Imagine, if you will, a time of danger and chaos. It’s not terribly difficult here in early 2019 to do if you are even moderately Online, but imagine with some specificity that the United States Secretary of Agriculture, a man who was a member of the Klan in the not-distant-past, but doesn’t regret anything he and those boys got up to, is kidnapped. And let’s say the government has decided they definitely will not negotiate with terrorists (anymore) and won’t be releasing any political prisoners/terrorists like the terrorist kidnappers want. 40 days and nights this drama unfolds, with protests and counter protests and the kidnappers almost getting caught. And then, as if that weren’t enough, a commercial airliner is taken hostage in solidarity with the goals of the terrorist kidnappers but by different terrorist kidnappers who also demand the release of the same political prisoners and over the following days take a tour of airports in, I don’t know, the Middle East taking on just enough fuel to get somewhere else but never quite managing to get away. Then, at one of the stops in Africa, a US special forces take out the one set of terrorist kidnappers, after which a bunch of those same political prisoners die in custody, and then the first terrorist kidnappers (who are technically the second) just murder SecAg. That’s insane, right? That’s a thriller you can barely justify the plot of if you dared to pitch it at all (please don’t pitch that movie #TooSoon).
Except . . . that basically did happen in Germany in 1977. The German Autumn, as those ~40 days are known began with the remains of the Red Army Faction kidnapping Hanns Martin Schleyer, a former SS officer, high up in the West German government, a man who never showed much regret for his past and culminated with the storming of the Landshut (Lufthansa Flight 181) in Mogadishu, which triggered the deaths of several founding members of the Red Army Faction (still debated whether those deaths were by suicide or by cop), and the execution of Schleyer, which lost the RAF pretty much any and all public sympathy it ever had (which was considerable, so that was a big effin’ deal™).
That insanely turbulent time is a conspicuous part of the background of Luca Guadagnino’s version of Suspiria, a horror film about a dance troupe in Berlin who also happen to be a coven of witches. I think Guadagnino wants to take us back to 1977, at least as much as he wants to remake a 1977 film, and that he is just as concerned with the horrors of history, and the present, as the horrors perpetrated by these witches.
Suspiria opens with an American dancer, Patricia (played by Chloe-Grace Moretz) furtively going to a German psychotherapist, Doctor Josef Klemperer (played by, I think I can safely say this now, as we are in Spoilertown, Jake . . . Tilda Swinton), who she has evidently seen before. She seems desperate and urgent, in dire need of escaping from, well, witches. Klemperer, naturally enough, thinks that the witches’ conspiracy she described for him is an elaborate form of sublimation of the actual tensions and very human machinations of her life among the artists. We know as an audience that this is dead wrong (unless you somehow didn’t know going in that this was a remake of a famous witch movie, always possible) and things will go very poorly (in a visually stunning way).
In some ways, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is two movies running almost parallel for most of the film. David Kajganich’s screenplay and Guadagnino’s create a complex interplay between Dr. Klemperer, who is in possession of Patricia’s copious notes on the witches and their every shifting power dynamic, and the things that her new best friend Sara (played with impressive depth and range by Mia Goth) does, which ultimately gets both of them in profoundly deep trouble. The path to that trouble though involves spending more time with Klemperer on his own in divided Berlin than is strictly necessary for us to understand what’s up with Patricia and those dancer/maybe witches. For example, he spends quite some time contemplating the loss of his wife, who disappeared at the end of World War II, in his East German Kleingarten (a tradition without parallel in America, but significant in Germany — many families own a tiny parcels of common areas with a little hut and a wee garden). Klemperer as a character occupies several spaces a country mile outside of the dance studio in Berlin, BUT they often explicitly connect us with the German past and the tumultuous state of that German present in ways that are quite detailed, such as the protest banners in his Innenhof that equate the cops with fascists.
