since this leads to a better understanding of the film, especially in the film Black Swan (2010), and also the perception of the uncanny, which Freud as a return of the repressed5 is a common motif in films. Your own face in the mirror quickly becomes a stranger.

Ultimately, this work essentially pursues the goal of characterizing the many mirror scenes that the viewer is often not consciously aware of in terms of their relevance and to bring out the greatest possible variety of motifs, so that in the future the viewer will interpret mirror scenes in the film for themselves can and thus come to a better understanding of the film.

2. The mirror and its properties

Before the mirror motif in films is subjected to a detailed analysis, it is important to first become aware of the basic properties of a mirror. Due to its cosmetic and aesthetic value, the mirror is already so integrated into social life that its diverse properties are quickly forgotten:

The mirror is an empty reflective surface which, through the reflection of light, creates images of opposing objects and thus doubles them. As a projection surface, the mirror is always tied to the presence of a referent, because the essence of the mirror consists in the fact that it has no properties, i.e. nothing, and only becomes something that is closely tied to the properties of this object through the presence of an object is6. This presupposes the simultaneity of the mirrored object and the object of the mirror, because the mirror is not a storage medium and is therefore subject to constant revision. As a result, the mirror image can change at any time through movement and therefore remains short-lived, fleeting and ephemeral. Furthermore, mirrors are tools to satisfy curiosity, because they allow, for example, insights into rooms without being present in the room. The mirror actually makes the invisible visible to the viewer7. The mirror also allows one to observe people unnoticed. The fact that the mirror swaps right and left is a wrong assumption, because the mirror reflects right and left exactly where right and left are, so the mirror is a guarantee for the truth. Umberto Eco says:

He [the mirror] does not 'translate'. He registers what hits him as it hits him. He tells the truth in an inhuman way, as anyone knows who loses all illusions about his youth in front of the mirror. The brain interprets the data from the retina, the mirror does not interpret the objects.8

The mirror image is always an identical image of the archetype, the mirror images of which are received as reality. However, this reality is of a virtual nature, because in the mirror real spaces become virtual spaces and real objects become virtual objects. In this way the mirror creates a difference between the original and the image, because it shows their reality and virtuality9 and thereby creates different dimensions of reality10. Although the mirror image reproduces the original image identically, the surface of a mirror can be so uneven that the reflected mirror image is distorted and thus far removed from reality, as is the case with distorted mirrors at a fair. The mirror can also deceive the senses. So too, in which he delimits spaces and thus apparently enlarges them. Umberto Eco describes this perspective expansion of visual perception as "prosthetic function"11, because the mirror complements the visual organ's radius of action. However, the image in the mirror loses its credibility as a result.12 Due to its ambivalent properties, the mirror can show the truth and at the same time deceive the senses. Joscijka Gabriele Abels says:

For some, I say, mirrors were the hieroglyphs of truth because they can reveal everything that is revealed to them, as is the custom of truth, which cannot be hidden. Others, however, see mirrors as symbols of falsehood because they often show things differently from what they are.13

However, what the mirror always shows when a person looks at himself in it is the depicted self14. The mirror is a symbol of your own identity. It allows you to see yourself as others see you and is therefore an essential instrument for self-assurance and identity.15 According to Lacan, the mirror not only promotes the formation of the person's ego, but also plunges the individual into a crisis at the same time, because the image in the mirror can match the imagined ideal, Lacan also calls it "delusional identity"16, do not match. This identity problem of the mirror will be analyzed in more detail in the further course of this work. Other properties of the mirror should also be mentioned, but they only play a role in the medium of the film, because the film extends the properties of the mirror with magical functions. Mirrors can speak and prophesy, actually double the image and open doors to other worlds17as discussed in more detail in Chapter 6.

But how are mirrors staged in film and why are they used so often by directors?

3. Use of the mirror motif in the film

The mirror has become indispensable in films, because it is both an important prop and an essential object of the mise-en-scène. Most often the mirror is used in the film for cosmetic purposes. Figures in front of the mirror straighten their hair, brush their teeth, put on make-up or look at their outfit before going on a date. The mirror is there to conquer inner insecurities and to reassure yourself. One of the first non-cosmetic use was found in Der Student von Prag, directed by Hanns Heinz Ewers from 1913. The German silent film tells the story of the student Balduin, who sells his mirror image in order to gain social advancement with this money to guarantee. When Baldwin looks at himself in the mirror one day, his image emerges from the mirror and in the end kills the fiancé of his lover. In most of the films that associate the mirror with the doppelganger motif, however, the mirror image does not emerge from the mirror, but becomes independent in the mirror. The fact that the mirror is used to display doppelgangers is due to its natural property of doubling objects in their reflection radius. Mirrors increase the intensity of the representation of the doppelganger and are used to visualize a second side of a protagonist, a kind of alter ego. Sven Herget says:

The doppelganger advances to a completely contrary character, which gradually turns out to be an independent part of the personality. This can turn out to be a product of the imagination that appears as an alter ego and materializes as a projection surface for long-cherished desires, combining skills and properties that the original itself may not realize.18

However, the image in the mirror does not have to be identical to the original. In this way, the person looking in the mirror can also see a different face than himself. This is the case when the reflection in the mirror reveals a part of the personality that was previously suppressed.19 The mirror changes the identity of those who look into it by depicting their alter ego, a wish-ego. In the film Identity (2003), serial killer Malcom Rivers, suffering from personality disorder, sees a stranger in the mirror and gets into an identity conflict due to the difference between his internalized external appearance and reality.20 The doppelganger motif or the depiction of the alter ego is thus subject to a visual duplication and internal splitting. But not only doubles, but also distorted mirror images serve to depict identity crises, because the distortion disrupts identification with the image.

