Although there is no end of horror films about Nazi Germany, it’s rarer to find a contemporary horror film that probes the lingering effects of the Nazi mindset as restlessly as Goodnight Mommy. In part, that’s because Nazism tends to be relegated to a thing of the past, a repository of historical camp, rather than part of a wider national mindset that might have any continuity with the future. But it’s also because the actual imagery and iconography of Nazi Germany doesn’t immediately lend itself to a horror treatment – at least not in comparison to the actual implementation of that ideology throughout the late 1930s and the Second World War. While part of the horror of World War II cinema often stems from the sense that there is something unrepresentable about the Nazi Project – and the Final Solution specifically – precisely what makes the horror of early Nazi propaganda so striking is how absolutely available to representation it is, as well as the extent to which it encourages further representation and replication. For all the sublimity of a film like Triumph of the Will, the real condition of propaganda in Nazi Germany was more banal and more accessible, as every poster, pamphlet and rally offered up a series of ready-make, cookie-cutter visions of Aryan life that could be appropriated and adapted to virtually any specific context or community.
Released in 2014, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s horror film Goodnight Mommy responds to this situation by presenting a horror film about Nazism set in the present – or, alternatively, a horror film about Nazism that is detached from Nazism itself as a historical moment and phenomenon. In that sense, it would perhaps make more sense to describe this as a horror film about the Aryan mindset more generally, made for a time when the rhetoric of German nationalism is peaking once again, were it not for the incidental yet emphatic traces of Nazism that percolate through the film as well. As a result, while the film is not exactly about Nazism, it is also unable to properly envisage a German nationalist impulse that is definitively post-Nazism – or pre-Nazism – as if to remind the audience how often cinematic treatments of Nazism – especially those dependent upon any kind of affect of horror – form part of a wider project of disavowing any continuity between contemporary German nationalism and the Nazi past. No European country has had to repress its twentieth-century history as emphatically and violently as Germany, often precisely by way of the highly orchestrated “exposures” and “interrogating” that history, with the result that is not enough for a film like Goodnight Mommy to either simply “undo” that repression through conventional horror tropes and scenarios.
Indeed, the project of figuring the Nazi past as continuous with the nationalist present is so foreclosed in contemporary Germany that Franz and Fiala have to effectively adopt a dissonant horror aesthetic, fusing two very different kinds of horror experience in quite a jarring and confronting way. For the first half, Goodnight Mommy plays as lush, languorous and highly atmospheric horror, as we’re introduced to Elias and Lucas (Elias and Lucas Schwarz), a pair of twins living in a bucolic corner of the Austrian countryside. Although they live in a stylised modernist house, and are clearly not too far from amenities – this isn’t isolationist horror – their life is pastoral, if eerily pastoral, as they spend their days playing in streams, woods and meadows. It’s only a matter of time, however, before their mother (Susanne Wuest), returns home from having facial surgery, her face swathed in bandages, and they start to gradually suspect that this may not actually be the woman who has spent the last twelve or so years raising them. As they start to observe her more and more closely, they also find themselves retreating further into the surrounding landscape, as well as into the darker and more obscure recesses of the house, effecting a kind of fusion of bucolic naturalism and neomodernist stylistics that frequently recalls Michael Haneke, and produces an overwhelming sense of melancholia, foreboding and dread.
In many ways, this was my favourite part of the film, and the aesthetic that most closely resembles the way in which the film has been advertised and promoted. In particular, I loved the subliminal way in which the landscape modulates into something more sinister, and the boys in turn modulate into something more unsettling in their demands upon the viewer. As far as the landscape is concerned, those early eerie overstones are expanded and settled into something like a cinematic recapitulation of German Romanticism, especially Caspar David Friedrich, as we’re presented with a series of increasingly stark, expansive and moonlit vistas, often framed by some kind of monumental or carceral Christian edifice, and pitched at a scale that seems to leave no room for human involvement, even or especially when the boys actually manage to escape to the nearby village. At the same time, this foundational vocabulary of Nazi nationalism also introduces Nazism back into the landscape in a more literal way as well, most beautifully in a scene in which the boys are come across what appears to be a charnel-house or mass grave of Jewish bodies. This is one of the eeriest scenes in the film, partly because it refrains from any kind of straightforward “return of the repressed,” refusing to allow us to enjoy this as a comfortably contained spectacle delivered to us from the remote historical past. Instead, various factors – such as the fact that we don’t appear to be near the sites of any death camps – mean that this registers more as an unsettling contour of the present, part of the surreal dreamlike atmosphere of it all, with the result that I only registered this as a relic of World War II quite late in the picture, initially responding to it with the kind of half-afraid, decontextualised curiosity of the boys themselves.
