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The Divided Berlin of “SUSPIRIA” (2018)

Friday, June 7, 2019 | Opinion

By: Owen Macleod

With each viewing of the new Suspiria, ambiguity is dismissed and deliberate intention emerges. At first sight, the story feels overwhelming in its minutia; focused on quiet whispers in cafes, cryptic conversations of revolution, and imagery that clarifies and belies simultaneously. Each decision, every step of the way, feels necessary to contextualize the end result. 

Despite its precision, reviews of the film were mixed at best. Frankly, most reviews skewed toward the negative end of the spectrum, with the harshest critiques levelled at the setting of “Divided Berlin” as pretentious, and even opportunistic. But repeated viewings (I’ve seen it five times now, I think) reveal the clear motivation for the stark difference in the importance of setting between remake and original.

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, a “cover” of Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, announces itself as “Six Acts and an Epilogue in Divided Berlin.” The new Suspiria echoes the original while telling an entirely different story. We open in the ubiquitous downpour of Suspiria new and old; Act One: 1977. Spoilers for Suspiria (2018) follow.

Free Baader!” cries a voice as Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) stands in the driving rain. “We Are Watching!” chants the crowd of protestors, “We Are Watching!” Patricia is a dancer at the Tanz Academy, a school run by the Helena Markos Dance Company. Patricia’s experiences at the Academy have been unusual, to say the least. She theorizes to Dr. Klemperer, her therapist, that the Matrons of the Academy form a coven of witches, and are using the young dance students to revive the leader of the coven, Mother Markos.

“They’ve been Underground since the War,” Patricia tells Dr. Klemperer. “Underground” not literally under the ground, but hiding from pursuing parties. “Underground” signifies extreme discretion in the context of Divided Berlin. But in the context of the Tanz Academy, “Underground” carries a different set of signifiers.

When Suzie Banion (Dakota Johnson) first arrives at the Tanz, she hears a few of the other dancers talking about Patricia’s disappearance. “You don’t think she had to go Underground, do you?” one of them says. “I don’t care what happened,” says Sara (Mia Goth). “I just want her to call. I’m really worried.” 

The women (rightfully) think Patricia has gone Underground in the context of Divided Berlin; into hiding. Little do they know, Patricia is just underneath their feet, underground in the Tanz Academy sense; a helpless body for Mother Markos to slowly feed on. Divided Berlin is the subtext driving the constant duality in Guadagnino’s Suspiria.

The Company is rehearsing a piece called “Volk”, conceived by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) in 1948. Here again, as throughout the film, there is a duality in the significance of language dependent on context. Defined by the University of South Florida’s Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust, “The concept of Volk (people, nation, or race) has been an underlying idea in German history since the early nineteenth century. Inherent in the name was a feeling of superiority of German culture and the idea of a universal mission for the German people.” 

Volk in Divided Berlin speaks to the ideology of the German Democratic Republic; their conviction in building the Berlin wall as a deterrent to fascism, and their spectral, self-assured sense of superiority. Volk at the Tanz Academy is something more like dedication; the dancers’ willingness to follow Madame Blanc blindly into the darkness of their abilities. “Welcome to our little family,’ Madame Blanc tells Suzie before her first rehearsal with the Company. The dancers will do anything for their mother. A framed needle-point in Suzie’s Ohio home, shown earlier in the film, reads, “A Mother is a woman who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take.”

“Divided Berlin” reflects the power struggle in the hierarchy of the Tanz. Dr. Klemperer explicitly says as much. At a Café, Klemperer speaks with Sara about Patricia’s “delusions,” as he calls them. Writing about the Tanz, “She describes something like a revolutionary organization in a crisis of leadership,” says Klemperer. Patricia thinks the Matrons are witches working to revive Mother Markos. “Mother Markos… Mother Meinhof… The dance rehearsal… Political action… these two areas in Patricia’s life were of equal importance,” says Klemperer. “Maybe Patricia’s fantasies about witches, they are her way of processing some other form of intrigue.” Maybe, Doc.

Reactions to the new Suspiria were very divided. But positive, negative, or indifferent, most critics agreed setting the story in “Divided Berlin” added little, if not detracted from the film’s impact. If Guadagnino and Screenwriter David Kajganich did the work of layering Divided Berlin and the Tanz Academy as two sides of the same coin – even going so far as to make Klemperer say, “This is Why” – why did so many critics miss it? 

Mirrors (literal and metaphorical) are everywhere in the new Suspiria. The news of Divided Berlin is a reflection of the struggle within the Tanz. Sometimes there is a one-to-one correlation. Before the Company’s recital of “Volk,” we hear a radio report of a (suspicious and disputed) suicide pact carried out between RAF prisoners at Stuttgart-Stammheim Prison. Earlier in the film, the Matrons who voted Mother Markos their matriarch unknowingly entered a “suicide pact” of their own, later fulfilled by Mother Suspiriorum.

Is this parallel opportunistic? Is using the real-life, very serious assassination of RAF prisoners as a simile for the murder of a dozen women at a fictional dance academy going too far? When cast so starkly, I want to say, “Yes, that’s taking things a bit too far,” but I hesitate to concede that interpretation.

Divided Berlin overlays well with the struggle for power at the Tanz, and ultimately for the consequences that await its participants. Is Madame Blanc’s partial decapitation as serious as the lives of the 91 hostages aboard Lufthansa Flight 181? I mean, of course not. But the paranoia and uncertainty the German people must have felt at this time is in line with the paranoia and uncertainty Guadagnino and Kajganich want to evoke in the audience’s reaction to the Tanz Academy. 

That’s enough reason for me.