Ahead of the UK premiere of her stylishly brooding occult chiller, MOTHER SUPERIOR, at FrightFest Glasgow 2023, director Marie Alice Wolfszahn talks about being drawn to making a period horror film, multimedia influences and why returning to Scotland will be a homecoming.
MOTHER SUPERIOR is your debut feature. How did you decide that this was the film you wanted to make?
To be honest, I didn’t know Mother Superior was to become my feature debut when I first started the project – we were planning for a long short film. Over the course of the production the scenes grew bigger, the characters developed, everyone added their magic; and finally, in the editing suite, we realised we had made a short feature film. (We never tried to reach a certain length, we just let the story decide its own flow.)
I was drawn to making a period horror film dealing with a cult. I’ve been curious about faith and ideology for ages. The power of imagination fascinates me. Insofar, the connection between fascism and occultism is a theme that I have been researching for years. The existence of NS-devoted women’s movements was something new to me. So I decided to look deeper into this paradox.
Meanwhile Covid was raging and camps with conflicting positions teamed up - esoteric naturopaths who suddenly agreed with Trump; left-wing liberals who fell for ultranationalist conspiracy theories. I was baffled and confused and reflected on how naively we put labels on values - good/evil, permitted/forbidden, rational/odd - and how many combination possibilities there are in fact. So it felt like a fitting time to pick up on the subject of “brown esotericism” and, more generally, to raise awareness of the danger that despicable worldviews may walk hand in hand with appealing ideals.
How would you describe it?
It is a quest for self-discovery but on her journey, Sigrun is lead astray. Her desire to belong overrides her moral compass. She opens herself to an insidious, warped truth with gruesomely false ideals.
The ending may be interpreted however one prefers – most people, I assume, will read it as a supernatural phenomenon, a transmigration of the soul. This is what the signs are hinting at, and it is a genre film after all. Nevertheless, there is also a realistic interpretation: Sigrun may have been manipulated/brainwashed so much that she eventually follows the footsteps of the Baroness out of choice. This is even darker and where the warning is embedded.
When writing the script, did you always visualise it as a genre movie? Were there any particular influences in that area?
Yes, I definitely wanted this to be a genre film. Somehow, raw reality is not how my brain works. Our subjective perception creates its own fiction all the time. We are consumed by much more than the tangible here+now. To be able to portray the inner mind, to visualise the psychological projections of a character is such a fantastic way to bring across emotion, desire, fear.
Influences were 60s/70s horror films like Rosemary’s Baby and the old Suspiria but also the documentary Grey Gardens about Little and Big Edie.
You are also a multimedia artist. How did your background, particularly in art, influence the film?
I guess my art background shines through in my compulsive love for details. There is not a single prop or fleck of colour in each frame that I didn’t thoroughly think about. While creating all these old documents and indexes, we would not only consider the paper, ink and font, and authentically faking imperial eagle stamps (our paper bin started looking rather dubious) but also the small print such as the title of the issuing authority – aware that no one will ever see this. It disturbs me if things are a quick fix, no matter if they end up being in the far background, or even out of shot. Entering a set and fully immersing in a different era or realm makes it so much more real. For me, it is not just about telling a story but physically forging its entire world.
You deal with themes that you call fictional reality: faith, fanaticism and ideology – and also historical family disfunction. Were there any personal experiences that you brought to the writing or filming process?
There is no personal experience or family history that would explain my interest in the topics of my film. If anything, my heritage being Austrian and growing up with the horrors of the 2nd WW but learning hardly anything about the mythological backbone of the NS ideology which I think is so crucial in order to understand how such an insane worldview can take over.
As mentioned before, I’m highly fascinated by the power of imagination since I believe it influences all human motives. I always say we live in a grey zone between reality and fiction.
There is no objective truth as such - I don’t mean that there is ultimately no right or wrong but there is an explanation for every decision. Our values and worldviews depend on our upbringing, our influences. A person who stones a homosexual is terribly wrong but they are acting according to their personal truth. This is certainly not an excuse but the better we understand a narrative the easier it is to change it.
The performances are all exceptional. Take us through the key casting decisions. In particular, Isabella Händler as Sigrun.
My DoP had been working with Isabella Händler before, loved her energy and introduced us. We bonded immediately, did a reading rehearsal and that was that – she was my Sigrun. Isabella is of course a very different person in real life but she has that strong will, yet gentle spirit and untainted curiosity that I was looking for. We ended up shaping the character together over the course of several months and discussed every little possible backstory of Sigrun’s life.
The Baroness on the other hand was a longer search. I had a very fragile, petite lady in mind who refuses to eat but the actresses I cast were either too young for the role or too old for the challenging filming process. One day, a friend sent me Inge Maux’s demo reel. I had seen her in theatre plays before and thought her brilliant but hadn’t considered a corpulent Baroness. Slowly I began to fall in love with the idea and adapted the screenplay a little. Inge has Jewish roots, is often cast for Yiddish characters and adored the irony of playing a Nazi-Baroness. It was a perfect fit.
The film won Best Feature at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022. Has that put more pressure on you, do you think?
No. Receiving these amazing awards (Best Feature and Best Director in fact) I couldn’t believe my ears!. It was a confidence boost and a reassurance that the team, the cast and I did something right. This was my first time working with experienced actors and directing long dialogue scenes. I was asking myself before if I have enough to offer that helps them bring these characters to live. But I realised there are many approaches, mine is empathy and sensitivity to everyone’s needs, and openness to the input of others. We were a really strong team and everyone was in it for the project and not for the (tiny) cash. There was a certain magic on set that made us all go the extra mile. Still, I’m incredibly humbled for such a huge recognition.
You studied art in Edinburgh, so is FrightFest Glasgow a kind of homecoming for you?
Indeed, Scotland is a homecoming for me. My mother and I moved to Edinburgh when I was 15 and I went to school there for a year. Later on, I returned for my studies and graduated in Film at the ECA. I adore the wild nature and crazy weather, the gothic architecture with its overgrown graveyards and dark alleyways, the sinister folk stories and tragic song lyrics. Scotland has definitely left a strong impact and shaped me into who I am.
The ending to the film suggests we haven’t seen the last of Sigrun. Are there plans for a sequel?
Funnily enough, there are plans for a kind of prequel. During my research I stumbled again and again upon the grandmother of esotericism as we understand this expression today - a spiritual teacher of the 19th century called Madame Blavatsky. There are photographs of her in the Baroness’ chambers in Mother Superior. There’s no film about Helena Blavatsky even though she has paved the way for all New Age movements we can think of nowadays. Her teachings are very controversial and she wasn’t necessarily a genuine person but her life story is spectacular and her theories are omnipresent. I’m not sure if this will be a biopic or more fiction, knowing myself it will explore the supernatural either way.
2022 was a great year for the genre. What have been your outstanding film choices?
The Innocents by Eskil Vogt
Luzifer by Peter Brunner
Huesera by Michelle Garza Cervera
Blaze by Del Kathryn Barton
Moloch by Nico van den Brink
Something in the Dirt by Aaron Moorhead &Justin Benson
What’s next for you?
Apart from researching for the Madame Blavatsky film, I’m co-writing a Christmas folk horror with a wonderful US author called Elise Salomon. It picks up on the ancient myth of the Wild Hunt, an eerie procession of ghost riders in the winter skies. Again, there is a strong female character with rather ambivalent motives.
MOTHER SUPERIOR is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 10 March, 6.45pm, as part of FrightFest Glasgow 2023. Marie Alice will be attending.