Mother Superior - FrightFest Glasgow UK Premiere Review
Director: Marie Alice Wolfszahn
Starring: Isabelle Händler, Inge Maux, Jochen Nickel, Tim Werths
Written by: Marie Alice Wolfszahn
Produced by: Judith Doppler, Kurt Mayer
Cinematography by: Gabriel Krajanek
Original Score by: July Skone, Stefan Voglsinger
A nurse and her eccentric patient are bound together by a shared longing: the old lady's memory contains the secret to Sigrun's past; the young woman's life force holds the key to the future for the Baroness.
The ties between occultism and Nazism from the 1940s onwards have been well documented throughout history. Their roots stretch back to the esoteric ideological system of Ariosophy which in short heavily featured the idea of an Aryan race with a pure bloodline being superior above all else, making it easy to see how the two became associated with each other. On the big screen it has been the source for many entertaining horror movies such as 'Dead Snow', 'Blood Creek' and even the 'Puppet Master' series. Whilst they lean heavily on the schlocky side of things, 'Mother Superior' tackles the material with a much more serious tone.
Steeped in mystery from the beginning, the opening credit sequence features a camera pan over some documents and other pieces of evidence. An ominous choral infused score laced with some unsettling breathing plays over this really setting the tone for the film. This is interrupted by the voices of two detectives who are interviewing a young nurse Sigrun (played by Isabella Händler) about the mysterious death of her patient, the reclusive Baroness Heidenreich (played by Inge Maux) on a nearby television. It is an interesting framing device for the film as it allows the audience to play detective looking at the events leading up to the Baroness' demise from an outward perspective. Already writer/director Marie Alice Wolfszahn has the viewer locked into their vision with the audience uncertain of how we got here but intrigued all the same.
The focus then shifts to Sigrun meeting the Baroness for the first time. In the role of the nurse seeking answers about her own past through her involvement with the Baroness, Isabella Handler does a good job anchoring the film through the unfolding madness on screen. Early on she proclaims to be adaptable due to their upbringing in foster care and Handler exhibits the determination in her character's convictions to find out who she is irrespective of the consequences of whatever scenario she faces, but the hints of naivety in her character makes them more relatable. This works really well at holding your attention during some of the slower moments of the film but her best work comes with her interactions with the Baroness. Their back and forths make for an interesting power play dynamic escalating tension between the two as they both dig into their respective backgrounds.
Inge Maux is just as good as Händler in the film as the eccentric former aristocrat harbouring many secrets about the practices she engaged in within the walls of her manor. There is a gleeful menace to her performance that is admirable. When we are introduced to her she has shades of a Miss Havisham type character who very much lives in the past and that glint of twisted nostalgia shines through Maux's eyes. She clearly relishes the delivery of her character's musings about conquering the patriarchal control of organised religion through her own belief system but she holds back at an appropriate level to maintain the film's serious tone making her performance all the more fascinating.
One of the first things that strikes you about the film is the setting, which is a credit to the production design team. The parallels between the deteriorating physical state of the Baroness and the rundown nature of her dwellings make the film all the more interesting as it adds a tactility and a gothic flavour to the mystery of the film.
The framing of the empty rooms as Sigrun explores the manor is really effective at evoking the ghosts of the past, but these scenes feel somewhat repetitive as it happens numerous times throughout the film diminishing their effect at every turn. With a short run time these feel like padding more than anything else. Having said that, some of the imagery that emerges from Sigrun's dreams works really well at unnerving the audience as much as it enthrals. The disjointed jazz infused score from Stefan Voglsinger and July Skone also works well at creating a disorientating atmosphere.
With so much build up you would expect the film to deliver a satisfying finale but sadly the film fumbles the third act through one of the devices that made it interesting to begin with. The detective framework of the narrative that was so effective at the start of the is supplemented by a narration throughout which works against rather than for the film. The key to the film working lies in maintaining the sense of mystery for as long as possible but the overuse of the narration unravels it too quickly leading to a predictable and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion when all is revealed.
'Mother Superior' is very much a film that carries so much promise through its evocative setting, sound design and imagery in its slow burn build up but its overreliance on the narration weakens the story and the mystery surrounding it. The character dynamics work well for the most part but once we realise what is happening in the film as it all unravels we hurtle towards a disappointing conclusion making it all feel like a missed opportunity. Even still the elements that do work in the film's favour show a lot of promise for Marie Alice Wolfszahn's future projects as a filmmaker.
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- Joseph McElroy
'Mother Superior' received its UK Premiere at FrightFest Glasgow on Friday 10th March