Défilé des ombres–Passage d’images: A Film by Sandra Peters

Gregor Stemmrich

Watching a film is not the same as seeing it and wanting to know how it was made. The question is how what we see affects us. If we experience a film as particularly attractive or stimulating, then the question comes into play what can have such a powerful effect on us. At the same time, it may be that we can see from the film how it was made, and we automatically ask why it affects us so lastingly. It can also happen that we cannot explain how a certain, astonishing effect was achieved in practice. The question of its effect thus has a subjective and an objective side. It calls for, on the one hand, an understanding of ourselves, our psychological disposition, and, on the other, an understanding of strategies (“special effects”) that are used to impress us. Hence it is also possible that both orientations of the question are left hovering, in that we neither immediately see from the film how it is made nor get the impression the technical processes would adequately explain its effect. The question how this hovering is achieved in practice cannot, therefore, be explained solely in terms of technical production. It can only be that we recognize or suspect that we have to observe various steps of the production in which this hovering is manifested in its own way.

Sandra Peters’s film Défilé des ombres is structured in a way that such steps remain recognizable. That is in part because we see images with sketched lines running through them. That effect is reminiscent of an animated film, but the drawn lines are an integral component of the photographic images of configurations of shadows that lie on the same plane as these lines. The lines are—or were—constructed in a way that they outline these configurations of shadows, yet the configurations of shadows and lines are usually—to a greater or lesser extent—shifted into one another, which suggests that the things that cast these shadows are mobile, while the drawn lines remain static. The shadows are static, too, however, since they are captured photographically. Their mobility, like that of the lines, results entirely from the fact that the individual photographs are digitally set in motion and thus faded over and slurred by other photographs. Hence the configurations of lines and shadows of various photographs interpenetrate one another, which at the same time suggests that each of these configurations is caused by several light sources. This results in a correspondence between the effect of several sources of artificial light and the effect of several photographs dovetailed digitally with one another but also in an underlying correspondence between the mobility of the objects that cast the shadows and the digital mobility of the individual photographs. Therefore the viewer does not so much feel obliged to ask about the actual situation in which the photographs were made as to recognize how they are linked to and translated into an event on the projection screen. On the screen, however, the configurations of shadows and lines appear on a vertical surface, while when they are photograph they lay horizontal. But because the photographs were made from various angles, which in some cases were angled even more by digital means, the impression of a strange hovering suspends an “absolute” orientation of the verticality of the screen or the horizontality of the floor. In the drift in which all the configurations of lines and shadows are drawing, this hovering also has a temporal dimension. It consists of a slow but inexorable shifting and slurring that on a superficial level is achieved through digital processing but seems to be inherent in the material itself, since—nearly—all we see are shadows, since the drawn lines seem like “shadows” of these shadows. In several of the images, however, in addition to the shadows and drawn lines we see objects that cast these shadows, except that these objects could hardly be more similar to shadows: cut off by the edge of the image, they emerge as dark formations of overlapping planes. Only on closer study does it become clear that they are pieces of clothing hanging and looming into the image field. Although these are color images, the color scale of the entire film is limited to shades of gray and sepia. Hence the objects, the shadows, and the lines appear in constantly changing configurations in which they correspond to one another and seem to be interchangeable. Together they form a défilé des ombres (parade of shadows).

This défilé is not reminiscent of the models in the footlights on the catwalk who command attention from a select audience by presenting the latest collection of famous fashion designers. Rather, the configurations of lines and shadows form a défilé that appears to be liberated from the pressure to spread glamour and suppress tension. This défilé of floating shadows that have been straightened out has something exquisite, something calmly flowing about it. It does not demand attention but rather cajoles it. The drawn lines outline closed surfaces like parcels, and our perception of them relates to our physical schema—that is, to our expectation that a body does not appear formless or melt away but has recognizable contours. At the same, time, our “social” perception is addressed, since the lines always form alliances, and no single form is ever isolated. The Défilé des ombres is a défilé of such alliances. It does not make us think of a categorical separation between models on the catwalk and their audience nor of a separation between backstage and auditorium. Rather, these categorical distinctions lose their relevance if the shadows are “left to themselves.” It was precisely this idea of “leaving the actors to themselves” that Frédéric Sanchez made the point of departure for the soundtrack of noises he composed: we hear the sounds of breathing, the spraying of perfume, the occasional puffing of steam from an iron, techno-like noises of a sewing machine, among other things. Taken together, they form a dense acoustic atmosphere that brings in aesthetically precisely the thing that a fashion show does not reveal in the footlights but which are nevertheless a prerequisite to anything being shown at all. The passage d’images is shadows cast by clothing.

