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Reflecting on Reflections: Cinema's Complex Mirror Shots


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This article investigates the effects mirrors in films can have on the composition of a filmic image, the staging of a scene and the viewing activities of the spectators. It discusses four such effects: (1) So-called ‘complex mirror shots’ can modify how spectators look onto the picture as a flat composition by way of a quasi-transformation of the screen shape. (2) They can function as a magnetizing frame-within-the-frame that channels the viewer’s look into the anterior depth of the mirror. (3) By referring spectators to off-screen space and thus making them look beyond the image into its lateral and posterior depth, some specific examples also allow for an intricately layered experience of perception and imagination, challenging and complicating efforts to “read” the image. (4) Finally, mirrors may be a source of spatial complication and can even lead to a full-blown disorientation regarding the status of the image, thus transforming the way viewers understand, problematise and look at the filmic image as such.
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Reflecting on Reflections: Cinema’s Complex Mirror Shots
Julian Hanich
Let us begin with a scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s superb black-
and-white literary adaptation E Briest (1974). The camera faces a mirror
that fills almost the entire screen. In the mirror – a conspicuous frame-
within-the-frame – we can see the reflection of a living room. On the stair-
case in the background E Briest (Hanna Schygulla) leans on the shoulders
of her mother (Lilo Pempeit). When E’s father (Herbert Steinmetz) enters
with Baron von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenck) on the right of the mirror
reflection, E moves down the stairs and kisses her future husband’s hand.
Throughout the forty-six seconds of this static long-take the viewer can
visually perceive the four characters as a reflection in the mirror, but the
o-screen characters never enter the on-screen space between the mirror
and the camera.
In what follows I will pay close attention to shots like this one, which are
particularly prominent in art cinema and modernist films by Dreyer, de Sica,
Duras, Resnais, Angelopoulos, Tsai and many others, but can also occur in
mainstream films, especially of the more ambitious kind (Argento’s Suspiria
(1977) and Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) come to mind). I call them ‘complex
mirror shots’, by which I mean shots in which characters and other salient
sources of attention are reflected in the mirror but remain beyond the screen
frame (and hence were not placed between the mirror and the camera during
shooting).2 Complex mirror shots should be distinguished from the more
widespread and less demanding mirror scenes which place the source of
attention between the mirror and the camera during shooting and which thus
allow a character or an object to be glimpsed from dierent angles simul-
taneously. Just think of the famous monologue of Robert De Niro’s Jake
La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). Similar to Michel Chion’s
distinction between active and passive o-screen sound, we could argue that
complex mirror shots actively raise our attention to the reflected object or
event, whereas in regular mirror shots the o-screen space passively ‘describes’
the environment but does not pose any questions.3
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This is a pre-print version. Please cite the original, which has come out in:
Martine Beugnet/Allan Cameron/Arild Fetveit (eds.): Indefinite Visions:
Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017.
132 Julian Hanich
I will show that provided the mirror and its source of reflection assume
a prominent role in the shot, they can change the way spectators look onto,
look into and look beyond the filmic image, but also look at it in a puzzled or
questioning way. More concretely this implies that: (1) complex mirror shots
Figure 8.1 E Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974).
Figure 8.2 E Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974).
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Reflecting on Reflections 133
may modify how spectators look onto the picture as a flat composition by
way of a quasi-transformation of the screen shape; (2) they can function as
a magnetising frame-within-the-frame that channels the viewer’s look into
the anterior depth of the mirror; (3) by referring us to o-screen space and
thus making us look beyond the image into its lateral and posterior depth, some
specific examples also allow for an intricately layered experience of percep-
tion and imagination, challenging and complicating our eort to ‘read’ the
image; (4) mirrors may, finally, be a source of spatial complication and can
even lead to a full-blown disorientation regarding the status of the image,
thus transforming the way viewers understand, problematise and look at the
filmic image as such.4
Complication is only one eect, however. In addition, I want to suggest
that these mirror shots oer a simultaneous range of aordances in terms of what
we can do with the filmic image or what it can ‘do’ to us. Hence, they more
readily invite or even force us to oscillate between various viewing modes:
from flatness to anterior depth and on to lateral and posterior depth (even
though not all options will be available in all instances). Complex mirror shots
thus put viewers in an equivocal and protean attitude. It is in this sense – over
and above their sometimes disorienting character – that I take them to have
an indefinite quality.
With the exception of a mirror reflection that fills the entire screen, diegetic
mirrors always add a geometrical shape to the image. In the hands of a gifted
filmmaker an immediate upshot can be a change in pictorial composition of
the image and even a quasi-transformation of the shape of the screen. In his
fascinating lecture on ‘The Dynamic Square’ held in 1930, Sergei Eisenstein
bemoaned the ‘inflexibility of the once and for all inflexible frame proportions
of the screen’.5 Unhappy with the standardised shape of the screen, the Soviet
filmmaker wanted to dynamise its form, getting rid of the strong fixture on
horizontalism and allowing for a vertical composition as well. In Eisenstein’s
account this dynamisation is achieved through masking parts of the shape of
the film screen, but one can also imagine changing the actual aspect ratio of
the screen (think of Glenn H. Alvey’s experimental H. G. Wells adaptation
The Door in the Wall from 1956).6 Of course, a variable composition is also the
by-product of the change of aspect ratio, for instance through the use of the
IMAX format or the split-screen technique.
