A Mask, a Veil, a Coffin: Abjection and the Female Body in German Literature, Art, and Film

Original writing by Mary Kate Murray
Submitted for German/Gender & Women Studies: Masks & Veils
Professor Lena Heilmann
Spring 2015, Knox College

“Know that it is a corpse who loves you and adores you and will never, never leave you!…Look, I am not laughing now, crying, crying for you, Christine, who have torn off my mask and who therefore can never leave me again!…Oh, mad Christine, who wanted to see me!”
-Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

Behind a mask, a body that lacks a face lacks the subjectivity of personality and facial expression. In German literature, art, and film, masks and veils serve to separate the subjectivity of a person from the body, making the body—particularly the female body—into an unfamiliar façade under which linger corporeal remains. The female body becomes a spectacle to be viewed, but lacks the subjective agency of anything more than an inanimate piece of art, a carnival act, or a freak show; the masked body is seen but cannot see, despite its inherently human capability to do so. That which is “neither subject nor object” becomes abject, as defined by Julia Kristeva, or that which one expels but cannot separate from entirely (1). One reacts to the abject through avoidance, the inability to stomach what the abject represents, and the simultaneous inability to look away. Kristeva refers to the abject as an “exclusion” or “taboo,” and the liminality of the abject body makes it unsettling, horrific, or uncanny. Viewing the female body as abject—without subjectivity or objectivity—causes the masked woman to be burdened with sexual taboos—those tendencies toward corporeal pleasure and pain that lurk beneath the surface of Western civilization despite its attempts to expel them. The masked body both intrigues and disgusts; the woman becomes a sexual freak show: mesmerizing and monstrous. The following essay explores how different German texts affirm and subvert the notion of the masked female body as an abject spectacle.

In The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim, LaRoche’s narrators admire the beauty of Lady Sternheim’s body, adorned in lavish garments, but use those garments to distance themselves from the degradation of sexual desire. For example, Lord Derby pays attention to how Lady Sternheim’s garments accent her sexuality, saying that “the wide sleeve [of her dress] was certainly designed for the sole purpose to falling back . . . to display fully her perfectly formed arm,” lingering on the prominence of her “beautiful mouth,” and noting she appeared to be “[the prince’s] true mistress” (150). Beneath the garments, Lady Sternheim becomes beautiful; an artistic rendition of what a woman “should” be, physically. Simultaneously, however, Lord Derby extracts Lady Sternheim’s morality from her body by aligning the exposure of her face with the exposure of her soul. Masked, Lady Sternheim devolves into “the general idea of what constitutes a woman”–that being a physical body without a subjective “morality” or personality (150). Lord Derby abjects the masked Lady Sternheim, suggesting that his desire for her physical body is acceptable because of the barrier–the mask–between her body and soul. Without the mask, Derby describes Lady Sternheim as “the picture of moral beauty . . . keeping all desires within the bounds of respect” (150). Here, Derby’s “respectful” desire acknowledges the human within the body, but the desire Derby expresses for the masked Lady Sternheim is obviously a more carnal desire for the female body, for pleasure, and for sex. The mask between Lady Sternheim and Lord Derby turns her into an object to be observed and desired rather than respected.

Similarly, in Venus in Furs, Sacher-Masoch portrays the garment as an abject barrier between a man and a woman, which allows the woman to be seen as “other.” Severin views women as inherently inhuman, stating, “ever since I can remember all poetry and everything demonic was for me concentrated in woman” (31) Woman is either art or the devil. Severin demands cruelty from Wanda, but that cruelty only pleases him when she wears her furs. While donning furs, Wanda mirrors depictions of the ancient goddess Venus, or Raphael’s “Fornarina,” but Severin also likens her to an animal, to which Wanda replies, horrified: “A woman wearing furs, then…is nothing else than a large cat, an augmented electric battery?” (31). Like Lord Derby’s desire for the masked Lady Sternheim, Severin’s desire for the cruel Wanda is only okay when she wears her costume and performs as a dominatrix. Severin can only successfully derive pleasure from pain when the furs, or the animalistic representation of carnal sexuality, are present.