Klemperer is old enough to struggle to reconcile what he did or did not do (and we never quite learn specifics — enhancing the generality of his questions of conscience) during the war, you know the one with all the ethnic cleansing, no the big one, yeah, that one. He does it in the characteristically stoic way that made his generation infamous in Germany. The silence of the generation that survived the war absolutely infuriated their children and the presence of barely apologetic high ranking former soldiers and Nazis in positions of power in West Germany and Austria (and, uh, the UN) was unfortunately common (an easy source of propaganda victories for the East Germans who didn’t find violent racists in the Communist east often by studiously avoiding looking). If you think Millenials are disgusted with Boomers, check out the rage of the 1968 generation. The long standing public sympathy for the Red Army Faction, which evaporated with Schleyer’s execution, comes from its explicitly anti-fascist mission of the RAF (obviously that’s contested ground by the folks accused of being fascists). This is what Klemperer’s storyline is ultimately about: generational guilt and the universality of the trauma and exhaustion that results from being influenced and surrounded by evil.
I can hear y’all screaming. “Erin!,” you cry, “This is a movie about fucking witches. What’s all this history nonsense, talk to me about WITCHES and BLOOD and SPECTACLE, ffs.”
Ok, ok, ok. The other, ok the main, plot of Suspiria involves the arrival of another American dancer, Susie Bannion (another very good performance from Dakota Johnson), who arrives very conveniently the day after Patricia, either the victim of an awful ritual or a foolish young girl who got lost in terrorist plots aligned with the Red Army Faction (I didn’t waste your time, I promise), has disappeared. Susie’s awe of Madame Blanc (that would be the role Tilda Swinton is actually credited with and plays with graceful aplomb) and evidently intense desire to be a part of this troupe earns her an audition, which she nails and now we are off to the races. Susie burrows her way into troupe. Sara is her first contact with any of the dancers and so she tries to join Sara in finding out what happened to Patricia.
My day job is in theatre, opera, and dance. Not as much dance as I would like and I would not call myself an expert, but I have spent a lot of time with ballet companies and worked on a lot of showcases for modern dance and I have to say that I was very impressed by the authenticity of the rehearsal process, the quality of the movements developed by all of the actors, and the overall choreography of a film that seems very aware of a particular type of dance tradition in Germany (I know the barest amount of that tradition, mostly thanks to Wim Wender’s documentary about Pina Bausch). The choreography, credited to Damien Jalet (whose non-film credits are extraordinary), is earthy, vivid, and organic, perfectly suited to the Guadagnino’s version of these witches.
The witches themselves are ancient and speak often of the past and Madame Blanc is very clear that some of the most vibrant and important work the troupe did right after the war was in resisting the smug maleness of the violent fascists, as she offers an explanation for performing a particular dance, she essentially answers the unspoken question of “Why this dance, now?” (though at this point, we should understand that the performance of this dance has a secret, much purpose). That piece is called “Volk” and well holy shit is that a loaded term. “Volk” can be roughly translated as “people,” though in politics it is more like The People. Volkswagen is the People’s Car, for example, which is . . . not innocent, even if rinsed through years of camper vans, “Da da da,” and Fahrvergnügen it’s possible you managed to forget that Volkswagen was founded by Robert Ley, a Nazi war criminal, at Hitler’s behest. In the mouths of Nazis, fascists, and chauvinist nationalists, “Volk” (substitute expression appropriate to whatever language/culture combo applies) refers to a group of people bound by blood. “Volk,” and the adjective “völkisch” or “volkstümlich” were used by the Nazis to claim people and activities in the German past via a created (and false) mythology. Kagjanich and Guadagnino do not make you work very hard to make that connection in Suspiria: Dr Klemperer talks about the iconography of the Nazis as created mythology, a kind of shared mass delusion, in a meeting with Sara at his office. Nazis appropriated folk traditions, leather goods and gymnastics (loooooong story) and fairy tales, in an effort to make the old things, the “German things,” feel like Nazi things. What are these witches up to?