However, comparable to shots through doorframes or windows, an
approximation to what Eisenstein had in mind becomes possible also
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134 Julian Hanich
through mirrors, even without the use of such technical devices as masking,
the change of screen size or split-screen images. What is more, using a mirror
shot allows for an opposition, combination, or even fusion of geometrical
shapes. This can be seen in the shot from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud
(1964): against the background of a comparatively unobtrusive grey wall, the
vertical shape of the mirror with its attention-grabbing Rococo frame stands in
opposition to – or interacts with – the horizontal screen shape.
Following Eisenstein’s (masculine) rhetoric, one could say that the screen
becomes a ‘battlefield’ on which optically spatial conflicts and skirmishes
are fought. Put in less martial terms: various shapes stand either in tension
or harmony to each other. As Christian Metz puts it: ‘The internal frame,
the second frame, has the eect of drawing attention to the main frame [. . .]
of which it is, among other things, a frequent and recognizable “marker”’.7
Apart from rectangular mirrors a variety of other forms may influence
the image composition as well: an oval, a circle, a rhomb etc. The mirror-
obsessed Fassbinder was particularly inventive in this respect. Just take a look
at the scenes shown here from Veronika Voss (1982), but also from Alain
Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1961) or Steven
Soderbergh’s Che: Part 1 (2008).
Slanted angles can further modify the geometrical shape of the mirror
within the overall composition, as when Theo Angelopoulos, in a bar scene
in The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), films a dangling mirror slightly from
the side (see below). In short, introducing a mirror as a prominent part of
the mise-en-scène allows for a modification of how the viewer may look onto the
Figure 8.3 Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964).
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Reflecting on Reflections 135
Figure 8.4 Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1982).
Figure 8.5 Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad), Alain Resnais (1961).
Figure 8.6 Che: Part 1, Steven Soderbergh (2008).
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136 Julian Hanich
filmic image as a flat composition. This is by no means to imply that mirrors
make viewers avoid looking into the filmic world; nor will spectators easily
switch from the looking-into to the looking-onto mode – after all, a mirror in
a film still gives us a Gestalt. All I am arguing is that the looking-onto mode
becomes a more vital possibility, as prominent mirrors introduce contrasting
geometrical shapes, thus making the image less definite.
However, the mirror is not a geometrical shape like any other. Again, apart
from mirror reflections that fill the entire screen, diegetic mirrors always
add a frame within the frame.8 With Anne Friedberg we can also speak of
a ‘multiple frame’: the edges of the mirror, whether it is surrounded by an
actual frame or not, are included within the master frame of the screen – be
it a cinema screen, a television screen, a computer screen or any other screen
on which we watch the film.9 Following a general function of frames, mirrors
as frames-within-the-frame allow a channelling of the spectator’s attention to what
seems salient: deliberately and artificially ‘decreasing’ the format of the film
image, they momentarily magnetise the viewer’s gaze and pull it towards what
is framed.
In this respect the mirror resembles photographs, paintings or other static,
framed representations within the diegesis to which the viewer might be
attracted. In contrast to static photographs or paintings, what we see inside
the mirror is most of the time not static, since the reflection contains moving
Figure 8.7 The Suspended Step of the Stork, Theo Angelopoulos (1991).
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Reflecting on Reflections 137
parts. Particularly when movement within the mirror is set o from a static
wall surrounding the mirror, the magnetising function will most likely increase,
‘sucking’ the viewer’s attention towards what is framed to a considerably
higher degree than a photograph or a painting. This is predominantly the case
with those complex mirror shots that do not contain a character between the
camera and the mirror at all but restrict themselves to showing its reflection:
what can be glimpsed inside the mirror remains the only moving part of the
image, and the viewer therefore does not have to divide his or her attention,
as in this scene from Fassbinder’s E Briest. Here the surrounding wall is
hardly important – what counts is the moving mirror reflection of the charac-
ters, accentuated by the rectangular mirror frame.
Again, the mirror resembles doorframes and windows in this respect: it
is as if the mirror ‘opened up’ what would otherwise be a flat wall by insert-
ing a visible ‘hole’ into it, channelling the viewers’ attention into its anterior
depth of field. The specular depth of field can reach spectacularly far, as in
the bedroom scene from E Briest with Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann
below. Or it can remain almost on the ‘surface’, as in the mirror reflection of
Emmanuelle Riva standing closely in front of a bathroom mirror in Hiroshima
mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959).
Figure 8.8 E Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974).
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138 Julian Hanich
Here it is important, however, to heed Umberto Eco’s warning that a
mirror reflection is a virtual image: ‘it is so called because the observer per-
ceives it as if it were inside the mirror, while, of course, the mirror has no
“inside”’.10 One looks at the mirror reflection as if it had an anterior depth
Figure 8.9 E Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974).
