The Uncanny Screen
Der Sandmann was filmed in 1995 at the DOKFILM, where the former UFA studios were also located, in Babelsberg on the outskirts of Potsdam, known as one of the main centers for the production of German cinema in the nineteen-twenties. When Stan Douglas had the opportunity to visit them, some of these studios, which since the beginning of sound film had been losing their importance, were now included on a list of buildings for demolition defined by the remodeling of the area, carried out after German reunification. Within the scope of the same program, the civic gardens surrounding the area (Schrebergarten, originally called Armengarten) were now destined for the housing market. In a certain manner the site appeared as the persistence of a memory that the new historical aims intended to inexorably erase.The installation that Stan Douglas carried out from this is made up by the projecting of half of two 16mm black and white films, simultaneously shown on the same screen, which is thus divided vertically into two equal parts. Each film describes a 360° degree panoramic movement, exactly equal to that of the other in relation to the framing and movement of the camera, through one of these gardens that the artist had built inside the studio as a setting. For the first panoramic, the garden (Schrebergarten) was configured according to the appearance that it would have had about twenty-five years ago; for the second it is reconfigured in the present, with the very visible marks of a threatening transformation. During the simultaneous projecting of these panoramics, as the camera travels across the setting, the rest of the studio and returns to the setting, in a right to left movement, the sensation transmitted by this movement is that the version from the past emerges from the present, continuously subtracting it, as both of them coexist on the same screen separated by a seam. On the following loop it is the present that emerges from the past and subtracts it, in such a way that, as Stan Douglas says, there exists a situation "without resolution, endlessly".
During these sequences three narrators read an exchange of adapted letters that begin the story of the same name by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Der Sandmann, from 1817. The main reference setting of the story is a Schrebergarten and the action takes place around a memory that disturbs Nathanael after returning to Potsdam following a long absence. He states in his first let ter to his friend Lothar that his memory is obsessively fixed upon a strange figure of an old man whom he saw in a Schrebergarten during a stroll, and who seemed so threatening and malign to him that he cannot explain why. In reply Lothar tells him that it is certainly the old Herr Coppelius, whom both of them came across one day in one of these Schrebergarten and identified with the Sandman, from children's stories, in which he would appear as a threatening figure who would throw sand into the eyes of children who had not yet fallen asleep. He would throw so much sand that their eyes would pop out and he could carry them off in a sack to feed his waiting children, on the dark side of the moon, in nests, with beaks of avid owls. Nathanael and Lothar tried to set free the children's eyes that they believed that the old man had hidden in his garden. When they entered the garden they were surprised by the old man, who roared to himself and furiously drove them off throwing stones.
Curiously, Nathanael commits a lapse in sending this letter to his friend to the address of his sister, Klara, who sends it on to Lothar and adds another answer that compliments that of the former. Klara says that she spent the whole night talking with Lothar, who explained to her who the Sandman was for them. She also reminds Nathanael of the fear he had for water heaters, ever since an uncle had told him that inside their pilot lights there lived a demon and when water heaters spurted it was the demon trying to get out. Thus, the old man that Nathanael had seen was Coppelius the gardener who was trying to plant asparagus during the winter, and was covering the ground with loam that he heated up using a strange system of channels. And that on the night when the latter chased them from the garden, after she and Nathanael were asleep, their mother appeared, very late, with the news of their father's death. Klara now understood why Nathanael shouted out in shock that it was his fault and that the Sandman had killed their father.
Nathanael is the only character who appears in the film reading his letter. In the first loop the sound and the movement of the lips are initially desynchronized, that is, whilst the image of Nathanael is situated in the present his lips are ahead in relation to his own voice situated in the past. As the figure of Nathanael crosses the middle of the screen and the seam that separates the two times passes over his lips, the latter, which were ahead in relation to the sound, a re now synchronized and the image of Nathanael reading his letter is transposed into the past. The desynchronizing of his voice gives rise to another, memorial and intimate space, provoked by the visible presence of two times on the same screen. This introspective dimension is stressed with the fact of the voices of Lothar and Klara being only audible over the setting of the Schrebergarten. At a certain moment in which the desertion of the voice of the protagonist gave way to the reasons explained for his disturbance, through the voices of the other narrators, Coppelius the gardener/ Sandman appears further off, as a figure constantly digging in his garden, and will coincide on both projections, in the past or in the present, as if he were a double or a threatening omnipresence of Nathanael's memory. In the second loop, which repeats the first, the positions of the present and of the past are exchanged, and Nathanael appears in the past reading his letter with his lips in synchrony with the sound. As he crosses the seam and his image occupies the left side of the screen, in the present, his lips are ahead in relation to the voice that remains in the past recalling an episode which is thus affirmed as a persistence. Nathanael's irresolvable conflict with his memory is significant. The spatial doubling implied in the double projection finds its confirmation within the intrigue of the voices. "What matter who's speaking, someone said, what matter who's speaking" said Samuel Beckett. As we can understand, the rotational movements of the camera do not resolve each other, but rather continuously confront each other, the whole scene refers back to a permanence in which the objects from the Schrebergarten, the Sandman/ Coppelius, the historically updated figure of Nathanael himself or the whole 16mm black and white film, with its silent and sound ambivalence, seem to continuously emerge from their times. Their familiarity is declared in the subtle and complex web of relationships that they establish. They carry stories and references that may be related, yet at the same time they emerge from heterogeneous languages, which have strangely been agglomerated by the movement. The circular nature of the movement rejects any progression tending towards the resolution that would presuppose its final homogenizing. As Gilles Deleuze would state, "the movements are heterogeneous, irreducible between each other", thus there remains a uncanniness revealed in the proximity that articula es them.
Der Sandmann by Stan Douglas thus brings into cohabitation a diversity of languages that are irreducible between each other and which establish diverse discursive threads. The narrative of the tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann adapted according to the analysis made of it by Freud, the story of the German civic gardens in the history of Germany itself or the birth of a new artistic medium and the erasing of its local specificity by Hollywood sound film, to which interest American capital is not disconnected to the end of the UFA studios, all these narratives cross each other in this installation reflecting the historical nature of its languages. It is now important to understand them not as sources of a simulation, but as generating discursive formations within the course of the history of significations that the installation rearticulates.