Reely understanding the ‘Suspiria’ remake

Images courtesy Amazon Studios.

The 2018 Suspiria remake is a daunting masterpiece of queer and anti-fascist cinema that demands to be understood on its own terms. I’ve ‘splained this movie enough times during quarantine, or tried to, that I think it’s time to put a reference article together.

The German Autumn

Dario Argento’s original Suspiria is set in Freiburg, Germany, a large university town on the western edge of the Black Forest, which legend tells is the inspiration for many fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. The setting was meant to reinforce it as a twist on the Snow White story, which is all it really is, and it’s not set in any particular time period – in fact, it’s deliberately anachronistic – 1977 is just the year it came out.

Luca Guadagnino’s remake, in what is its biggest departure from the original, is welded to its setting from its very first words – “Six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin.” The movie runs from Sept. 5 to Oct. 18, 1977 in West Berlin during a period of acute civil unrest called the German Autumn. This was the most active period of the Red Army Faction, an anti-fascist terrorist organization concerned with rooting former Nazis out of the current German government. These were college students in the mid ‘60s, the first post-war German generation, who had been raised with their parents making every negative comparison to the Third Reich, but saw known or suspected Nazis in positions of power everywhere they looked. They concluded the only option was to burn everything down.

In 1972, they engaged in several bombings protesting the U.S.’ involvement in Vietnam, killing a total of four and injuring a total of 54, but spent most of the next five years doing kidnappings to negotiate the release of their own members. Their activity climaxed in 1977.

The exact dates for the film come from two news items specified in the background. The day Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin coincides with the RAF kidnapping of Hans Martin Schleyer, who was president of both the German Employers’ Association and the Federation of German Industries. Schleyer was also a second lieutenant in the SS. He’d spent time as a Hitler Youth and was an on-campus Nazi leader before he left his fraternity for refusing to exclude Jews. He joined the Nazi party in 1937 and served on the Western Front until 1943, when he was discharged and sent to preside over more student bodies in Nazi-occupied Prague. He was held prisoner by the Allies for three years, but was allowed to repatriate in 1948 and rose to industrial power from there. His status as both a Nazi and a high-level executive made him a ripe target for the RAF, who kidnapped him Sept. 5 and demanded an exchange for its own imprisoned members.

The night of the Markos Dance Company’s final performance of Volk, and the subsequent black sabbath, coincides with Schleyer’s murder Oct. 18. After the West German government refused to negotiate with the kidnappers, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a politically adjacent Palestinian terrorist group fighting against Israeli occupation, escalated things by hijacking Lufthansa Flight 181 and demanded the release of these same prisoners, but the plane was stormed with only one crew member and no passengers killed  – this was on Oct. 13. Five days later, the RAF prisoners were found dead in their cells in an apparent suicide pact, and the RAF informed authorities they would find Schleyer’s body in the trunk of an Audi outside Brussels.

Despite strict rules in Germany against honoring the Nazi party, Schleyer is honored in Germany, with a foundation and arena named after him.

Suspiria

The Suspiria remake is steeped in Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is the German term for coming to terms with its traumatic recent history. This was a political process, but also an artistic movement — like the RAF, less radical German artists in the late ‘60s and ‘70s were also coming to terms with the fact that their parents were actual Nazis.

The Soviet Union was much harsher with former Nazis in Germany than the Allies were, interning more than 100,000 in what would become the Gulag system. It’s no coincidence that the student who publicly accuses the matrons of witchcraft, and is then brutally dismembered in the film’s most disturbing sequence, is Russian.

In the film, therapist Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, credited as Lutz Ebersdorf), a throwaway character in the original, sees his role greatly expanded. Klemperer’s wife went missing during the war, and 35 years later, he remains wracked with survivor’s guilt. Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) confides in him about the dark nature of the Markos Dance Company, but does not believe her. He investigates over the course of the film and is eventually forced to witness their sabbath. His wife Anke, who is revealed to have been murdered at the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia, appears before him as an illusion to lead him to the dance company. She is played by Jessica Harper, who played Bannion in the original film.

The left-turn focus on Klemperer in the remake of a movie that is celebrated partially because it focuses exclusively on women was a turnoff to some, but Suspiria is not just a remake of the original. It is a presentation of what watching the original must have been like in 1977 Germany. Klemperer, like the viewers in that time and place, is a tired old man worried about the RAF and struggling with his culpability in the Holocaust, and then, suddenly, he’s witness to a horrifying coven of cannibal witches.

This is why I am so fascinated and absorbed with Suspiria. It’s not just an expansion on or improvement of the original – fans of the original would debate if it even is those things. Instead, it’s a movie about the impact and context of the original.

Tilda Swinton’s triple roles

Swinton was cast as Klemperer because, Guadagnino said, he wanted to maintain a feminine energy in the film even when there wasn’t a woman character onscreen, so he cast a woman in the only major male role – the only other men in the movie are some cops who are little more than extras.

Rather than simply provide that feminine energy, Swinton got entirely too into it, creating an 82-year-old actor character named Lutz Ebersdorf and insisting that Ebersdorf was playing Klemperer and that she was playing Ebersdorf. In addition to four hours of makeup to add 25 years to her face, she had a prosthetic cock and balls commissioned for the part and wore them in every scene as Klemperer because she wanted to feel the weight between her legs. Despite it being an open secret, Swinton and Guadagnino stubbornly kept up the ruse deep into Suspiria’s release cycle, even writing a biography for Ebersdorf and a letter explaining why he couldn’t attend the Venice Film Festival premier.