Figure 8.10 Hiroshima mon amour, Alain Resnais (1959).
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Reflecting on Reflections 139
of field reaching ‘into’ the virtual image and thus functions like a window or
a doorframe beyond which space seems to be extending away from the camera.
However, while perceptually correct, this is logically wrong: Not having
depth itself, a mirror merely gives us the depth of the space it is reflecting.
(And this realisation may also allow for a momentary flattening of the screen
itself, because we subtly feel reminded of the fact that the screen does not
have ‘real’ depth either.)
At the same time, frames-within-the-frame such as mirrors tend to result
in a constriction or, at least, delimitation of space inside the filmic image.
By ‘devaluing’ those parts that surround the mirror frame, mirrors can have
an ‘emphasising’ function, but also a ‘suocating’ eect: what is salient is
given a marked and demarcated space, but through the demarcation of the
frame it also robs us of what could otherwise be a more open view. To
make this more tangible, let us take a look at a shot from Hiroshima mon
amour. Although the male protagonist (played by Eiji Okada) can be seen at
the very centre of the image, we instantly realise that the mirror frame inside
the film frame o-centres (or decentres) him and relegates him to the left
edge of the mirror reflection and thereby cuts o a part of his head and
Following Pascal Bonitzer’s influential concept of deframing (décadrage),
Figure 8.11 Hiroshima mon amour, Alain Resnais (1959).
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140 Julian Hanich
there is a centrifugal tendency of the mirror image toward o-screen space
in as much as it hints at the parts of the character’s body that lie beyond the
mirror frame.11 Or to use a phrase by Jean Mitry: ‘We know that the space seen
through the frame and limited by it is in no way delimited by it’.12
Hence we encounter a curious double tendency to open up and constrict
space: Mirrors seem to squeeze and box-in what can be seen inside the
four borders of their frame, but simultaneously extend the space of the
image to what is ‘inside’ their ‘depth’. Mitry, discussing a mirror scene in
John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), also observes this constricting
eect: ‘Whereas a total field of view would underline the relations between
various points in space shown in its entirety, here, on the contrary everything
is hemmed in, constricted.’13 However, for reasons we will arrive at pres-
ently, it seems wrong to me when Mitry claims that ‘space is cancelled out,
since it is its reflection we see’.14 In fact, space is not cancelled out, but it is
What seems clear at this point is that a viewer who looks into the depth of
the mirror-as-frame naturally perceives the image dierently from a viewer
who looks onto the flatness of the mirror-as-geometrical-shape. A crucial shift
of attention takes place, implying a reordering of the given well described by
Maurice Merleau-Ponty:
To pay attention is not merely further to elucidate pre-existing data, it is to
bring about a new articulation of them by taking them as figures. [. . .] The
miracle of consciousness consists in its bringing to light, through attention,
phenomena which re-establish the unity of the object in a new dimension at
the very moment when they destroy it.15
I suggest that mirrors are the kind of diegetic object that ‘invites’ this
switching of attention or even forcefully ‘imposes’ it. It would be wrong,
however, to consider the two possibilities as necessarily exclusive – they can
coexist, with one mode foregrounded while the other one is backgrounded
and vice versa.
A mirror is an indexical medium: it contains a causal connection between its
referent and what it displays. But unlike the indexical medium of photog-
raphy it is not a storage medium that allows us to retrieve what the virtual
image of the mirror reflection has previously shown. This implies that if the
reflected object is not located between the mirror and the camera, it must be
positioned at this very moment in what Noël Burch, in his typology of o-screen
space, has called ‘the o behind the camera’ (and maybe more accurately
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should have called ‘the o behind and next to the camera’).16 In complex
mirror shots characters are thus both present on-screen via reflection and
simultaneously absent in o-screen space. Hence even though the medium of
photography and the mirror share the tendency to fuse absence and presence
into an image of absent-presence, they are crucially dierent: photography
makes something present that is temporally absent (the image was taken earlier
in time); in complex mirror shots the mirror makes something present that
is temporally present but spatially absent (what it reflects is located at this very
moment in o-screen space).17
Hence mirrors are intriguing diegetic objects, because they introduce
a peculiar pluri-directionality to the filmic image, thus further rendering it
more indefinite: mirrors extend space not only into the anterior depth of field
discussed in the previous section, but also into what André Bazin has called
lateral depth of field and even into what I want to dub posterior depth of field
(with reference to Burch we could also speak of the ‘depth behind and next
to the camera’).18 Umberto Eco therefore describes the mirror as a prosthesis:
an ‘apparatus extending the range of action of an organ.’19 The film is thus
both o-centred and centred on the o.
We can make these claims more concrete by drawing on a scene from
Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975), a film ripe with complex mirror shots.