What links these various determinations to one another is their specific nature as signs. Charles S. Peirce distinguished between three fundamental types of signs: index, icon, and symbol, with the term symbol standing for an arbitrary relationship of the signifier to the signified, the icon of relationship based on similarity, and the index for a causal connection between the signifier and signified. A shadow is an index because its existence is dependent on the incidence of light, and as a result of that dependence it refers as a sign to the object that casts it and also to the light source that causes the object to cast it. Likewise, a photograph is defined by its indexicality since it is caused by a physical incidence of light (it does not matter whether we can make out objects or relationships of similarity in a given photograph). The drawn—and subsequently photographed—lines should also be understood as indexical, since they have a direct physical connection to the shadows they outline. At the same time, it can certainly be the case that the shadows shifted afterward; yet, to cite another example, a footprint is an index even if we do not know who left it behind. The definition of an index is also fulfilled by the sounds we hear, in that they reveal their physical cause. The general point of view of indexicality thus brings together the diverse stages and modalities of the process of producing the film. The effect is integrative. On the other hand, the fact that all the information exists in digitally processed form also seems integrative. That brings into play a formatting of the signs that behaves indifferently to Peirce’s triad and indifferently to the difference between images and noises. All the information in a digitalization is represented by series of signs from an agreed-upon stock of signs. In the extreme case, which is also the normal case, it consists solely of the two signs 0 and 1. But these signs are not themselves represented (shown) but rather used to process and represent other signs (information). Only indirectly, in contrast to the indexicality of the represented signs, does the digital processing and representation reveal itself. The indexicality of the signs that we see and hear is due to physical causes that belong to a situation other than the one in which we find ourselves when we watch the film. Nevertheless, as the example of the footprint and, even more so, that of the photograph prove, it is not part of the definition of the index that we can observe the physical effect itself. The constitutive factor for its character as a sign is rather that we can infer it. This results in an affinity between the indexicality of the signs represented and their digitalized form, since the digital recording of information itself is of the nature of an imprint—that is, of indexicality (for example, one also speaks of a “digital fingerprint”). But the assumed definitions of form and matter have strangely switched places. An index is realized materially, and only because material reality represents a continuum are we able to infer from an index that there is another—previous, simultaneous, or incipient—material reality. Thus we particularize the continuum of material reality in order to emphasize structures of causal reference that are determined by signs. A digital representation of information, by contrast, is based on a concept of mathematical form that governs the concatenation of predetermined signs. The signs themselves have no “substance” or material value but are defined purely formally by their difference and by the rules of concatenation (for example, it does not matter whether they are indicated by 0 and 1, p and q, + and –, etc.). That which is “imprinted” in them enters into a medium of purely formal relations. That, however, is a medium, a mediator, because it lends material representation its own form—whether images on a monitor, text, soundtrack, and so on. This representation is not tied to the idea of a continuum of material reality but rather to the idea of a form of processing information that is separate from that reality. The indexical signs of Sandra Peters’s film thus exist in a strange state of hovering: on the one hand, they relate to a material reality and, on the other hand, to the digital form of their processing and visualization. In fact, they are about this hovering in which the indexical connection is just as visible as it is suspended. Thus what Deleuze declared about the AND comes into play: “The AND is neither the one nor the other, it is always between the two, it is the boundary, there is always a boundary, a vanishing trace or flow, only we don’t see it, because it is scarcely visible. And yet it is along this vanishing trace or flow that things happen.” 11Gilles Deleuze, “Drei Fragen zu six fois deux [Godard],” in: Unterhandlungen 1972–1990 (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1993: 68). What attracts our interest is not the referent of the indexical signs but rather what is manifested in the interplay of shadows and lines, of images and noises, of indexical signs and digital processing. This cannot be understood as a totality of elements; rather, the interrelated definitions seem to be drawn into “a nonparallel development, a trace or flow”22Ibid., 69. that is revealed in the passage d’images.



  • 1Gilles Deleuze, “Drei Fragen zu six fois deux [Godard],” in: Unterhandlungen 1972–1990 (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1993: 68).
  • 2Ibid., 69.

Défilé des ombres–Passage d’images

Berlin: Self-published


pp. 35–38