In the 1935 film The Devil is a Woman, Marlene Dietrich’s character Concha, always dressed in elaborate costumes with perfect, excessive makeup, represents the sexualized woman. Her display of sexuality makes her seem accessible, but she can never be accessed, or fully possessed by any man in the film. Constantly out of reach, Concha plays with and manipulates men, bringing her into a position of sexual power. She toys with Pasqualito and Antonio like Wanda controls Severin. However, like Wanda, her power comes from her performance of sexuality. Her over-the-top femininity, her pouty, dramatic demeanor, and her overt flirtation help her overpower men, but only within a system of oppression that forces her to do so. Wanda and Concha both have moments of physical weakness that prove men dominate their sexual performances. In the courtyard, Severin accosts Wanda with a knife, saying “You are mine, I love you too much, I won’t let you go” (Sacher-Masoch 104), and Pasqualito assaults Concha under the pretense of love and possession. In both instances, the mask, or barrier between man and woman, shatters, and the illusion of feminine sexual power breaks down into violence of men over woman. The abject action of violence, a primal expression of power which civilized humans try to reject, eliminates the power from performing sexuality, and instead focuses on the body as a center of blood and violence.

“Lady with Mink and Veil” by Otto Dix

“Lady with Mink and Veil,” by 1920’s artist Otto Dix depicts a veiled prostitute wearing a white dress with feminine bows. However, the prostitute has pallid skin, a ratty mink stole, and facial deformities visible beneath the veil. This work takes the sexiness out of sex trade, revealing a little too much of the woman’s breast, her garish makeup, and her missing teeth. Bodily imperfections are made apparent in this image, and the performative garments do little to distract from them. In fact, the traditional femininity of the costume jars the viewer because the body beneath it subverts common notions of feminine beauty. As Kristeva says, “essentially different from ‘uncanniness,’ more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory” (5). If the image of “Lady with Mink and Veil” appeared more human, the painting could be an uncanny representation of the female form, but because the body is so warped and exposed, it is unsettling to look at, verging on monstrous. The difference between “Lady with Mink and Veil” and Wanda and Lady Sternheim is that no woman lies beyond the veil–no inner beauty, humanity, or morality. Instead, beyond the veil lurks what society discards. “Lady with Mink and Veil” does not deal with the pretense of sexual performativity, but instead, draws attention to the ridiculousness of the trite façade.

“The Artist’s Sister, Melanie” by Egon Schiele

A 1908 painting, “The Artist’s Sister, Melanie,” by Egon Schiele also draws attention to the presence of a body without sexuality. The beige, unremarkable veil confines the woman in the image and encompasses most of the frame. Therefore, Schiele focalizes the visible portion of the woman’s face, highlighted in brighter red and yellow hues. The linear markings on the woman’s cheeks can be construed as rouge or scratches. The eyes are puffy, purple, and stare out at the viewer with an exhausted glare. She, with eyes and ears exposed, observes, but cannot speak; the cloth covers the woman’s mouth, subjugating her to the gaze of the viewer. Unlike Dix’s “Lady with Mink and Veil,” the woman in “Melanie” is definitely human, however the opaque veil gives no indication of whether the body beneath lives. The restricting nature of the cloth resembles a body bag, partially unzipped to reveal the identity of the corpse. Kristeva describes the corpse as the epitome of abjection, stating, “[The corpse] is something rejected from which one does not part . . . Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us” (4). Schiele abjects the woman here, not only by removing her subjectivity through covering her mouth, but by removing access to her body, and potentially, her livelihood. Lady Sternheim and Wanda’s masks arouse sexual desire, thereby abjecting them for their physical bodies, but like “Lady with Mink and Veil,” the absence of a sexual body abjects the woman in “Melanie” by aligning a sexless woman with a corpse.

Arthur Schitznler’s “Dream Story” includes abject imagery, particularly that of death and contagion, in conjunction with heavily sexualized imagery, equating disease and sexuality in the body. Right after, Fridolin, hears of his wife’s fantasies of another man, he sees a corpse. Freud and Riviere would hypothesize that the notion of his wife’s infidelity figuratively castrates Fridolin, emasculating him and catapulting him toward sexual conquest in order to reassert his masculinity (99). Further, the corpse reminds Fridolin of his bodily nature and his own mortality, driving him toward self-destruction, or the need to remove himself from his abject body.