In films, the mirror must always be understood as a metaphor. The mirror metaphor is used, among other things, to portray ego psychology in the sense of a problem of knowledge and identity. The interpretation of this mirror metaphor, however, is subject to an interpretation that is closely linked to the plot of the film. On the one hand, the breaking of a mirror can be interpreted as the announcement of a death, because according to Sven Herget, the damage to the image always hits the archetype, the human being21 and on the other hand, the destruction of a mirror, for example by a blow in the mirror, indicates fear of confrontation with the self and of encountering the repressed22. In the case of the film Dorian Gray (2009), both interpretations apply, but they will be discussed later. Furthermore, a missing mirror image can indicate both a soullessness, as in the case of vampires, as well as a loss of identity, or even both at the same time. The soul is an important part of the mirror metaphor23, because in the film the mirror image can also serve as a symbolic expression of mental states and for the external representation of inner conflicts. Another use of the mirror motif has nothing to do with the identity of the characters, but with the identification of the audience. In Taxi Driver (1976) by director Martin Scorsese there is the famous scene in which Robert De Niro as taxi driver Travis Bickle stands in front of a mirror with his revolver drawn and challenges a supposed counterpart, his reflection, to a duel. This scene is staged in such a way that the camera acts as a mirror with which Travis speaks. The viewer is Travis' direct dialogue partner and is involved in the narrative. Film scenes in which the film camera or the cinema screen represents the mirror and the figure in front of the mirror breaks through the fourth wall through the interaction should encourage the audience to identify with this figure, because the viewer becomes a mirror image of the figure. At the same time, the viewer is encouraged to reflect24. In the same film there is a scene in which Travis looks in the rearview mirror of his taxi and for the first time becomes aware of the filth of New York City. Since rear-view mirrors are convex mirrors and thus enlarge the viewing angle, the objects and people shown appear further away than they actually are. So the look in the rearview mirror can be interpreted as a metaphor for a farewell and / or a separation. In Travis' case, it is probably the decision to part with the scum and filth in New York. Genre-specific mirror motifs must also be listed. Mirrors with magical functions play a major role in fantasy, fairy tale and science fiction films. The mirror of the princess in Jean Cocteau's fantasy drama Orphée (1950), a modern version of the ancient Orpheus myth, opens rooms into other worlds and times, and in the many film adaptations of Snow White, the mirror of the evil queen provides information about her stepdaughter. But even in horror films, the mirror is omnipresent as an object and motif. In The Shining (1980) the premonition of “Murder” is reflected in the bedroom mirror and in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) the mirror is the gateway to evil. Furthermore, whenever a character looks in the mirror, the viewer always expects something terrifying to happen. A popular shock effect is the reflection of a person who was not there before. The use of the mirror motif in horror films is briefly referred to in the last chapter on the film Mirrors (2008).

4. The mirror as an instrument for finding one's identity

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan presented his theory of the mirror stage in 1936, in which he explored the development of human self-confidence in young children. After Lacan, a child is only developing awareness through the self-image seen in the mirror. This is how the child's identity is constituted at the first glance at the ego as a whole. “You can do the mirror stage as an identification [Emphasis d. Ed.] Understand in the full sense, [...] as a transformation triggered in the subject by the taking of an image "25says Lacan. The mirror is thus an object that confirms the identity of the individual. Accordingly, the mirror image is a symbol of one's own identity. Because the person experiences reality in front of the mirror in an unfamiliar form, that is, in the seemingly total doubling26, man can grasp himself as a whole, as a unit and is not dependent on the instructions of others. In this way, people can see themselves in front of the mirror, or rather recognize themselves. This self-awareness is an essential part of one's own identity. However, the mirror image can also be frightening if it does not reflect that image that one wished to see or the ideal image that everyone has of themselves is refuted. Meryl Streep, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011), painfully realizes in the mirror that her prime is over. The film shows the viewer that Margaret leads a double life. This is suggested to the viewer not only through the narration, but also through the staging of the mirrors. One shot shows Margaret sitting in front of a mirror in a close-up. She has turned her back on the viewer, but her face is visible in the mirror. Since the mirror is divided into two parts, the viewer sees Margaret's face on the left and right side (see Fig. 1). This is supposed to visualize Margaret's double life or her life in two worlds and at the same time marks her disturbed psyche. Margaret lives on the one hand in her fantastic world, in which she is still prime minister and her husband is still alive. On the other hand, Margaret is already an old woman who only hallucinates her dead husband for her comfort. In one scene at the end of the film, however, Margaret looks at herself in the mirror and realizes the reality. As a result, she loses her self-control and tosses things around the room in anger. This is proof that the confrontation with the ego and the self-knowledge do not always have to be positive, since the mirror as a truth-reflecting object also reveals traits of the self that were previously repressed or idealized. Manfred Faßler says:

