Mother Superior


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mother Superior
"Mother Superior often puts style over substance, but that style is a real treat for fans of the Gothic." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

When discussing Nazis, we usually picture men. It’s men who made up most of those in uniform, men who fought in the trenches, ran the concentration camps and made the speeches – but behind many a bad man, there’s a bad woman. Women played their own role in the making of myths about racial purity, in supporting the movement financially, and, sometimes, in engaging with the occult traditions upon which it drew more heavily than its latter-day adherents like to admit. These weren’t merely meek women pandering to a patriarchal system. Some of them saw it as a source of power which they could exploit for their own ends.

The story in this film is set in the early 1970s, after the war was over but when the memory of it was still fresh in many people’s minds. It follows Sigrun (Isabella Händler), a young nurse who takes a job at a remote mansion caring for the physically fragile but nonetheless formidable Baroness Heidenreich (Inge Maux), whose only other companion is the mysterious, elderly Otto (Jochen Nickel). That they have an ulterior motive in taking in this young woman is something viewers will suspect straight away, if only because the horror genre has taught us to be wary of people who inhabit houses like this in the middle of forests where wolves howl all night, but as director Marie Alice Wolfszahn soon establishes, Sigrun has an ulterior motive too. She’s not a young thief picking on the wrong people – a trope we’ve seen quite a bit of recently – but someone who grew up in an orphanage, hoping to find documents which will tell her about her birth mother.

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Both of these women are smart and although they maintain their roles, cautious about what they give away, it’s clear that each harbours some suspicions about the other. Quite how much they know, and what the dangers related to that are, takes time to become clear. in the meantime, they give the appearance of having a remarkably civil relationship, with the Baroness happy to let Sigrun into some of her secrets, and to enthuse about her blond hair, her Valkyrie name, how well she encapsulates a racial ideal. Wilfried (Tim Werths), a young man whose fate we shall find hinted at in a footnote, enthuses about the possibilities offered by the files Sigrun discovers, but petitions her to leave with him or let him help her. He doesn’t realise what she’s made of.

Meandering, expansive and not always coherent, Mother Superior often puts style over substance, but that style is a real treat for fans of the Gothic. Aside from the crumbling elegance of the house itself, there is gorgeous costuming and furniture, a stunning outdoor setting, and all sorts of fascinating bits and pieces lying around indoors which contribute the aesthetic. A room full old laboratory equipment is a particular delight, and there are esoteric diagrams and obscure sigils all over the place – some obvious, others likely to be noticed only by students of the arcane. By night, Sigrun has haunting dreams of a stitched but still beating heart. The Baroness talks to her about the moon, about the spiritual primacy of women, and a species of feminism which thrived for a while in curious proximity to the extreme right.

There is fantastic sound work here. A simple scene in which Sigrun finds Otto chopping vegetables is full of texture and freshness, showing us that these are practical, well organised people, not the distant eccentrics they may have appeared to be. Outside, the sounds of the forest speak to the Baroness’ fascination with the natural order. There she speaks to Sigrun about the rune yr, a favourite of some members of the SS, a symbol of strength but also of unholy procreation and the culmination of a journey. One of these women is about to meet her end.

Screening as part of the Frightfest strand at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival, Mother Superior is a film whose narrative awkwardness will probably disappoint some viewers, but it’s full of secret pleasures and betokens good things for Wolfszahn’s future career.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2023
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1975, Rosenkreuz Manor. Sigrun Fink, desperate for information about her biological family, starts a new position as nurse to the aging, ill and eccentric Baroness Heidenreich. For a shared longing binds them together: the old lady’s memory contains the secret to Sigrun's true identity; the nurse’s lifeforce holds the key to the future for the Baroness.

Director: Marie Alice Wolfszahn

Writer: Marie Alice Wolfszahn

Starring: Isabella Händler, Inge Maux, Jochen Nickel

Year: 2022

Runtime: 71 minutes

Country: Austria

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