Guadagnino gives you plenty of reasons to worry about these witches. I mean, we have every reason to believe that they killed or tortured Patricia even before we find out that, yep, they tortured her. We witness with our own eyes what Susie does to Olga, a friend of Patricia’s who tries to leave the troupe. At first, we aren’t sure if Susie knows that her expressive movement is causing someone grievous bodily harm, though the movie definitely wants us to be less and less sure of that as story goes on. And we see the witches wield extremely wicked looking hooks while disposing of Olga’s shattered body among other nefarious activities. The witches seem like another existential threat along with the terrorists and the police out in the real world.
But, but, but, but . . .
Guadagnino quite clearly repudiates the völkisch fascist hype with the mythology of the witches, which reminds me of what CS Lewis might call old magic. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are also excellent examples, both excavate old stories and ancient rituals in order to remove the polite, musty, moralizing varnish such tales acquired over the years in various culture wars. The restore some of the wonder and terror the stories originally inspired. The Three Mothers the witches talk about and in whose name the use these ancient powers are Suspiriorum, Tenebraum, and Lachrymarum — Sighs, Darkness, and Tears, are part of a mythology that Dario Argento invented, but it feels like a similar project: the excavation and reclamation of “Volk” tales (they are Märchen in German, I know, don’t at me). In all instances, Pratchett, Gaiman, Argento, and Guadagnino, seek to shorten our distance from the origins of these stories and in the process help us get closer to the moral ambiguity and dramatic tension those stories seemed intended to inspire. In this reading, the witches aren’t aren’t evil, necessarily, or inherently, but, uh, not everything they do is particularly good for non-witches, which can look and feel like evil from the outside.
Guadagnino is not content for us to remain on the outside though: his film is a journey from outside the troupe, where we fear the obvious power and brutality of the witches to inside, where we begin to identify which of the witches (#SorryNotSorry) is far more willing to cruelly inflict pain than the others, a tense, dramatic, and occasionally traumatic experience. We know factions exist right away because a vote is taken near the beginning of the film that affirms someone named Mother Markos (who we don’t see for some time) as leader of the coven over Madame Blanc; it is only later that we begin to understand what each side of that vote wants. Despite knowing the brutality that Blanc is capable of — Blanc 100% knew what what Susie’s dance did to Olga, she made it possible for to Susie do it even — Blanc becomes increasingly more sympathetic as we get more and more acquainted with the witches and what Susie is capable of.
The phantasmagoric and gory center of this film is the ritual, a sacrificial act whose contours we are given slowly throughout the film. Madame Blanc’s grooming of Susie seems originally intended to make her suitable to participate in the ritual. As Blanc and Susie’s relationship develops, Madame Blanc comes to dread submitting Susie to the ritual. At one point, Madame Blanc sits with Susie in her bedroom, trying to console her, but Susie completely turns the tables on Blanc with a simple question “Why is everybody so ready to think the worst is over?” This is a disturbingly prescient sentiment from Susie, who has not been told the details of the ritual, but it is also, from my seat in the audience, disturbingly not about whatever the witches have planned for Susie. It’s not hard to see and feel, the modern echoes of that sentiment and to conclude that the filmmakers want us to be scared of things that are far more real that witches. Guadagnino and Kajganich create many multi-faceted connections between our world and Suspiria and October 1977 and the Holocaust and the world engulfed in war. For all of our concern for how bad things look right now, which is considerable, history has much to tell us of how much worse it can get. Suspiria puts in perspective the possible journeys ahead of us and many of those journeys are very, very bad and many of them HAVE ALREADY HAPPENED. Suspiria is a film embedded in the history of “the worst” and it is not witches torturing dancers for eternal youth.
I’m going to talk about the details of the ritual a bit now, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that I am spoiling this scene, which is, to say the least, I mean the bare ass minimum, an intense sonic and visual experience. The few plot and thematic details I’m about to touch don’t on even come close to doing it justice. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you, etc, etc, etc.
