Out of the Past

The camps. It is always the camps we return to. Yet we never can see them, not really.

There is a deep craving to see images of Auschwitz and Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, because we believe that images, moving or static, can provide access to understanding. If we look hard enough into the brutalised eyes of the Jewish children imprisoned by anonymous soldiers, we think we can empathise with their trauma and suffering, and even make the Shoah explicable.

Perhaps this is what documentary film and photographs of the concentration camps seek to provide: a visual explanation for an atrocity so large that it defies verbal articulation. We reach for images as a way of processing the enormous lacuna at the heart of European history: the attempt, between 1933 and 1945, to annihilate the Jewish people for all time. It is this gaping hole which resides at the heart of Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film Suspiria, a meditation on what this destruction has meant for Germany.

Yet there is a disturbing kind of pornography to images and visions of the Holocaust. When we view a photograph of Einsatzgruppen shooting Ukrainian Jews in 1942, soldiers on the left firing at a family as they pass across the plane of the image, children’s bodies bent over as they are shot—is there not a disturbing mental re-enactment at work when we bear witness, again and again, to this moment chemically captured in the photographic print? Perhaps we imagine ourselves as one of the cowering family members, vicariously reinscribing the violent final moments of their lives. Or we might even make the mental leap of imagining ourselves as a German soldier, the wooden rifle butt pressed into the hollow of our shoulder, our body shaking as we squeeze the trigger again and again. The tremors rattle through us as we watch the running family stumble and fall before us in a fantasia of power and dominance. The photograph represents a false knowledge—we think it grants us access to the experience of the Holocaust, when in actuality it merely allows us to restage its violence, again and again, simultaneously victim and perpetrator.

This is why the most powerful cinematic exploration of the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoah, uses no historical imagery during its nine and a half hours. Instead, it is composed of interviews with survivors and perpetrators. Lanzmann fills the screen with ashen and lined visages in an attempt to grasp the ungraspable. ‘What was most important was missing’, he explains: ‘the gas chambers, death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.’ If that experiential insight cannot ever be presented, then locating Shoah in the present and filming its subjects as aging figures in barbershops, on lakes, in hotels, allows us to realise that the Holocaust never truly ‘ended’. Instead, it is an ongoing process, vibrating through people and through history.

This is the underlying subtext to Guadagnino’s Suspiria. It’s a rich, fascinating, flawed film, composed of many tangents which can’t be encompassed here—instead I want to focus on its treatment of German history and the way it portrays the Holocaust.

Suspiria is a remake, or re-imagining, of Dario Argento’s 1977 eponymous baroque horror film. Set in divided Berlin during 1977, a young, apparently naïve American dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), arrives to enter the Tanz Dance Academy. Through a series of violent and disquieting events, it emerges that the matrons running the school are actually a coven of witches, seeking to find a new host body for their leader, the ancient Mother Helena Markos.

Argento went for the aesthetic jugular with his version of the table, unleashing a riot of psychedelic colours and propelled by a pulsating, hysterical soundtrack by Italian prog rock group Goblin. Yet Argento is only a starting point for Guadagnino. Apart from a few unwise crash zooms, there is little in the two films’ mise-en-scène to connect them. Instead, Guadagnino’s conceit is to situate Suspiria in the socio-political realm of the original’s ostensible setting: Germany in 1977. I say ostensible because Argento’s films are always set in a timeless Gothic cinematic landscape, untethered from contemporary politics, if not ideology.

Guadagnino’s version is instead nearly an hour longer, allowing him to layer the film with references to the left-wing Red Army Faction’s murder of the industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight by Palestinian militants, and the deaths (widely suspected to be extra-judicial killings) of the terrorist leaders of the Baader-Meinhof Group in prison. Bombings, assassinations, riots—it seemed as though West Germany was coming apart at the seams, the new nation which had risen from the ruins of the Second World War shaken internally and externally. The question Guadagnino asks, was West Germany really so new, so innocent? Had it truly exorcised the demons of fascism and the legacy of the Shoah?