Roughly fifty minutes into the film, at the beginning of a static long-take
of more than six minutes, the attaché of the Austrian embassy (Mathieu
Carrière) stands, hands folded and without moving, in front of a piano
in the big, bourgeois living room of the French ambassador to India. He
stares into the upper left o-screen space behind the camera. In the back-
ground we can see a huge mirror in the shape of a big door or a passage,
which covers about a third of the wall. On the left side of the mirror we
see a staircase on which the wife of the French ambassador, Anne-Marie
Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) appears in a red gown after nineteen seconds. She
descends the stairs and appears in the middle of the mirror, approaching the
Austrian attaché. Because of the mirror reflection and the direction of the
attaché’s gaze into o-screen space, we have to expect Anne-Marie Stretter
to appear from the left-hand-side of the frame, which she does thirty-five
seconds into the shot.
What interests me most about this shot – fully aware that I am shamefully
ignoring its multi-layered non-synchronous soundtrack is how the mirror
complicates the act of viewing: during her walk towards the attaché, we can
perceive the woman in red as a mirror-reflection squarely inside the image; but
at the same time, guided through the attaché’s gaze, we are also asked to
imagine her approaching from o-screen space outside the image. In contrast to
other cases mentioned above, the attaché’s gaze into o-screen space implies
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Figures 8.12–8.14 India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975).
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a strong deictic element, pointing in an outward direction. Over and above
the reflection in the mirror his gazes adds a forceful beyond-the-frame-focus
that asks for an actualisation of that space, and how else would we actualise it
other than via imagination? While in the E Briest example at the beginning
viewers will predominantly apprehend the mirror reflection, in cases with
a strong beyond-the-frame-focus imagination comes into play to a much
stronger degree, actualising that visible–invisible space.
Hence for the viewer’s engagement with indefinite filmic images it makes
a dierence if the images contain (a) no character placed between camera and
mirror during shooting, (b) a character that looks at the reflection in on-screen
space or (c) a character that gazes at the source of the reflection in o-screen space.
Take the following shots from Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) and Vittorio
de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, 1970): in
one case we have an inward character gaze, in the other two cases we see a
character looking outward.
With Bazin’s distinction between a centripetal and a centrifugal image ten-
dency in mind, we may assume that the direction of the character’s gaze may
either attenuate or spur the viewer’s imagining of o-screen space.20 In the
first case the viewer most likely follows the gaze direction ‘into’ the depth of
the mirror; in the other two cases his or her attention may be pushed beyond
the image frame into o-screen space and thus increase the reliance on his or
her imagination, similar to the India Song example. For lack of a better expres-
sion we could speak of an ‘imaginative perception’, because the viewer’s per-
ception of the mirror shot is informed and infused by imaginative elements
to a more pronounced degree than usual: the imagination of o-screen space.
Thus complex mirror shots not only change the way spectators look onto and
into the image, but also beyond it.
At the beginning I emphasised that for a mirror shot to change the way
spectators look onto, into, beyond and at the filmic image the objects and events
reflected in the mirror must play a prominent role. This is an important
qualifier because most regular mirror shots of the Raging Bull kind also reveal
some space behind the character. But the rest of Jake LaMotta’s locker room
is rather unimportant to our understanding of the scene.21 As mentioned, in
regular mirror shots the reflection of o-screen space passively displays the
environment but does not pose questions.22 In complex mirror shots, on the
other hand, a salient source like Anne-Marie Stretter in her red dress attracts
our attention and therefore asks to be actively concretised in imagination, even
if the content of this imagination is strongly shaped by what is given through
perception in the mirror.
Cognitive film theorists like David Bordwell, Edward Branigan and
others have shown us that as viewers we need to mentally construct the space
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Figure 8.17 The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), Vittorio de Sica
Figures 8–15–8.16 Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk (1956).
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of the filmic world: Drawing on mental schemata partly derived from our
experience of reality we fill in the gaps that any film necessarily contains.23
Likewise, phenomenological aesthetics think of Roman Ingarden, Mikel
Dufrenne or Wolfgang Iser – has time and again underlined the active part of
the recipient who has to concretise spots of indeterminacy or fill in blanks.24
Accordingly, I would argue that in order to make full sense of the actual,
non-reflected spatial configuration in the living room of India Song, the viewer
needs to visualise in imagination an inverse version of the reflected woman in
red in o-screen space.
Incidentally, and not surprisingly, complex mirror shots also imply a
doubling or ambiguity in terms of sound. Even though complex mirror shots
existed during the silent era, the use of sound adds another layer.25 To better
describe how viewers experience sound in complex mirror shots we need
to draw on an intricate phenomenon Chion calls ‘spatial magnetization’.26 The
phenomenon occurs when the place of a sound source we see and the location
where the sound is actually emitted do not coincide. For example, a barking
dog runs from the right to the left of the onscreen image and then exits into
o-screen space: We automatically and without a reflective thought mentally
attach the sound to the moving dog (as the source of the sound) and not to
the static speakers (as the emitters of the sound). In Chion’s elegant phrasing,
‘the image attracts the sound, as though magnetically, and leads us mentally
to situate the sound where we see its source’.27 Without spatial magnetisa-
tion we would be unable to create a realistic connection between the static
loudspeaker and the often moving sound sources inside and outside the
image. This is particularly obvious in the case of monaural sound, i.e., when
only one speaker exists behind the screen, but also when we watch a film on a
computer monitor via headphones. Only because the on-screen or o-screen
source seems to magnetically pull the sound in its direction can we make
sense of and follow the film at all.
