A visually spectacular delve into the Gothic, Marie Alice Wolfszahn’s Seventies-set horror tale Mother Superior follows a young nurse, Sigrun (Isabella Händler), as she enters the service of the physically fragile but otherwise formidable Baroness Heidenreich (Inge Maux). Sigrun is keen to explore the Baroness’ remote stately home in search of documents which might reveal the secrets of her own past in an orphanage. The Baroness also has an ulterior motive, and a not very secret Nazi past. The two women’s complicated relationship plays out against a richly detailed backdrop of the antique and the arcane.
It’s a film which knows how to take its time, and so it’s a surprise to meet the director, who bubbles over with enthusiasm and does not give the impression of somebody who usually takes life slowly. She’s just back from a trip to Finland, excited about her film’s upcoming screening in the Frightfest strand of the Glasgow Film Festival, and keen to tell me how this small scale film with big ambitions came to be.
“The mystical aspect of the SS ideology is something that I've been researching for a really long time,” she begins. “I was always kind of fascinated because I'm Austrian so we grew up with this history. We learn a lot about the concentration camps and the different parts of the war and so on. But, in school, we don't really ever hear so much about the holy grail and all the crazy shit – the fantastical, kind of supernatural, bizarre occult stuff.
Mother Superior Photo: courtesy of Frightfest
“Once I kind of started to know a bit about this, I got really interested because, for me, when you understand the myth or the fiction or the grander schemes behind ideologies, I think it's easier to understand how people can get that far. I don't mean this as an excuse, by any means. It's just if you understand where somebody's coming from, what their imagination is, it's easier to follow the steps of the thought process. Ideally, you can start a conversation early on. Even with religion or something, if you're opening a little bit towards where people are coming from, you can find some grounds to talk to them. So that was the one thing that interested me.”
She began work on the script just before the first Covid lockdown, she tells me, and as the pandemic developed she noticed strange alliances developing between groups which she would not have thought had much in common.
“You’d have these alternative medicine left-wing groups suddenly agreeing with Trump. There was a lot of this left and right mixture. Teams that have no common ground, but they find common ground. I thought that was really confusing. We have this way of looking at stuff - this is good, this is bad, this is allowed, this is forbidden. So things like feminism, of course, we support and then anything racist we condemn. And suddenly you notice there's different things that come together where you’re like, ‘Wait, this part I agree with and this part is so horrible - how did this come together?’
“I found these early feminists involved with the Nazis and I was very confused as to how this can go together because anybody who was into this sort of ideology back then would think that woman would only be good enough for giving birth to more soldier babies. I was really kind of fascinated in how these sort of directions or ideas can have some mutual grounds. So I'd been very fascinated with these parts of history that are not that much spoken about, plus we have a kind of similar thing happening right now, this weird mixture of left and right. So I think this is the right time to pick this up and dig deeper.”
In the film, Sigrun finds it strange that there's this feminist element in the Baroness – it's something that she doesn't expect.
“Exactly. I guess it's a system where the roles are so predefined and a strong female leader is not something you would expect.”
But it seems to put her in a different kind of vulnerable position, I suggest, where initially we think she’s going to be a victim of somebody with dangerous ideas, and then we wonder if she’s vulnerable to absorbing those ideas herself.
“That's exactly the point. I think it's really good to understand how easy it is to be manipulated, to be confused, and possibly fall into the trap. It's basically just to remind us of the danger. Sometimes ideas that we’re drawn to can walk hand in hand with ideologies that are just absolutely shocking and terrible. I think it's good to be aware of that.”
And then there's this other story in the background, the story of the war orphans and people with lost records.
Inge Maux and Isabella Händler as the Baroness and Sigrun
“This was the crazy part. I knew quite a bit about that before. There's really some really sad documentaries about people who were born in these Lebensborn homes, who don't know who they are. Sometimes the fathers were big SS officers who would have an affair with some beautiful young lady, and who would be married or whatever. And basically they found it very practical, just to put them in this home where it was all secrets, and nobody would find out. These ladies would be unmarried, single, poor, possibly, or would also fear the shame of having a baby without a father. They would go there and give birth to their children.
“The whole idea behind this was really to produce perfect Aryan babies. I wouldn't call it a breeding plan or anything that dramatic, but even until the last days of the war, these mothers and children would get decent food and be really taken care of because the idea was that these babies will eventually become soldiers. There's some really sad stories where the local people would vaguely know about these homes. For example, there were some in Norway even. Maybe it was some Norwegian beautiful girl who got pregnant or was kind of put there and her village would know that she's there, that she has food and has warmth, and they were all super hungry, so they would project all their hate against them.
“When the war was over these single mothers, sometimes still with their children, would be beaten to death, or at least really bullied by the locals because they would be so envious that they were taken care of. They would get called ‘Nazi whores’ and that was really hard for the mothers as well as for the children. It’s a very strange history.”
It makes for an interesting story, which is pretty much driven by the female characters. And there's a suggestion at one point that one of them might be rescued by another male character, but it doesn't work out as he expects. Was that about turning around the way these stories go?
“I definitely wanted him to be nice, but a kind of macho type,” she says. “So he's pretty full of himself and Sigrun is a very independent woman. At that point, she's also already too much influenced. She's not buying his, like, ‘I'm going to take care of you, baby.’
