It’s 2018 and it feels like the world is on fire. Granted, it’s burned before and will likely burn again. However, when you live in the flames, all you care about is how you’re going to make it to tomorrow. Finding the strength to walk through those flames is at the core of Luca Guadagnino’s recent remake of Suspiria. The film is set following an earlier wildfire of the world — the German Autumn of 1977.
Guadagnino’s Suspiria takes place based firmly in this tumultuous time in post-World War 2 Berlin. And yet it’s hard not to see parallels between the film and America now, as its youth culture struggles against the growing tide of authoritarian attitudes, calcifying the war between the old and the young.
Suspiria: Then and Now
The basic plot elements of the 2018 remake follow pretty closely to Dario Argento’s original Suspiria. American expatriate Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) travels to Berlin to join the prestigious Markos Dance Academy. She begins to unravel the secrets of the academy’s witch coven. From there, Guadagnino injects the political turmoil of the time into the film.
Suspiria (2018) opens with ballet student and young revolutionary Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace-Moretz) in a frenzied state. Hingle reveals to her psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) the nefarious nature of the dance school’s coven. She vanishes from the film for most of its remaining runtime, but she lingers in the mind of Dr. Klemperer. Klemperer dedicates himself to unraveling the mystery of her disappearance.
As Dr. Klemperer seeks the truth, Susie embeds herself deeper and deeper into the Markos Academy. She stuns the academy’s head instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) at her audition. Shortly after, Blanc gives Susie the lead role in an upcoming dance piece. Susie’s journey into the coven contains powerful choreography and shocking imagery. In an interview with the Filmstruck Podcast, Guadagnino explained that the magic of the witches comes from their dancing. According to Guadagnino, dance is a form of language.
In Suspiria’s most harrowing sequence, Madame Blanc bestows Susie with a touch of power before she begins her dance. As Susie’s limbs fly, one of her former classmates twists and contorted in the bowels of the dance studio. Susie’s movements turn her classmate into a drooling pile of limbs. Blanc uses her power to make the young destroy one another.
Apathy In The Face Of Fascism
Consider the historical context of Suspiria: at this point in Germany’s history, student activists had been fighting for the last several years against the dark mistakes of Nazi Germany. According to critic Ben Hutchinson,
“The sense of a generational conflict at the heart of the 1968 movements was given particular force in Germany by the long shadow of the Nazi period […] the German students saw themselves as rebelling […] against the complicity of their parents in the crimes of the Nazis and their subsequent conspiracy of silence.”
In the Markos dance studio, a similar rebellion takes place.
Early in the film, the witches vote on their new coven leader. They chose Mother Markos (Tilda Swinton for a third time) over Madame Blanc. This leads to a tense dichotomy between the two forces. Mother Markos has become a decrepit, rotting pile of flesh over the years. As a result, she steals the youth from the rotating door of dancers the coven brings into the studio.
The decaying Mother Markos, an avatar of old power structures, would rather exploit the young for her own longevity rather than accept that her time has come to an end. Guadagnino’s metaphor isn’t subtle (the best horror allegories often aren’t). While Suspiria may explicitly be about the youth revolution in Berlin, it’s hard to ignore the parallels to contemporary American society as well.
How many of our institutions are run by out-of-touch, elderly men who callously ignore warnings about climate change or pleas for gun control? They are in charge of making decisions for a future they won’t even see and don’t care about. And all the while, plenty of people in our nation willingly accept this as the norm. Their apathy allows horror to spread.
Witches & Empowerment
Even the kindly Klemperer carries sins. He could have saved his lover, Anke Meier (Jessica Harper). Klemperer did not take her fears seriously enough. Even Klemperer’s own apathy, or pure disbelief in the face of unspeakable horror, meant he didn’t even take the person he loved seriously enough.
At one point, the coven makes Klemperer believe Anke has returned to him, only to pull the illusion away. They berate him by using a phrase that has been tragically too often in recent months: believe women. In Suspiria’s final harrowing sequence, Guadagninio’s ultimate message is clear: the only way to move forward is to obliterate the apathetic attitudes of the past. Susie has been prepared by Madame Blanc to be served up to Mother Markos as her new vessel.
In the basement of the dance studio, a horrifying ritual scene plays out. Susie, however, seems calm and prepared, as if this moment were her destiny. Throughout the film, Markos claims to be the reincarnation of Mother Suspiriorum, a powerful witch. Susie reveals at this moment, that she is the true reincarnation of Mother Suspiriorum, here to destroy Markos for stealing her name.
What follows is a sequence of Susie unleashing her full power as Mother Suspiriorum and obliterating Markos’ supporters one by one. The revolution of the youth truly begins and lays waste to the old structures. In 2018, the idea of witchcraft as a force of malevolency has been rewritten as a form of liberation. It’s a rejection of conventional society and patriarchal power. As we watch the revolutions happening in our streets, particularly those led by youth-driven movements, we must reflect and ask ourselves where we stand: in the past or in the future.