Complex mirror shots make this phenomenon even more intriguing.
All of a sudden the film doubles, as it were, its sound source. Or, to be more
precise, the mirror lets the sound source appear ambiguously, because it is
visible inside the frame, but has to be logically located outside the frame.
Depending on what aspect the viewer focuses on, I claim, the spatial experi-
ence of sound will be dierent. If the viewer concentrates on the reflection and
hence what goes on ‘inside’ the anterior depth of the mirror, the sound will
come directly from the front. If the viewer focuses on the actual location of the
characters and hence on what goes on in the lateral or posterior depth of o-
screen space, the sound source will be magnetised to the imagined position of
the characters. The spatial experience of sound will vary slightly, even though
the emitter of sound stays, of course, the same.
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In the complex mirror shots from E Briest or India Song the camera is situ-
ated halfway between the mirror and the characters in the hors-champ. I have
already alluded to the fact that the complex mirror shot thus may extend the
depth of the image into various directions: not only into the anterior depth
‘inside’ the mirror on-screen, but also the lateral depth next to the camera and
the posterior depth behind the camera o-screen. In the following I want to
show how this may help us to shed a dierent light on the discussion of depth
of field and the way it allows filmmakers to stage in depth, a stylistic device
variously discussed by David Bordwell.28
Consider the following shot from Fassbinder’s E Briest, which shows us
mirror reflections of Hanna Schygulla and Wolfgang Schenck in the back-
ground as well as Irm Hermann in the foreground.
Here the mirror allows for a guided depth of field comparable to other
types of surcadrages like a doorframe or a window (see the section ‘A Frame
Within a Frame’ above). However, what distinguishes the complex mirror
shot from regular depth-of-field shots is the space it opens up in the reverse
direction. Against the background of what I have pointed out above, the
Figure 8.18 E Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974).
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depth of field must immediately be doubled once we take into account the
posterior depth of field or ‘depth behind the camera’. The camera is centred
as in the middle of a corridor. With space extending in two directions the shot
yields an amplified depth of field and thus makes possible an intensified staging
in depth.29
What is more, the complex mirror shot allows for an intricate editing-
without-editing. To elucidate this point let us briefly take a detour via Pascal
Bonitzer’s Bazin-inspired comparison between painting and film. According
to Bonitzer, paintings place the beholder in an overlooking position, whereas
editing puts the film audience, as it were, inside the scene: ‘in film we are not
outside but within the painting. We travel, through the dierent shot sizes and
angles, inside a painting without edges, a painting which creates itself and is
only limited by time’.30 Now, to me it seems that this is also, and particularly,
an intriguing description for the mirror shot, as the mirror helps to locate the
viewer in a space as if inside the scene, but without the use of editing. Via the mirror
reflection we can see all at once and without a cut E and Instetten
on the floor and Johanna both in profile and from the front. The temporal
duration is not interrupted, and the spatial integrity remains untouched from
changes in perspective.31
In his forceful critique of Bazin, Jean-Louis Comolli questions the
Bazinian claim that a depth-of-field aesthetics is able to capture reality more
faithfully than one based on editing. Comolli insists instead on its artificiality
and constructedness: ‘We could [. . .] go so far as to reverse Bazin’s hypoth-
esis and claim that depth of field, far from manifesting a “surplus reality,”
actually enables the filmmaker to show less of the real, to play around with
masking eects and visual tricks, as well as with the division and distortion
of space…’32 If Comolli’s critique rings true at least for some examples
of depth of field then it is all the more true for complex mirror shots. A
quick glance at a highly artificial double depth-of-field shot from Douglas
Sirk’s Written on the Wind may lend evidence to this claim: here Rock Hudson,
reflected in the mirror and standing in the background, is framed four times
by the screen frame, by Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack, by the mirror frame
and by the doorframe. More than in regular depth-of-field shots ‘the director
and cameraman have converted the screen into a dramatic checkerboard’, as
Bazin once put it.33
On top of allowing a type of editing-without-editing the mirror inciden-
tally also enables a split-screen without the splicing of two shots via optical
printer.34 Take Darius Khondji’s brilliant mirror shot at the end of James
Gray’s The Immigrant (2013). What we can see is a three-part image: a flat
wall on the left, an anterior depth of field outside a window in the middle,
and an anteriorposterior depth of field in the mirror on the right. While in
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the middle Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) sails away with her sister into
freedom, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) walks into a confined, narrow
world, symbolised by the constricting composition with various lattices and
frames-within-frames-within-frames. Khondjis’s complex mirror shot thus
allows for – maybe even pushes us towards – an oscillation between the three
viewing modes discussed so far: from looking onto its flat triptych composi-
tion to looking into the anterior depth of the mirror (and the window) to
looking beyond the image into the o behind the camera. And the Khondji
example also illustrates a specific propensity of the complex mirror shot:
since it takes time to orient oneself in filmic space and to initiate the onto–
into–beyond oscillation, complex mirror shots are often connected to the
Figure 8.19 Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk (1956).