Against this landscape, the depiction of the boys themselves also modulates over the course of the first half of the film, as the camera brings us into closer and more loving proximity to their burgeoning adolescent bodies. Obviously, that’s partly a result of two vulnerable characters being isolated in a suspenseful scenario: horror cinema excels at creating this kind of claustrophobic, visceral, embodied sympathy on the part of the audience. However, the camera lingers over the boys’ bodies even when there is no particular suspenseful imperative, idealising and reifying them into the kinds of ideal Aryan youth that populated Nazi propaganda throughout the 1930s. One of the reasons that these visions of a Volksgemeinschaft needed to be depicted in such homely terms was because, at heart, they were demanding that their audience fetishise the archetypal German body in a frankly homoerotic manner, one of many symptoms of the homoerotic kinships that tended to drive the Nazi party as a whole, especially before the purge of these more undesirable elements on the Night of the Long Knives. Detaching that fetishistic imperative from the homeliness that contained it – setting it amidst unhomelieness – Goodnight Mommy draws the audience into the most uncomfortable fixation and fascination with this pair of perfect bodies, not least because the twins are clearly fascinated with each other as well, and frequently mirror each other’s actions and postures. In effect, Franz and Fiala eroticise children with the same intensity as Nazi nationalism, but refuses to sufficiently attribute it to Nazism to allow us to distance ourselves from it either, creating an extraordinarily uncanny experience for a horror milieu in which the uncanniness of children would often seem to have been all used up.
That uncanniness is intensified by the fact that this cushioning homeliness is present in the film, but just never used to cushion the depiction of the actual boys. In fact, precisely what is so unsettling about their mother post-surgery is how distant she seems from her regular occupation as an actor on a television program dedicated to traditional German spectacle and values. We see an excerpt from this program before anything else in the film – it functions as a kind of prologue – and at first it is totally indiscernible whether we are looking at an old piece of televised propaganda or a traditional spectacle that just looks like propaganda, although in both cases there is a kind of ghostly, spectral echo of The Sound of Music, whose expansive location shooting and surrogate maternal drama are clearly a touchstone here, not least because of the way in which Austria is offered as a kind of critical vantage point from which to examine attitudes that might be unspeakable – or too speakable – in Germany itself. What is so powerful about Goodnight Mommy, however, is that this maternal homelieness is jettisoned from the fetishised body of the boys themselves, setting their own eroticised unhomeliness into even starker and more unsettling relief. More generally, the combination of fetishistic Aryan bodies, looming Romantic landscape and homely Volksgemeinschaft suggests a contemporary German culture in which all the ingredients that contributed to Nazism are still present, but set at a kind of studied and cultivated distance from each other, relegated to so many moods and atmosphere rather than discrete or discernible ideological fragments.
In that sense, the first part of the film could perhaps be accused of being complicit in the very atmospheric dispersal of ideology that it critiques, which is presumably why Franz and Fiala make such an abrupt turn towards torture porn in the third act, concluding with an extraordinarily brutal and visceral sequence that sees the boys pinning their mother to the bed and tormenting her into a true “confession.” It should come as no surprise that this torture iconography is strongly redolent of Nazi deprivations and experimentations in the Death Camps, nor that the boys invoke nationalist anthems as part of their torture process. Nevertheless, it is in the extremity of the torture – amazingly brutal – and its contrast with the opening atmospherics that the sense of a return of the repressed lies, since once again Franz and Fiala refrain from anything that might allow us to comfortably relegate this to the kitsch past. Personally, I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed with this turn, since I love the kind of moody horror that was display on the first half, but my surprise and disappointment – shared by the other people watching the film with me – is also part of what makes Goodnight Mommy so original. In fact, that transition in tone and register is the real “twist” of the film, with the result that the putative “twist” is fairly clear from the outset, and quite anticlimactic in its revelatory and reassuring power. The result, then, is a deliberately unsatisfying and deliberately uncathartic horror film whose very dissatisfaction – for me, at least – leaves a lingering sense of unease that is perhaps more resonant the neater suspense and resolution I was expecting.