Klemperer is one of three roles Swinton plays in the film. Her primary role, or at least the only role where she isn’t covered in plastic, is as Madame Blanc, the company’s world-famous director and leader of the coven’s rituals, and she appears for a third time as Helena Markos, again in heavy prosthetics.

While I initially took this triple role as Swinton having too much fun, I am now convinced that it is central to the movie’s overall message.

Using the same actor to play Blanc, Klemperer and Markos implies that they are on some level the same person. Markos is the totalitarian leader of the coven, and Klemperer is a witness, both to the Holocaust 35 years earlier and again to the witches’ sabbath at the climax of the film – these events are tied directly together in the dialogue. Klemperer is told that he is being forced to witness this sabbath as punishment for letting the Nazis abduct his wife. As he takes in the nightmare around him, he pleads, “Are there guilty men in Berlin? Everywhere! But I am not one of them!”

The Markos’ company’s central performance, “Volk,” is a reference to the Nazi tagline “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer” and was explicitly choreographed in response to the conditions of World War II. It is stated that the Oct. 18 performance will be the company’s last as they symbolically move on from the Nazis completely on this night. That process turns out to be much more involved than just a dance.

These two, the perpetrator and the bystander, are the two characters most directly concerned with the generational guilt at the center of Suspiria. When viewed from this angle, Blanc fits snugly between them as the executor of Markos’ evil will, a will with which she explicitly disagrees. If Markos is Hitler, then Blanc is the guilty woman in Berlin of whom Klemperer speaks.

Early in the film, the coven holds an election for a position that appears to be one of absolute authority, with Blanc narrowly losing to Markos. Their disagreements are never made fully clear – all that is clear is that Markos, in failing health, needs a new body to survive, and that Blanc disagrees with using one of the company’s dancers for this purpose.

But it is Blanc who organizes this use. She selects the best candidates. She grooms Bannion, as she did the other potential victims. She prepares and presides over the sabbath ritual.

Blanc, who is stated to have resisted the real Nazis 40 years earlier – “When the Reich wanted women to shut off their minds and keep their uteruses open, there was Blanc” — has become the ultimate bystander, the witch who would justify that she was was simply following the will of the majority, but was clearly capable of taking control of the situation at any point and did not. She is the bridge between the fascist leader and the bystander who should have done something – she is the bystander who could have done something, who is doing something, and that something is the will of her leader.

Witchcraft as facism

The matrons in Suspiria are obviously metaphorical stand-ins for the Nazi party. That metaphor is very thin – the only things the coven has in common with the Nazis is a basic abuse of power, preying on the students they are supposed to be protecting and teaching. But when you understand that they are not the Nazis themselves as much as they are former Nazis inexplicably still in power in 1977, things start to make sense.

Suspiria shares an obvious kinship with several recent films like The Witch and Hereditary. There’s several commonalities, but the one that really ties them together is their use of witchcraft – witchcraft in the traditional sense, blood magic, magic that consumes human flesh as a reagent. In Hebrew mythology, in which all of these films are steeped, humans were made in God’s own image. Witchcraft, then, becomes a profoundly profane act, sacrificing the first gift God gave us, our bodies, for power he did not give us.

But the witches in these films do not sacrifice anything. They take. They kidnap and hypnotize and mutilate other unrelated unknowing people for their own ends, treating human flesh as currency. But where flesh is traded for immortality in The Witch and for forbidden knowledge in Hereditary, in Suspiria, these abuses are taken with disturbing frivolity.

The coven is shown to view its students not as whole human beings, but as component parts to be broken down and rearranged according to their whim. They groom Bannion into a more perfect host for Markos, something that involves coaching her dancing – dancing is heavily involved in their rituals, which makes sense – but also stealing other dancer’s talents and transferring them to her.

In perhaps the most direct reference to the Nazis, the coven takes Sara Simms’ brown eyes and exchanges them into Bannion, who’s eyes change from blue to brown for the duration of the film. This calls back directly to Josef Mengele’s infamous experiments at Auschwitz, in which he tried to “cure” heterochromia by injecting dye into his victims’ irises.

In addition to grooming, which extends to aesthetic preferences like eye color, the coven is also shown to use its power for pretty revenge, most notably in the brutal dismemberment of Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina). It is also heavily implied that the coven is using its students’ bodies in other ways, both sexual and as ritual participants. The witches’ ability to wipe memories is central to the movie’s plot, and many students who participate in the sabbath ritual under hypnosis write it off as a terrible dream, things so common within the company they are referred to as “Markos company specials.” From this, we can infer that their bodies, devoid of consciousness, are used frequently by the matrons – the extent of the abuse here is potentially limitless.

This is where the witchcraft of these films and fascism intersect, not with any traditionally fascist hallmarks like establishing an underclass or the centralized power structure – though these things do appear to exist in Suspiria – but through the view of human life and human flesh as a commodity, as coal for an engine that runs only for the ruling class.

Every matron is guilty in this. Every ritual and gathering we see in the film involves all of them, both the followers of Markos and the matrons who think she should be deposed. The coven is explicitly made up of witches who do not believe in the evil that they are doing and who know their leader does not belong in power, but continue to serve her regardless.

And even after the night of the sabbath, when everyone who voted for Markos is killed, you can see people who participated in Markos’ reign in positions of power everywhere you look.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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