Figure 8.20 The Immigrant, James Gray (2013).
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Reflecting on Reflections 149
Finally, mirrors harbour a potential to unsettle the ways spectators look at
the image as such by making them insecure about the status of the image or
the spatial construction of its mise-en-scène. In fact, the complex mirror shot can
profoundly disorient the viewer and thereby foreground the act of viewing
and mediation. Here I broadly distinguish between three strategies of mirror
First, a filmmaker can use unusual mirror imagery, which due to its unfa-
miliarity demands a reorientation in space and thus a re-evaluation of what
can be seen. Take the final scene in Tsai Ming-liang’s splendid slow film
Journey to the West (2014). This completely static long-take of four minutes
and thirty-two seconds complicates the viewing experience by confronting
us with a huge mirror on a ceiling near the entrance of a metro station in
Marseilles. Since we are much less habituated to mirrors on ceilings than
on walls, both in films and in real life, this complicates our orientation in
space, at least initially. Moreover, it also aects the concretisation of o-
screen space, as we would have to mentally rotate the mirror reflection not
horizontally but vertically. Although we might realise from the beginning
that we are dealing with a mirror shot here, it needs some adjustment of the
lived-body to the visual complexity of the image upside-down. In Tsai’s case
the complication also derives from the fact that the mirror is not framed and
only two of its four edges can be seen: the two segments of the image, the
houses below and the mirror above, appear fused, almost in a collage-like
Figure 8.21 Journey to the West, Tsai Ming-liang (2014).
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150 Julian Hanich
way. The two segments thus seem assembled as if in a unitary image, but
at the same time the viewer has to deal with two dierent spatial depths: a
horizontal and a vertical one.
Second, films can disorient through the sheer quantity of mirrors. Already
in 1939 the director William de Mille (the older brother of Cecil B.) noted
that ‘mirror shots, always the directors’ darlings, became so rampant that
the audience frequently had trouble untangling the scene from its reflec-
tion’.35 Once we are confronted with an overabundance of mirrors – as in
E Briest or Veronika Voss taking reality for its reflection and vice versa
can be a consequence. Above I have referred to the similarity of mirrors
to door frames and windows: after numerous mirror scenes in E Briest
I, sure enough, mistook a doorframe for a mirror frame and thus under-
stood a straightforward scene filmed from one room into another to be a
reflection. In contrast to the first type of disorientation the viewer is now
taken by surprise about the misjudgement, with the potential eect that
henceforth the status of the image will be under increased scrutiny: is this
a mirror or not?
The third strategy concerns the size of the mirror: sometimes filmmakers
deliberately place the camera so close to the mirror surface that the mirror
fills the entire screen. If a mirror stretches beyond the four edges of the
screen, however, we cannot distinguish the mirror image from the ‘real’
image (unless, of course, there are straightforward signs, such as writing
that appears in inverted form). The image thus lacks the guiding frame-
within-the-frame composition we encountered in earlier examples. When
the audience is initially not aware of the mirror and takes it to be a regular
shot without reflection, the subsequent revelation of the mirror frame by
way of a camera movement, a zoom-out or a repositioning of a character
can have, again, a jolting eect. Here we are dealing with the opposite
of the previous case: what was taken for a regular shot all of a sudden
turns into a mirror shot, as in the example from India Song below. In such
cases, it seems as if the filmmaker – for whatever reasons – wanted to
disorient the audience, but also to let the spectators experience an unusual
metamorphosis of space and a certain wonder associated with this spatial
Some filmmakers even seem to play with our forgetfulness about the
status of the mirror image. In video artist Ulla von Brandenburg’s Mirrorsong
(Spiegellied, 2012), for instance, the mirror frame is in plain sight at first, before
a camera movement toward the mirror slowly relegates the mirror frame into
o-screen space. When I watched the film for the first time I was taken by
surprise when the frame came back into sight: I had simply forgotten that I
was watching the very mirror the title hints at. What von Brandenburg’s film
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Reflecting on Reflections 151
Figures 8.22–8.24 India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975).
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152 Julian Hanich
teaches us is that it demands a sustained act of focusing on the status of the
image by keeping the mirror in working memory. Otherwise we can easily
lose the mirror image, literally, out of sight, looking into the image, but not
beyond it.36
Making the audience insecure about the status of the image or the spatial
construction of its mise-en-scène can lead to a rupture in perception and subse-
quently initiate an act of reflecting on the reflection. Complex mirror shots,
in other words, allow the spectator to become consciously aware of his/her
own act of viewing. At the same time, these shots ostensibly foreground the act
of mediation by drawing attention to the camera and its position in the profilmic
space as well as the space o-screen that can and cannot be seen at the same
time. If a director aims at maximising the impression of transparent media-
tion, using a mirror would be counterproductive as it raises the question of
why the director doesn’t show us the scene directly.