So what’s the story behind the amazing house where it’s set?
“I always say it's almost like the lead character,” she smiles. “I'm very lucky. This belongs to friends of mine. Not only was I lucky to have access, I also was so lucky to be the first one who was allowed to change stuff in there. We changed it for the shoot, we cleaned it a lot. There was piles and piles of bat shit everywhere, rather gross, there was a whole colony living there. We dug out stuff from the mouldy basement and so on. I’m definitely very obsessive when it comes to details, not to think only of the shot – I want to build that reality. Even some details on some of the documents that's so small print you will never read it, I knew it had to be accurate because I knew that maybe my actor was reading it at that moment and feels like it's real.
“Even the real history of that house worked well, because apparently it belonged to some wealthy family and apparently, they were a little bit Jewish or something, or at least not against the system entirely. Somebody tried to get that house from them, and we found these crazy documents from a lawyer who was documenting a conversation. They accused the former owner – I mean, this is turn of the century stuff – they accused him of having gone mad and having spoken about seeing the Devil and all this stuff. All because they wanted to prove that he belonged in an asylum, to get access to the house.”
Deep inside the house
I tell her that I love the sound design in the film as well, referencing a scene when Sigrun finds the Baroness’ companion chopping vegetables, and the howling of wolves outside which adds to the sense of Sigrun being trapped in the house.
“I never thought of the danger of the wolf,” she says. “I wanted this to be the sort of remote place where you feel like it's not so easy to get to and it's not so easy to get from. There's a lot of on set sounds in there, either we recorded it during the scene or afterwards we'd be like, ‘Okay, chop some more carrots now.’ We only used a little bit of Foley stuff. Ideally, you have the authentic sounds already recorded. I always wanted to feel that this house is alive, not in a ghostly sense, but you know how it is when you walk through an old house and it has these sounds and creaks. It’s like a character, so that was definitely important for me.”
I ask about casting. It’s Isabella Händler’s first film, isn’t it?
“It's her first real film. She's worked on a series of short films my DoP was shooting. In one short film she would be the main character and then the other ones she would be in supporting roles. So she had a little bit of shooting experience, but definitely not being a lead. She's doing a lot of theatre stuff, more performance stuff. She's was hungry to move more towards dialogue and things like that. It was her first real film and my first real film.”
What made this feel like the right time to move on from making shorts?
“I did a couple of shorts and then the long project I was working on for a while was a big documentary, but unfortunately it did never really finish because it's mostly shot in Russia, dealing with the Soviet Union. It's very complicated. We'll see, it's sleeping at the moment.
“To be honest, when I started on Mother Superior, I didn't really know how long the film would be, it kind of grew. At first we were like, ‘We'll shoot some culty mystical stuff,’ and then it became longer. When we were in the middle of shooting, we thought this would be somewhere around 40 minutes. We thought it would be a long short film and that was the funding we got. Then we got to the editing suite and realised we made a short long film. It wasn't so much that we ever really looked at the length, and we're like, ‘Oh, we have to get there, or we have to chop something, or create more’ – we just kind of let the film flow, let the scenes flow.
“We had decided from early on that it should be rather slow paced. I really wanted this to breathe because in the past I have done a lot of stuff that was quite hectic and just didn't fit this film at all. The dream sequences were the most difficult thing to edit, because they became this gorgeous sort of music video, but it wasn't fitting in there, and then it became a bit too undreamy. We realised each dream also needs to convey a specific message, not just a feeling. That added up and then at some point, we were at about an hour. We realised it needs to be more dense now so I created Wilfried, who wasn’t in the first version.
“I'm always surprised to get picked and surprised to not get picked in some places. It's very difficult to feel who will react to your work.I was particularly happy that we got chosen for Glasgow because I studied in Edinburgh so I have a big love for Scotland.
“I’m happy to meet more of the film world of the UK. I studied there but I was never really working there. Ideally I'd love to work in the UK because I felt very much at home there. It feels a bit more fitting to my nature, my mentality, without being in any way negative towards Americans. I'm very happy that we get some good responses in Europe now because the first reaction was from the States.”
Mother Superior poster
We discuss her hopes for the future and an adaptation which she’s looking at making.
“It’s funny that now it seems like I'm a little bit put into the horror genre drawer,” sher says. “I can totally see myself in there but probably if you’d told me that two or three years ago, I wouldn't have expected it. I do watch a lot of horror films. I'm definitely into supernatural stuff. I've always been drawn to the sort of slightly classic vibe, to period films. Things that are a little bit dark and mystical, that's definitely my vibe.
“This book that the LA Agency sent me is a very kind of mythical feminist story, which I find really interesting. So I'm starting to find some kind of language, something to do with the female voice. Female voices that are not necessarily what you'd expect. So again, in this book, there's a mother goddess that turns up, who’s ambivalent. She’s not bad, but she’s also not good. I find that quite interesting.
“Somehow in a lot of films picking up on women in history, it's always the sort of heroine who's achieved something great while all the men around her didn't believe in her. I think it’s great to show that there were important women but I think it’s also important to show that there’s not a stereotype. There’s so many shades and there’s so many things to discover.”