The ritual is, at its root a sacrifice of a carefully selected victim, a selection process that has gone awry several times before Susie’s arrival. When the ritual is about to begin we learn the specific stakes that Markos and Madame Blanc are willing to commit to as well as the intended purpose of the ritual, which reveals Markos’ power mongering in its grubby entirety including her utter disdain for dance as a thing unto itself. Blanc loves dance, cherishes it as part and parcel of their work in the coven. Markos, who is hideous, her form completely covered in sores and abscesses, does not relate to beauty in that way any longer and wants only to resume the position of power she held when she was beautiful. She believes that murdering Susie in the ritual will enable that and so when Blanc hesitates at the last, not convinced of that necessity, Markos, lost in the tantalizing closeness of a return to power slashes Blanc’s throat. And then she turns to Susie and administers a blood oath: “Death to other mothers.”
But it turns out that Susie, who we learn was cast out of her Mennonite house for being born of the devil, something we were meant to think of as hyperbolic until right the fuck now, is well, actually that mother, Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. Markos had been claiming the power of the mother of sighs without consequence for so long that she took it for granted that the true mother was not out there or that she was entitled to that mantle anyway. Much to Markos’ chagrin and at the cost of her life, when the real Mother of Sighs presents herself and manifests her power, she obliterates all pretensions about her and all those who used her story and power for their own ends. Like, literally. Like I said, this scene is bonkers, you really do have to see it.
This last reveal of an unvarnished will to power, and its consequences, show that Madame Blanc’s spiritual understanding of dance as resistance was correct and connected to the anti-fascist work happening in Dr. Klemperer’s side of the film. The witch dance company’s public work is a repudiation of the pale, false stories the Nazis told about the Volk and a foreshadowing of the more private performance of power we get in the finale, where Madame Markos, the cynical pretender to power, is thoroughly defeated by the power she had abused. This, to me, is why Guadagnino needs these dancers to be witches, and vice-versa. They need to be grounded in the history of the body, the resistance of violence applied to female bodies in an attempt to remove their inherent, mystical power. The assertion of that power, literally and symbolically, is restorative. This cleansing ritual is a repudiation of the patriarchy and all those infected by repressive violence.
That might sound grandiose, but the final scene of this film is not some falling action from the ritual: it’s a scene between Mother Suspiriorum (Dakota Johnson plays her with such confident authority, it’s like she is literally a different person) gives Klemperer the gift of the probably true story about what happened to his wife (it’s plausible at least), a mystery that has taunted him since the war ended, just before bestowing on him an act of greater mercy given his part in the ritual: she wipes all memory of the coven, especially what they did, from him. “We need guilt and shame . . . but not yours.” The film ends in the modern world with a faded memento of the love shared by Klemperer and his wife in their Kleingarten, now enjoyed by other young lovers.
Now, putting on my reviewer hat while wearing my critic name tag, there are a lot of questions of how successfully Guadagnino executes all of these power moves, associating himself with the stylistic excess of horror as well as wrestling with the complex evocations of fascist history. For many reviewers and critics with a memory of Argento’s film, the answer is no, it’s not as successful a stylistic and sensory experience. I have not seen Argento’s film, so IDK. I think Guadagnino is doing so much cultural work, that he can’t make a movie ruthlessly dedicated to genre and style, and I think that’s totes ok, but . . . your mileage may vary. I find it compelling. I also have an MA in Germanic Studies and Berlin is my favorite city in the world. Suspiria is extremely my shit.
Guadagnino’s commentary on female power is certainly dull enough to call into question that notion that Suspiria is a feminist film, I would concede that point immediately and suggest it is not. The eruptions of colors and shapes associated with the female body in the lurid ritual are pretty standard, if like AMPED, for how dudes have represented feminine power rooted in female bodies for awhile. They were basic enough that I couldn’t help but wonder what this scene would have looked like, what Suspiria could have been, if it was by women, as well as about them.
There is something in the air out in the world today, where trauma and injustice are practiced so openly and globally, that makes horror a very effective genre for exploring the fractured, anxious state of us as humans in the world. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria explores the trauma of our world by embedding his fable in a historical past which holds terrifying prospects for our future, but he also doesn’t neglect the possibility that it could get better, that evil can be punished. It’s not clear that good won with all those witches in it who might not care if you survive. Best not to dwell on that part too much. It really is a beautiful Kleingarten.