Mirror is a Attendance double [Emphasis d. Ed.], Which always tells a story about the 'unfinished' observer, about the truth behind it, about the unclean shave. In the face of one's own face, the mirror becomes the simultaneity of Difference and identity [Emphasis d. Author] assigned […].27

As a result, the ideal of how everyone wants to be is not compatible with actual identity. However, the viewer only becomes aware of the difference between this appearance and reality by looking in the mirror. The mirror is an instrument of self-knowledge. But not only that, because the mirror is also an instrument of self-assurance and strengthens self-confidence. In Seven Psychopaths (2012), Billy Bickle aka Sam Rockwell stands in front of the mirror. Billy is invited to a party with his friend and screenwriter Marty Faranan. But before he leaves, he takes a long look at himself in the mirror and adjusts his clothes. He begins to talk to his reflection in the mirror and practices conversational situations that could come up to him at the party (see Fig. 2). By doing this, Billy tries to hide his insecurity and to become more self-confident. For the literary scholar Helena Frenschkowski, the exaggerated fascination of the mirrored ego points to the unstable self-confidence of the subject, which indispensably needs the confirmation of its existence through the image.28 Also in the comedy Wanderlust (2012) by director David Wain there is a similar scene in which Paul Rudd, when George Gergenblatt is confronted with the exercise of free love in a hippie commune. George is allowed to have sex with Eva, a community resident, after consultation with his wife Linda Gergenblatt, played by Jennifer Aniston. Then George disappears into the bathroom and tries to take courage in front of the mirror (see Fig.3). In a long monologue he practices dirty talk in the hope of getting Eva going. This scene doesn't just have highs comedic value for the audience, but also shows that confronting yourself in front of the mirror can help to strengthen self-confidence and thus to reassure yourself. But the mirror not only confirms and strengthens the individual, but also questions their identity at the same time, because it divides the ego into a contemplative and a contemplated.29


1 See Millner 2004, p. 51.

2 Faßler 2000, p. 9.

3 Disk 1979, p. 59.

4 See text “The importance of idealization and ideal formation for self-esteem. An examination of the narcissistic theories of Freud and Kohut by Marlies Frommknecht-Hitzler.

5 The prefix “Un” marks the repressed and the familiar “homely” becomes “secret”. Thus, according to Freud, the familiar becomes the foreign. (See Freud 1963, p. 75).

6 Cf. Millner 2004, p. 49. Umberto Eco also formulates an apt sentence on the object relationship of the mirror: “[...] whatever a mirror image may be, in any case it is determined by an object at its origin and in its physical subsistence [ ...]. "(Eco 1988, p. 40).

7 According to Helena Frenschkowski, the mirror is a knowing object, because it sees what is going on behind the back of the viewer. (See Frenschkowski 1995, p. 40).

8 Eco 1988, p. 34

9 Cf. Kirchmeier: Leaving the mirror world. Crossing boundaries in the film The Matrix . Url: http://www.medienobservationen.lmu.de/artikel/kino/kirchmeier_matrix.html, as of May 15, 2013.

10 As an object in real space, the mirror separates the real from the mirrored virtual space and thus creates a border.

11 See Eco 1988, pp. 35f.

12 “With the expansion of visual perception, the image loses its controllability and thus also its credibility.” (Millner 2004, p. 35).

13 Abels 1990, p. 69.

14 Due to their soullessness and their undead status, vampires do not have a mirror image, because the mirror image is understood as an image of the soul. (See Millner 2004, p. 65) This effect is visualized in many vampire films, such as the famous dance scene in the Hall of Mirrors in Roman Polański's film The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), in which the gaps in the reflection reveal the vampires as such.

15 Furthermore, the mirror image is an essential part of the personality for primitive people, since they experience the person and the image as a unit. (See Frenschkowski 1995, p. 41).

16 See Lacan 2008, p. 180f.

17 See Ziolkowski 1977, pp. 162f.

18 Herget 2009, p. 14.

19 See Sagt 2004, p. 31.

20 See Herget 2009, pp. 199f.

21 Cf. Herget 2009, p. 23. An example of this would be the end of Der Student von Prag (1913): Baldwin fires a pistol shot at his reflection, but the bullet that he aimed at his doppelganger lands in his own chest .

22 See Millner 2004 p. 50.

23 In popular belief and superstition, the mirror image is the seat of the soul during a person's lifetime. (See Herget 2009, p. 23).

24 The dissolution of the fourth wall is an alienation effect that breaks with the viewer's normal cinematic vision and thus stimulates reflection. The alienation effect is a term coined by Bertolt Brecht for the technical means used in the play to break the illusion of what is depicted.

25 Lacan 2008, p. 176.

26 See Keith 1965, p. 4.

27 Faßler 2000, p. 24.

28 See Frenschkowski 1995, p. 38.

29 See Rösler 2002, p. 209.

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