POSSESSION, SUSPIRIA, and the Berlin Wall
An animal in the guise of a human woman. Bright-eyed copycats making haste with their substitution. Red stained smiles. Cryptic catatonia. Suburban housewives serving up self-mutilation. A blood-spattered slattern making love with a monster. Mortal terror. Inhuman ecstasy.
While Steve Miner was shocking American audiences in 1981 with Friday the 13th Part 2, his bloody follow-up to Sean S. Cunningham’s game-changing lakeside set slasher, Ukrainian director Andrzej Zulawski was providing such appallingly ghastly images in Possession, his infamously unkempt tale of guilt and dissonance — a film that centers around the wall that has been raised between two parties during wartime.
Loosely based on his own experiences during his divorce, Zulawski set his film in Poland, in a war zone, contrasting the story of a growing rift between a couple with the divided Cold War era location. An abstract autobiographical take about the end of a marriage, Sam Neill’s Mark attempts to rein in his wife, Isabelle Adjani’s Anna, a woman possessed. An espionage agent for the government, Mark returns home from his latest mission to find his love for Anna unrequited.
There’s someone else.
Her affairs begin joyous and savage, but slowly turn villainous, her latest conquests resulting in the murder of multiple men. Mark himself seems essentially innocent, merely begging his wife to come home and reunite with him and their son, yet he feels increasingly troubled and responsible for the illicit mess that always happens when he’s around. As Mark and Anna descend into madness, Possession begins to feel like a metaphor about the Berlin Wall as the physical manifestation of the severance in important relationships.
Horror stories have a special place in German culture, where hauntings of past figures, regrets, and shame still loom large. Daniel Kehlmann, a best-selling writer of post-war German literature, points out just how much times have changed since his country’s dark days of World World II, noting “I am interested in what a strange, distant country our past can be,” and how thankful he is to be living in the present. “The world may have been more poetic in the past, but people suffered pain literally all the time. So we have something to be grateful for”.
On August 13th, 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic — or East Germany, if you will — started to build a barbed wire and concrete “antifascist bulwark” between East and West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was supposedly being built to stop Western “fascists” from moseying on over into East German territory, but the truth is, it was really there to stop citizens from fleeing East Germany and heading West. Over 170 people were killed trying to cross the border illegally. The wall stood erect for 28 years in the middle of Germany, separating mothers from their daughters, friends from their companions.
For nearly three decades, communist East Berlin stood apart from the democratic West. People sanctioned from their families on the other side of the wall were helpless to reach their loved ones. In response to this hostage situation, a handful of young people created the Red Army Faction, or RAF, a Marxist terror group that emerged out of the more militant fringes of west German counterculture, was established to take action against the status quo. When many of their leaders were sentenced to life in prison in 1977, the younger generation grew furious and more adamant to up the ante, kicking off a series of kidnappings and violence undergone to hopefully secure the release of their heroes Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and their comrades.
Bodies bound in thick red rope swaying in unison. Warriors wearing war paint for a cause not yet known. Bloody hands etching crimson letters onto concrete walls. Mirrored rooms reflecting back warped torsos and twisted limbs. Evil grins plunging sharp hooks into catatonic cadavers. Bewitched ballerinas levitating in early morning light. Cloven hands reaching for skylight dancers. Naked tombs. Veiled screams. Burnt hands. Broken glass. False prophets. Vengeful lambs. Darkness. Tears. Sighs.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria unabashedly explores the nightmarish dystopian void that filled the lives of the average Berliner in the year 1977, and he does it with flair.
Starring Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, an American ballerina gone overseas to study at the Helena Markos Dance Company in Berlin, Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s iconic cult classic capitalizes on the original premise of an academy run by a coven of witches, but moves the exact location from Freiburg to war-torn Berlin in order to better exploit the parable at hand. Keeping a steady news cycle woven into the storyline throughout the background of the film, a subplot vaguely covers the “German Autumn”, specifically the hijacked Lufthansa flight seized by members of the RAF in hopes of negotiating a release of veteran members who had recently been handed down a life sentence in prison.
Choreographed by world renowned artist Damien Jalet, the “Volk” dance performed by the girls at the academy is the perfect tie-in to the division taking root, budding, and blooming in the veins of the city.
The one out there.
The one in here.
Inspired by the likes of Mary Wigman, an influential dancer with unfortunate ties to the Nazi party, Johnson’s movements in rehearsal mimic the late performer’s efforts in her famous 1930s “Spider Dance”. Wigman was the first person to say that dance can be ugly, an idea that Tilda Swinton’s head instructor Madame Blanc echoes in her sentiments to Susie.
Even just the word “volk” itself has deep ties to Germany’s shameful past. When the Nazi party first came to power in the 1930s, they ran on a campaign of family, race, and volk, translated as “the people”. This was the highest representation of German values, which emphasized the elevation of the volk and the nation above its individual members, a.k.a. nationalism.
In theory, the teachers at the Helena Markos Dance Company are all representative of the East Germany loyalists, the ones who still sympathized with the Nazi party long after they lost World War II, and sought to return to their so-called former glory days. Continuing this symbolism, Susie and the students represent the rebellious RAF, with Chloë Grace Moretz’s Patricia even rumored to have dealings with the group.
To speak plainly, it’s a battle of communist East and democratic West Germany, wherein Susie Bannion Trojan horses her way into the coven, only to declare herself victor in the end, revealing her true form, striking down Germany’s outdated ideals, and setting those held prisoner behind the walls of the company free once and for all.
Also played by Tilda Swinton is Dr. Klemperer, a psychiatrist whose personal relationship is also indicative of the divided city in which he resides. Separated from his loving wife (Jessica Harper’s Anke) during the Holocaust when they were thrown into camps, he managed to eventually escape, but Anke wasn’t so lucky. Now he spends his days being haunted by his lost love, visiting their old home, cleaning off the cobwebs, sweeping up the leaves, reminiscing on the engraving they once made together as young lovers, a heart etched into the wall of their cottage home, the shape sliced in two by a sharp edge of plaster.
The Berlin Wall itself is featured several times in countless frames in both Possession and Suspiria. When the cuckolded Mark is waiting on his unfaithful partner, staring out the window, the wall stares back at him. When Dr. Klemperer hallucinates his late wife taking his hand and walking with him through the snow, the wall stands proud at their side, its ruthless power playing tricks, its shadow casting doubt on this frivolous fantasy. Hugging Anna as she turns the corner, sprinting to her lover’s bed, looking like the ragged end of nowhere. Chasing daylight alongside Susie as she seeks out the academy for her initial audition, pulling her into its grasp, opening its jaws, showing its teeth. The sharp, stern architecture exacerbating the gloom of its bleak surroundings. Its glamour threatening spells of apathy.
Bystander indifference. Cold hearts. Dead eyes. Quiet submission. Lonely lives.
When we meditate on the horror genre, more often than not, we direct our attention to American and British entries which contributed greatly to gothic folklore and explored the many aesthetic benefits of practical effects. Yet we often forget the impact of deeply traditional dark Germanic horror.
The terror of past mistakes lingers over the people of Germany like a low hanging moon, like a starkly lit unquiet grave, illuminating all the trauma that many would rather forget. The memory of the Berlin Wall loiters, a cautionary tale about a nation divided and the irrevocable damage such a schism festered within the hearts and souls of the people forced to reside within its geographic prison.
Kalyn Corrigan is a freelance writer and critic for FANGORIA, Vulture, Collider, IndieWire, and /Film. You can follow her on Twitter.