August 2017: A group of White Nationalists gathered at the University of Virginia, carrying torches and chanting “You Will Not Replace Us.” This slogan within White Nationalist beliefs that speaks to the fear of the White race being replaced. This isn’t just an American White Nationalist issue (though it does date back to the emancipation of slaves) as it’s one which was a guiding principle of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. Then, it was known as the Völkisch movement, a notion that one’s blood, one’s purity, is not just connected to one’s race, but that all people should be connected via one race. While the Jewish people are the most commonly known victims of the Holocaust, other victims included Roama and Sinti, as well as gay, lesbian, and disabled individuals. This matters because another way to interpret the völkisch movement is not just as a shift toward one race of German Aryans, but of Aryans specifically, dating back to the Nordic people. It’s here that writer/director Marie Alice Wolfszahn finds her inspiration for a tale that’s deeply rooted within the chiller subgenre, weaponizing the quest for identity in Mother Superior (Mater Superior), which is having its International Premiere at the Brooklyn Horror film Festival.
Anesthesiologist-in-training Sigrun Fink (Isabella Händler) arrives at the estate of Baroness Heidenreich (Inge Maux) to serve as her nurse, treating her for Parkinson’s. From the moment they meet, there’s an instant sense of recognition, belying a connection neither is eager to speak of. For Sigrun, she’s afraid that she’ll lose an opportunity to discover information about her past she believes the Baroness possesses; while, for the Baroness, Sigrun represents an opportunity to finish the work she hopes to complete before her mind is completely gone.
From a look at Wolfszahn’s personal website, Crocodilopolis, Mother Superior is her first feature-length project, but not her first time in the director’s chair. Within a few minutes of watching the film, even if you didn’t look at her sight, her experience with the camera and storytelling is apparent. The opening sequence serves as both credits and foundation-setting, the camera panning across a desk with newspaper clippings, cassette tapes, and documents that provide a little insight into the world of the film and, on almost each one is the name and title of an individual who worked on the project. This does translate to a lot of information to take in (especially if German is not your native tongue) but Wolfszhan isn’t interested in wasting time, therefore her film doesn’t hold your hand. You either keep up or get out of the way. This isn’t just the opening. It’s the whole film which moves at a solid speed from start to finish, uninterested in whatever you think Mother Superior is about (which is a lot) and laser-focused on getting to the end.
The journey to the end, though, is richly-layered. This is a film which doesn’t just use World War II and Hitler’s documented fascination with the occult as a means to add creep factor. Being part of the Nazi machine isn’t what makes the Baroness a threat, it’s whether she’s willing to provide information to Sigrun, information about her past that will bring her future into focus. Setting the period as 1975 enables the film to utilize several things to set tone, mood, and general creep factor: the typical sense of the older crone as a threat where none appears, the isolation that comes from having only three people on a secluded estate, the very real number of children who were orphaned as a result of wartime action or timing, the uprising of women via second wave feminism, and many other minor elements which weave together a film that’s creepy for more reasons than just Nazis and the occult. Unlike other horror films where options of running away to safety are often disregarded or abandoned due to external forces, Sigrun’s whole reason for coming to the estate is due to her quest for answers, answers which may or may not come at a cost. With all of these elements in the air, the audience understands why Sigrun’s motivation keeps her in the Baroness’s orbit despite all the evidence pointing to safety elsewhere.
What’s particularly interesting about Mother Superior is the gorgeous cinematography from Gabriel Krajanek (Family Dinner). The composition of Krajanek’s shots are truly stunning, a warmth present in shots which might be expected to be cold within the interior of such a dilapidated estate, blending nicely with both the lush green of nature accompanying Sigrun’s arrival and the later crisp white of snow after the seasons pass. The cinematography is a key ingredient for Mother Superior from preventing it looking like any other indie-made horror film, giving it a beauty that belies the danger within. Given that so much of the narrative is a strange play on a cat-and-mouse game, one would expect a lack of beauty within the walls, which is perhaps why some of the concept and narrative approaches actually remind quite a bit of Daria Argento’s Suspiria (1977), a beautiful looking film from which many a horror take place that also dabbles in the occult. Mother Superior isn’t as vibrant, as hyperreal in some instances, as Suspiria, but then the intent doesn’t appear to be to push the envelope of what is real or not, preferring instead to keep things grounded.
This sense of grounding does, at times, come into conflict with the rules set forth by the film. Like in any good chiller, our persistent protagonist goes where she’s directed not to, poking about in places where, if she were found, would result in her termination. Yet Wolfszahn quickly dispenses with any kind of tension in this regard as Sigrun goes to these places almost immediately. It’s a smart upending of expectation for the audience, yet there’s a sense that the Baroness and her right-hand, Otto (Jochen Nickel), would notice this almost as rapidly. Of course, this could all be explained within the text for a reason that won’t be explored here and, if my intuition is correct, it’s not as much of a perceived plot hole as intentional. Not only does it speak to Sigrun’s high-level of desperation for the truth, it provides a method for the Baroness to gauge what Sigrun does and doesn’t know. Especially as the film utilizes völkisch occultism as a means of generating disquiet and terror for both Sigrun and the audience, the idea that what we see is subterfuge feels like a strong guess. If correct, Wolfszahn demonstrates a creative mind capable of doing what all the create storytellers (especially in horror) understand: wherever one feels safest is where they are truly in danger.
Given its short runtime (1:10:26 with credits), there’s no fat to the whole of Mother Superior. Wolfszahn runs a tight narrative, setting stakes and undercurrent themes quickly, establishing who should be trusted (or not) immediately, and using smart, natural character interactions in the place of needless exposition. While it’s not as riveting as one might hope with so many strong pieces at work, the execution of the concept presents a strong calling-card for a talented creative.
Screening during the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.