Mother Superior

Mother Superior (Mater Superior) (2022)

Mother Superior (Mater Superior) had its international première at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022

Elderly Baroness Helene von Heidenreich (Inge Maux) has been found dead in Rosenkreuz Manor, her remote woodland home in Lower Austria, with burn marks suggestive of an electric shock. As the prime suspect, Heidenreich’s young nurse Sigrun Fink (Isabella Händler) is being interviewed by Major Steinwender (Florian Troebinger) and his chauvinistic colleague Moser (Thomas Gföller). With the forensic investigation continuing in the background, Sigrun tells the two policemen a story about her motives for taking up the post as Heidenreich’s carer, and about the events which led to her employer’s peculiar demise. This story forms the backbone, if not quite the totality, of Mother Superior – and much as Sigrun shares her striking forename with a Valkyrie, her tale will turn out to be a myth of female empowerment, while both unfolding and being told in 1975 – a time when, in Austria, abortion was first fully legalised and Family Law was granting married women greater freedoms. Sigrun may be retracing the the past, but in this period of change, she is, though literally arrested, also headed towards a progressive future.

Sigrun is on a quest for her mother and for her own identity, both lost. Born in 1944 and fostered shortly afterwards, the anaesthiologist-in-waiting suspects that Heidenreich directed a local Lebensborn nursery programme during the Second World War to raise pure-blooded children for the SS from single, Aryan mothers, and hopes to find, somewhere in the property’s off-limits “unoccupied wings”, archival evidence of her birth and parentage – those missing parts of her own story. Yet even as, in this household of three, Heidenreich and her loyal old groundsman Otto (Jochen Nickel) take on the rôles of mother and father, Sigrun finds herself surrounded not only by wild, wolf-filled fairytale forestland, but also by pagan rituals, Nordic sigils and strange nightmares. In a sense, Sigrun is not just delving into her own missing, mysterious past, but also coming home, in a phasic eternal return of female repression and its rebalancing.

The title of writer/director Marie Alice Wolfszahn’s feature debut, and more particularly its original Austrian version Mater Superior, evoke both religious sisterhoods of one kind or another (Sigrun had previously belonged to a nunnery, and Rosenkreuz Manor is its own sorority), and the Latin-named witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, Mater Lachrymarum) of Dario Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (Suspiria, 1977; Inferno, 1980; Mother of Tears, 2007). And like Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 reimagining of Suspiria, Mother Superior finds uneasy points of intersection between a heathen, matriarchal cult and Nazism’s oppressive, racist ideology.

Here, however, the women are not so much collaborating with Hitler’s phallocentric brand of fascism as exploiting it to further their own cause, and to lay the ground for a better future. For these mothers’ movement, though undoubtedly esoteric (as even the Rosicrucian name of Heidenreich’s Manor implies), is also political in nature, dedicated to offering a resistant counterpoint to the despotism of patriarchy. Accordingly, Wolfszahn has crafted a piece of Volk horror that is also feminist gothic, whose themes of “death and rebirth, and female power” require a reading of the runes for their proper decipherment. In any case, while there may always be sexism, and there may even at times be a Hitler, the feminine spirit is itself an “eternal cycle”, operating in the moonlit shadows, protected by a secret system of solidarity, and unwilling and unable to be subjugated for long.

Strap: Marie Alice Wolfszahn’s feature debut is a Seventies-set feminist gothic, allegorising the eternal struggle between the sexes. 

© Anton Bitel