It is in this double reflexivity becoming conscious of one’s act of looking
and the medium itself – that we find a reason why filmmakers like Sirk,
Fassbinder or Duras are fond of complex mirror shots, over and above a the-
matic use of the mirror as a motif of self-reflection, narcissism or questioning
of fractured identity. Although one should always be suspicious of giving too
much weight to etymological arguments, it may be appropriate, at the very
end, to point out that the Latin word reflectere is used both for the mirroring
eect and the act of contemplation.37 Oscillating between looking onto, into,
beyond and at in puzzled or contemplative ways: it is in this potentially equivo-
Figure 8.25 Mirrorsong (Spiegellied), Ulla von Brandenburg (2012). Courtesy of
Produzentengalerie Hamburg.
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Reflecting on Reflections 153
cal and protean engagement with the filmic image that we find the indefinite
character of the complex mirror shot.
1. For helpful comments on draft versions on this article, I thank Tom Gunning,
Christian Ferencz-Flatz, Erika Balsom, Guido Kirsten, Julian Blunk and Vivian
2. Complex mirror shots can coincide with, but are often something other than
what Christian Metz has called a nonreflective mirror, that is, a mirror that ‘reflects
something other than the person who looks at it and acts simply as a secondary
screen’. Christian Metz, ‘Mirrors’, in Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film
(New York: Columbia University Press, [1991] 2016), p. 61.
3. Michel Chion, Film, a Sound Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009),
pp. 481–2.
4. In film studies little attention has been paid to what mirrors imply for the picto-
rial composition, the organisation of filmic space and the spectator’s viewing
activity in a given shot. For a few remarks in this direction, see Metz’ short
chapter on mirrors mentioned in Note 2. For a helpful historical study, see Yuri
Tsivian, ‘Portraits, Mirrors, Death: On Some Decadent Clichés in Early Russian
Films’, Iris, No. 14–15 (1992), pp. 67–83. The research situation is very dier-
ent with regard to painting. In art history an enormous body of work has been
devoted to the function of mirrors in the image composition. Just think of the
manifold discussions of Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage Portrait (1434),
Diego Velasquez’ Las Meninas (1656) or Edgar Manet’s Bar aux Folies-Bergère
(1882). See, for instance, Jan Bialostocki, ‘Man and Mirror in Paintings: Reality
and Transience’, in Irving Lavin and John Plummer (eds), Studies in Late Medieval
and Renaissance Painting in Honor of Millard Meiss. Vol. 1 (New York: New York
University Press, 1977), pp. 61–72.
5. Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Dynamic Square’, in his Film Essays and a Lecture
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 48–65; p. 49.
6. See (accessed 4 November
7. Metz, Impersonal Enunciation, p. 53.
8. On frames-within-the frame in the cinema, see Anne Friedberg, The Virtual
Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), pp. 200–2.
See also Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (London: Macmillan,
1984), p. 220.
9. Friedberg, The Virtual Window, p. 202.
10. Eco, Semiotics, p. 205. On mirrors as virtual images, see also Gilles Deleuze,
Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1985]
1989), pp. 68–70. Here Deleuze also discusses mirror images as subtypes of the
crystal image.
11. Pascal Bonitzer, ‘Deframings’, in David Wilson (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma – Volume
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154 Julian Hanich
4: 1973–1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle (London: Routledge, 2000),
pp. 197–203.
12. Jean Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema (Bloomington: University of
Indiana Press, [1963] 2000), p. 75.
13. Mitry, Aesthetics, p. 198.
14. Ibid.
15. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, [1945]
2002), p. 35.
16. Noël Burch, ‘Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space’, in Theory of Film Practice
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 17–31; p. 17.
17. Eco therefore describes the photographic plate as a ‘freezing mirror’, because
the reflected referent has ‘frozen’ on the surface, even after the object has disap-
peared. Eco, Semiotics, p. 222.
18. Bazin coined the term ‘lateral depth of field’ with reference to Jean Renoir’s
mobile camera in La Règle du jeu (1939), which according to Bazin behaves like an
invisible guest in the centre of the action, revealing what is adjacent to the camera
with every reframing: ‘The rest of the scene, while eectively hidden, should
not cease to exist. The action is not bounded by the screen, but merely passes
through it.’ André Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. François Truaut, trans. W. W. Halsey
II and Willian H. Simon (London: W. H. Allen, 1974), p. 89.
19. Eco, Semiotics, p. 208. See also Irving Singer, Cinematic Mythmaking. Philosophy in
Film (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), p. 31 and Edward Branigan, Point of
View in the Cinema. A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film (Berlin:
Mouton, 1984), p. 117. This characteristic was recognised as early as 1911 as a
way to establish film as an art form in its own right. Yuri Tsivian (in ‘Portraits’,
p. 70) has pointed out with regard to early Russian films that through the use
of mirrors directors seized the opportunity to distinguish film from theatre.
Intriguingly, Metz writes: ‘Every mirror is like a camera (or a projector) because
it “projects” the image a second time, because it oers it a second shot, because
it has an emissive power.’ Metz, Impersonal Enunciation, p. 63.
