In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(2004), a mind-bending moment occurs when Joel (Jim Carrey) tries and fails to turn his girlfriend’s new lover around to see his face. And in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us
(2019), the young Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) meets her doppelgänger
in a house of mirrors; when she turns and finds herself facing the back of her twin—a visual parallel to Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced
from 1937—the sight elicits immediate dread. In both situations, Rückenfigur amplifies a sense of unease.
Nowhere is Rückenfigur more suspensefully used than in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo
(1958). Kim Novak plays a tortured beauty who may be possessed by her late great-grandmother. A lovelorn detective, played by James Stewart, follows her as Hitchcock films his heroine from the back. In an eerie museum scene
, Novak gazes at a painted portrait of the ancestor whom she has been emulating through style and dress. The camera slowly skims every detail of her turned figure as Stewart stealthily studies her from behind. He desires her and knows he can’t reach her—just as Friedrich’s wanderer appears unable to cross the abyss in front of him.
These days, Rückenfigur is finding novel uses online. On Instagram, influencers use its mystique to gain fans: The turned back is especially prevalent, especially in front of open vistas in far-flung locations. Followers can imagine themselves in glamorous destinations, enjoying vicarious thrills. The account @followmeto is the most famous example, with photographer Murad Osmann and his model wife Nataly taking viewers around the world as he captures the back of her slim figure and outstretched arm. As he takes her hand, Murad becomes a surrogate for the viewer. Nearly half a million followers virtually join the pair on their journeys around the world, tapping into the same longing for the sublime that Friedrich harnessed more than two centuries earlier.