Richard Brody, delivering an excoriating review of Suspiria in The New Yorker, claims that Guadagnino ‘shoehorn[s] the Holocaust into the film with a conspicuously effortful shove.’ Yet it strikes me that this is not thematic opportunism, but integral to Guadagnino’s and his scriptwriter, David Kajganich’s, vision of Germany. The aging psychotherapist, Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, under the male nom de plume Lutz Ebersdorf, one of three characters she plays in the film) is burdened and weakened by the awful unknowledge of the disappearance of his Jewish wife Anke Meier during the war. She is presumed dead, but confirmation remains tantalisingly out of grasp. Klemperer’s grief and guilt at his unspecified complicity in Anke’s disappearance and probable death binds together past and present, and reminds us that sins once committed cannot be undone. Their consequences will reverberate like a witches’ spell through time.

Indeed, the coven of bickering witches who operate the Tanz Dance Academy become a symbol of Germany itself. They’re divided and unsure of how to proceed. They place their faith in the mysterious Mother Helena Markos, yet wonder whether the younger Madam Blanc (Swinton), who runs the Academy day-to-day, might not be better placed to lead them. They hold an election, and Markos wins overwhelmingly. The coven is a fully functioning political society in parallel to the external world, with its own hopes, fears, divisions.

Guadagnino’s ironic reversal at the climax is that Susie Bannion, the dancer from the Midwest of America, is in reality Mother Suspiriorum, the messianic witch destined to take control of the coven. The revelation completes the film’s analogy—Susie is the super-being the coven believed they were ordained to receive, just as Hitler cast himself as the heroic saviour of Germany after the disgrace and suffering inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles.

Suspiria becomes a cinematic Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A phrase coined in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it referred to Germany’s attempt to understand and come to terms with the brutality of Nazism, most importantly in acknowledging a national culpability in the execution of the Holocaust. It was an active attempt to ensure that genocide was not forgotten and elided by society. In Suspiria, the final, ritualistic slayings of members of the coven by Mother Suspiriorum, does not a parallel to the violence of the camps—how could it be? The horrors of the camps are too great to refer to anything but themselves—but are an expression of the violence of power, which the Nazi regime exercised without restraint.

The final revelation by Susie/Mother Suspiriorum to Klemperer, in his bedroom, that Anke had perished at the Theresienstadt concentration camp is a powerful fantasy of closure and forgetting. Only a witch could cut through history and retrieve, what for so many people, was the unknowable: the true fate of their families. When she erases his memories, it leaves him with a peace unattainable to any survivor of the camps. Klemperer is a confused figure, torn by the contradictory desires to know and to forget, impulses which grip us all living in the shadow of the twentieth-century. To know and to forget. Klemperer is no more an innocent than the rest of us. He is horrified at meeting a former Nazi now occupying a comfortable position in the West German police force (a potent reminder of the reintegration of fascists into German civil society after the war), yet it also hints at another, equally dark complicity: what was Klemperer’s role during the war? Is he really any less guilty than the witches he at first dismisses and is then humbled by? The lack of clarity around Anke throughout the film becomes an analogy for the larger lacuna of the fate of the Jewish people in Europe.

The climactic dance scene choreographed by Madam Blanc, Volk, deliberately conjures up the Nazi’s ideological loading of that world, which came to mean both ‘people’ in a general sense and more specifically the German (and Aryan) ethnic group. Blanc repudiates such doctrine with violent and ‘unbeautiful’ dancing, exactly the kind of abstract, ‘degenerate’ art condemned by Hitler. Yet the performance is intercut with the murder in a mirrored room, of one of the younger dancers, Sara (Mia Goth). The witches take control of her body by telekinesis, contorting and destroying it in a grotesque parody of the dance itself. The destruction of fascism and its legacy is, we perhaps infer, as unbearably violent as the ideology itself, a conclusion which chimes with the Red Army Faction’s acts of terrorism during 1977, such as the kidnapping and murder of the former SS officer, Hanns Martin Schleyer, President of the German Employers’ Association.

The pervasiveness of former Nazi officials in German life was not only an article of faith for radical groups such as the RAF, but visible to commentators such as Hannah Arendt as early as 1963. In her landmark article, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ for The New Yorker, she notes that out of the eleven and a half thousand West German judges, five thousand were active in the courts under the Nazi regime. Arendt cites the ‘Eichmann Commando’—members of Adolf Eichmann’s immediate circle—who were arrested in Germany only after Eichmann’s trial in Israel began. She caustically comments that, ‘Although evidence against these five [officers] had been published in Germany years before, in books and magazine articles, not one of them had found it necessary to live under an assumed name.’ Indeed, in the 1978 portmanteau film Germany in Autumn, about the societal effects of the RAF’s actions, it is noted that the mayor of Stuttgart is Manfred Rommel, only son of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. It is in the spirit of Arendt that Suspiria operates—not analytically of course, but in a shared undercurrent of disgust with West Germany, with the country’s continuities with what came before, and society’s willingness to forget, to ignore, to erase the weight of its own history.