Fridolin’s sexual breakdown begins upon seeing the cadaver, and he begins equating sexuality with death. He notices the details of the dead body and of Marianne’s body in the same way Lord Derby notices Lady Sternheim’s figure beneath the mask. For example, Schnitzler writes, “[Fridolin] walked over to the head of the bed and mechanically placed his hands first on the dead man’s forehead, then on the arms lying on top of the bedspread in loose and open shirtsleeves” (210). Here, Fridolin notices the details of the dead body in the same way Lord Derby notices Lady Sternheim’s figure beneath the mask, with focus on the arms and garment. Fridolin then describes Marianne: “Her hair was blonde and thick, but very dry; her neck well formed and slender, though no longer wrinkle free and rather yellowed; her lips were hard and narrow…” (210). Hey pays attention to the hair, the neck, and the mouth–all traditionally sexualized aspects of the female anatomy–and describes them as both sexual and repulsive. Her hair is thick, but dry; her neck slender, but wrinkled; her lips, hard and narrow. With the dual imagery, Fridolin could be describing the cadaver, itself.

Like Dix and Schiele, Schnitzler aligns Marianne’s unmasked female body with a corpse, making her body abject. The masked body, on the other hand, is erotic and compelling. Fridolin gazes at the veiled women in the ballroom, completely enamored by the bodies with invisible faces. Schnitzler writes, “[T]he fact that these women remained a mystery despite their nakedness . . . transformed the unutterable delight of gazing into an almost unbearable agony of desire” (233). Again, the mask acts as a barrier between man and woman, eliminating the subjectivity of the woman, making her an object of desire instead of a subjective agent. The veiled woman whose identity Fridolin will never know becomes the most desirable of all the women in the story. Even after she removes the veil, sacrificing her identity for him, he cannot see her face, and therefore, she remains the ideal, unobtainable woman. Fridolin even comments on the effects of the mask as a shield from the gaze, as if the revealed face is more exposing than the body: “It seemed to him a thousand times worse to be the only unmasked one among so many masks than to be the only one naked among people who were dressed” (237). Removing the mask, removes the barrier between subject and object, aligning the subject with the mortality of a corpse, and abjecting the desire for the now “dead” body.

In conclusion, the above German literature, film, and art, connects through its abjection of the female body. As discussed through LaRoche’s The History of Sophie von Sternheim, and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, the sexualization of the body beneath the mask allows the taboo of sexual desire to be expressed without repercussion because the mask removes the subjectivity of the face from the object of the body. Moments of violence against the unmasked female body such as in The Devil is a Woman and Venus in Furs shatter the illusion of the mask and assert the female body’s abject nature within a system of patriarchal oppression. The unmasked body, which the man has power over, proves to be repelling and subservient. Dix, Schiele, and Schnitzler reveal the abjectness of the body beneath the veil by drawing attention to the mortality of the female body without the shield of a covering. The sexual desire for unmasked women in these works becomes a farce. Finally, Schnitzler plays with the notion that being unmasked is, perhaps, the most dangerous offence against a person because it allows the subjective face and the objective body to unite, forcing the unmasked person into an abject space

Works Cited

The Devil Is a Woman. Dir. Josef Von Sternberg. 1935. Web.

Dix, Otto. Lady with Mink and Veil. 1920. Artnet. Web. 31 May 2015.

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” The Inner World and Joan Riviere: Collected Papers, 1920-1958. Comp. Athol Hughes. London: Published by Karnacfor the Melanie Klein Trust (London), 1991. 90-101. Print.

Sacher-Masoch, Leopold. Venus in Furs. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Schiele, Egon. The Artist’s Sister, Melanie. 1908. Wikipedia. Web. 31 May 2015.

Schnitzler, Arthur. “Dream Story.” Night Games: And Other Stories and Novellas. Trans. Margret Schaefer. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. 202-72. Print.

Von LaRoche, Sophie. The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim: Extracted by a Woman Friend of the Same from Original Documents and Other Reliable Sources. Albany: State U of New York, 1991. Print.