20. To be sure, Bazin introduced this distinction to describe the dierences between
paintings and films, with the former possessing centripetal and the latter cen-
trifugal tendencies. André Bazin: ‘Painting and Cinema’, in What is Cinema?,
trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 164–9;
pp. 165, 166.
21. Additionally, we sometimes encounter mirrors as a noticeable part of the image,
but they don’t give us a salient source of reflection. What makes a mirror shot
complex is precisely the latter, not the mirror itself.
22. Chion, Film, pp. 481, 482.
23. David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1985), especially chapter 7; Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and
Film (London: Routledge, 1992), especially chapter 2; Henry Bacon, ‘The Extent
of Mental Completion in Films’, in Projections. The Journal for Movies and Mind, Vol.
5, No. 1 (2011), pp. 31–50.
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Reflecting on Reflections 155
24. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University
Press, 1973); Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973); Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading. A
Theory of Aesthetic Response (London: Routledge, 1978); Julian Hanich and Hans
Jürgen Wul (eds), Auslassen, Andeuten, Auüllen: Der Film und die Imagination des
Zuschauers (Paderborn: Fink, 2012).
25. For examples of complex mirror shots in the silent era apart from the ones
mentioned in Tsivian’s article (Note 4), see the references to Urban Gad’s Weisse
Rosen (1916) or Af Klercker’s Mysteriet natten till den 25:e (1917) in David Bordwell,
Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and
Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 59
and 65. See also the brief discussion of Robert Dinesen’s Under Blinkfyrets Straaler
(1913) in
(accessed 4 November 2016).
26. See Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1994), pp. 69–71. Chion, Film, pp. 247–9 and pp. 491, 492.
27. Chion, Film, p. 491. For the important distinction between source and emitter of
sound, see Chion, Film, pp. 247, 248.
28. David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light. On Cinematic Staging (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2005).
29. See also Julian Hanich, ‘Complex Staging. The Hidden Dimensions of Roy
Andersson’s Aesthetics’, in Movie. A Journal of Film Criticism, No. 5 (2015),
pp. 37–50.
30. Pascal Bonitzer: ‘Partial Vision. Film and the Labyrinth’, in Wide Angle, Vol. 4,
No. 4 (1981): 56–63, p. 59.
31. See also Tsivian, ‘Portrait’, p. 72 and Mitry, Aesthetics, pp. 198, 199.
32. Jean-Louis Comolli: ‘Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth
of Field’, in Cinema against Spectacle. Technique and Ideology Revisited (Amsterdam:
Amsterdam University Press, [1971–72] 2015), p. 180.
33. André Bazin, ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’, in What Is Cinema?,
pp. 23–40; p. 34.
34. Similarly, Metz mentions a number of cases in which diegetic elements seem to
mimic optical eects. When Sternberg or Ophüls film through semi-transparent
curtains, this has a sensory eect similar to a blur. Or the doors and airlocks of
the spaceship in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) are like diegeticised irises or shut-
ters. ‘There is in sum a correspondence, both imperfect and precise, between
certain optical eects and certain motifs or diegetic movements.’ Metz, Impersonal
Enunciation, p. 57.
35. Quoted in Bordwell et al., Classical Hollywood, p. 98.
36. Yet another type of disorientation based on the size of the mirror can be found
in a by now famous scene in Yevgeni Bauer’s last film The King of Paris (1917):
Bauer wants us to believe that only half of the screen image is a mirror reflection,
while in fact the mirror comprises the entire image and stretches beyond its edges
into o-screen space. According to Tsivian, viewers get lost in Bauer’s mirror
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156 Julian Hanich
game when ‘real’ figures are taken for reflections, and reflected sets are perceived
as real ones. Tsivian, ‘Portrait’, p. 77.
37. Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, The Visible and the Invisible: On Seventeenth-Century
Dutch Painting (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), p. 157.
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For helpful comments on draft versions on this article, I thank Tom Gunning, Christian Ferencz-Flatz
  • Guido Kirsten
For helpful comments on draft versions on this article, I thank Tom Gunning, Christian Ferencz-Flatz, Erika Balsom, Guido Kirsten, Julian Blunk and Vivian Sobchack.
The Dynamic Square', in his Film Essays and a Lecture
  • Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein, 'The Dynamic Square', in his Film Essays and a Lecture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 48-65; p. 49.
On mirrors as virtual images, see also Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image
  • Semiotics Eco
Eco, Semiotics, p. 205. On mirrors as virtual images, see also Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1985] 1989), pp. 68-70. Here Deleuze also discusses mirror images as subtypes of the crystal image.
For the important distinction between source and emitter of sound, see Chion, Film
  • Film Chion
Chion, Film, p. 491. For the important distinction between source and emitter of sound, see Chion, Film, pp. 247, 248.
Figures Traced in Light
  • David Bordwell
David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light. On Cinematic Staging (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Complex Staging. The Hidden Dimensions of Roy Andersson's Aesthetics', in Movie
  • Julian See
  • Hanich
See also Julian Hanich, 'Complex Staging. The Hidden Dimensions of Roy Andersson's Aesthetics', in Movie. A Journal of Film Criticism, No. 5 (2015), pp. 37-50.