The territory of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung has seldom been treated seriously in the cinema, the lacuna of the past too great to be dealt with directly. In the nineteen-sixties and ’seventies, there were a number of Hollywood films dealing with the afterlife of Nazis in the contemporary world—The Night of the Generals, The Odessa File, Marathon Man—but the freedom enjoyed by former SS officers, camp commanders, and the like, is assigned to their unique, personal mendacity and cunning, rather than the willing complicity of European nations and the United States in the post-war period, who preferred old fascists to new socialists to help reconstruct civil society. Germany in Autumn was a rare attempt to directly confront these issues, and although its combination of documentary and fiction sequences is frequently awkward, it does crackle with a righteous urgency, driven by an assertion that fascism is not a historical phenomenon, but one of contemporary relevance. It is ‘committed’ filmmaking and if the eleven directors (including Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Alexander Kluge) fail to create a coherent whole, it’s disparate, free associative parts provide for a rich insight into the conflicted world Suspiria attempts to recreate.

Suspiria is at its most horrific when we connect the depravity of the coven with the larger political society which Klemperer belongs to. The irony that Mother Suspiriorum is incarnate in a seemingly naïve girl from the Midwest of America is perhaps Guadagnino’s nod to Arendt’s famous formulation on ‘the banality of evil’. Similarly, the defiantly grey cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is reminiscent of the visual texture of Germany in Autumn, where the asphalt is always sleek with rain and grit, with a damp must pervading the peeling interiors. Only in the dance academy does Guadagnino allow himself baroque opulence (an aesthetic clearly closer to his own sensibilities, judging from his previous films, A Bigger Splash and Call Me By Your Name).  The irony, of course, is that it’s in the most ‘beautiful’ setting that the violence occurs. One of the fundamental lessons of the Nazi regime is that beauty is no assurance of truth, or of morality. In Alain Resnais’ 1956 short film on the Holocaust, Nuit et brouillard,  poet Jean Cayon’s narration discusses with deep irony the ‘architecture’ of concentration camps, talking of the ‘Swiss style, garage style, Japanese style,’ implicitly noting that the camps can be fitted quite comfortably into the history of art and architecture. Fascism, at its heart, is not extraordinary, because it is only the logical extension of certain political and artistic tendencies in Western European culture, one of which is a profound anti-Semitism. Guadagnino knows that these tendencies did not end in 1945 but continue to taint and contaminate German (and by extension, European) society. We just choose to ignore these links, to close our eyes and forget the ways in which the Nazis were not sui generis, but emerged directly from European cultural and political thought.

In terms of ambition, of trying to portray modern European history and its repercussions, the only recent film close to Suspiria is Olivier Assayas’ mammoth, five and a half hour film/miniseries Carlos, from 2010. A biopic of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known by his nom de guerre Carlos the Jackal, he was a Marxist terrorist who wove his way through history, dancing between France, Britain, Germany, Hungary, then South Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and finally Sudan. It’s a dazzling and exhausting achievement, making explicit many of the themes Suspiria prefers to leave as undercurrents. Yet while Assayas wants to examine and analyse the interconnected political history of Cold War Europe, linking student radicalism, the Palestinian cause, and Communist Eastern Europe, Guadagnino is more interested in reaching back, to create a film which points towards the societal conditions which made violent extremism appear as the only solution.
So really, it is appropriate that the film ends not in the dance academy, but Klemperer’s dacha in East Germany, the camera wandering around a simple, bucolic cottage. It is there we slowly track towards and fastens upon a pair of initials scratched into the wood, intertwining Anke and Josef. His memory of her may have been exorcised by Mother Suspiriorum, yet traces of Anke’s presence remain. The victims of the camps may be forgotten, pushed aside by society as a disturbing inconvenience, but their spectre continues to linger and malaise our conscience. The camps cannot be dispelled.