The Evil in Our Midst: Suspiria in 2018

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for Suspiria, though nothing too major, since I don’t think I really know what the hell happened. 

In the original Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 gore-filled, striking, visually magnificent, and essentially incoherent horror classic, evil lurked inside a dance academy in Frieburg, Germany. That is was a German city was possibly incidental; while the evil seemed a piece of the deep Germany of woods and witches and bloody soil, it didn’t seem particularly Germanic.

That’s because the evil in the movies was based on the idea of three mothers, three witches, three essential fates, of which Suspiria, or the Mother of Sighs, was one of them. It needed to be set somewhere primeval, but the evil was both inchoate and encompassing.

That isn’t the case in the new Suspiria, released this weekend. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and set in Berlin in the violent winter of 1977, it is strictly a movie placed in a specific time and a specific place. It’s West Berlin, surrounded and swallowed up by the East, hard up against a wall, and rocked by left-wing violence.

The essential plot is the same: young American travels to Germany to join a prestigious dance academy, in which lithesome and secretive young girls exchange glances while being watched over by sometimes strict, sometimes coddling, but always off-putting older women.

This isn’t a review of the movie; chances are, you don’t need me to tell you that things are not what they seem, or rather, they are exactly what they seem: super fucked up. This version is even more grotesque than the first, where magic brings hideous pain, rendered with bone-cracking panic on screen, fluid and grotesque. It’s filled with queasy horrors and gyesering red. It is not for the faint of heart.

Where it differs strongly from the original is the nature of the evil (and here are where there are mild spoilers, but they are of somewhat-clear interpretation, not of plot). The evil in the academy is that of Germany, of Berlin, or the ravaging horrors of Nazism, of the blood spilled in the name of a pipsqueak Moloch, of the violence underneath the German civilization.

It’s clear how deep this violence is, how pervasive the guilt. There are a character mourning a lost wife, who vanished in the chaos of the Russian counter-offensive and occupation of Germany. His guilt, his pain, is deeper than initially appears. Everyone is guilty. Everyone is ashamed.

But as in real life, not everyone is dealing with it. There are characters, clearly, who revel in the evil, or at least work with it and worship it. It was the same in the Germany at large, in the time the movie is set. The Red Army Faction, an arm of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, was taking hostages and assassinating politicians at the time, part of a violent international left that stretched from Northern Ireland to Palestine to Mogadishu to Europe to the United States.

And where did this violence come from? For the RAF and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, at least in part, it was the literal Nazis in German public life. They had been rehabilitated, and in the frim driving rain of the 70s, it seemed that fascism had still won. It was calmer, yes, and less ravenous, perhaps more staid and tweedish, with bigger collars rather than polished jackboots, but still there. It was oppressing the Third World, and oppressing the blacks in America, and eating up everything good and decent in the world.  It ravaged Vietnam and supported apartheid. It was cruelty, part and parcel of the cruelty that ruled Germany barely 30 years before.

One doesn’t need to condone the tactics or the over-arching goals of the RAF to appreciate their point, and saying that things were worse in East Germany (they were!) is missing the point. The point is that the evil underneath can’t stay underneath. It will always be there unless dealt with.

That’s true on both sides of the wall, which runs hard alongside the school. Walls are essentially a story-telling device for nations; they split up history and geography in an attempt to corral the narrative, to delineate the characters, and to place covers of the pages the powerful demand to be read. West Germany in the 70s didn’t want to talk about the Nazis; East Germany blamed the decadent West and capitalism for Hitler. Neither side dealt with the demons.

As Suspiria showed, you might not want to deal with demons, but brother, demons are going to deal with you. One of the movie’s most horrific moments for me (not really spoiler) is when a character who thinks he has found a measure of resolution is suddenly attacked by a witch, screaming about guilt while he moans about innocence, and he is dragged weeping and shame-wrecked to a hideous ceremony.

The question the movie asks is if the Mother of Sighs can present absolution. Is that the role of memory, or is it the role of forgetting?

Nations can’t forget. Nations can’t bury their demons and expect them not to burble up, come grabbling from the ground. As we move toward open white nationalism, as fascism roams our streets, and the streets of Brazil, as Germany fearfully eyes another election, we have to remember that these are not idle reckonings. This is understanding the ground beneath our feet. This is listening to the rumblings and strange cacklings in hidden rooms, the moaning from the graves we thought long-silent. They aren’t silent. The earth has opened up, disgorged them, and shown again that they were always welcome by so many people. We were always going to welcome it. It’s deep in our soil. It’s part of our heritage. It’s who we are.

Do I recommend the movie? Yeah, probably. Not for everyone. It’s truly horrific. But the soundtrack by Thom Yorke is fantastic, the acting is great (Tilda!), and the visuals are compelling. And the lesson? It’s one we all need to learn, as soon as this Tuesday.

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