When the German horror film Dario Argento "Suspiria" went on sale in 1977, Berlin was at the limit. The protesters got angry with the West German government and what was seen as the depredations of capitalism took to the streets. The far left guerrilla group, the Red Army Faction, terrorized the city in what became known as the German autumn, leaving several dead. It was also a key period for the affirmation of feminist power and female liberation. The Red Army had women among its leaders, and one of the first feminist magazines in Germany, Emma, published its inaugural issue that year.
Four decades go by and another "Suspiria" is landing in theaters at a different time of social upheaval and female rage.
The original by Argento has been reinvented by another Italian director, Luca Guadagnino ("Llámame por tu nombre"). At its core is the same story: an American dancer travels to Germany to join a dance company and discover that it is the front of a group of witches possessed by the need to perform indescribable acts. Within the company there is a battle for control between the artistic director, Madame Blanc (played by Tilda Swinton) and other high-level members. The young American (Dakota Johnson) is caught in the middle, only to become her vessel of violence: she dances her sadistic spells.
The film delights with horror and horrific horror images, chests explode and scenes of bloodshed, but also delves into the dynamics of a completely feminine community, which deals with issues related to power, manipulation, Motherhood and the horrible things that women can do. to other women and themselves.
With the original, Argento said, he was intrigued by the prospect of exploring a completely feminine world and its capacity for dark magic. "It's a completely feminine story," he wrote in an email. "I wanted to immerse myself in the world of esotericism and magic that had impressed me a lot when I was very young, and I wrote this film about the power of witches and their influence in today's society."
His film shocked audiences by expanding the limits of what could be a horror movie by mixing the vocabulary of the genre with the aesthetics of artistic films.
"It was a sensory assault at full speed, and that's for the eyes, ears, mind, stomach, soul and imagination," said Adam Lowenstein, a film professor at the University of Pittsburgh who writes about horror. Argento used the standard formula for giallo, a genre of Italian horror film, but the resulting film was "much less interested in the story than in how it feels, looks and sounds".
Guadagnino said he grew up idolizing the director and remembered that his room was full of posters of his films. "Argento meant a certain power for me," Guadagnino said by telephone, adding: "He had never been more influenced by violence than by his freedom, the shape of his film is what impressed, the use of deep red, of the details, the way he constructs each murder almost like a ballet, and gave me courage, Darío gave me audacity. "
"Suspiria" would turn out to be Argento's greatest artistic achievement, an influence on "Halloween", "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and many other horror movies.
In addition to its aesthetics, the film was also notable at that time because it tried to turn the traditional dynamic of violence into horror movies. Where most of these films exploit and victimize women, here women are committing brutality.
"A lot of people would classify it as a misogynistic film because of its violence against women, which I do not disagree with," said Alexandra West, co-author of the podcast The Faculty of Horror. "What I think is interesting from the feminist point of view is how far apart are all the male characters, ultimately, they are women who hurt themselves, get saved, become friends and get angry with each other "
Guadagnino established his version in 1977 during that season of social tumult and radical feminism. Radio clips and newspapers refer to the bombings and the hostage episode of a Red Army Faction. A silenced palette is based on the influence of filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The score of Thom Yorke of Radiohead also plays outside the period.
"The original time of 1977 was very important in terms of revolt and affirmation and the feminist movement was very strong," Guadagnino said. "Within the movement they had differences among themselves that were very interesting to explore," he added. "I do not think female anger is exactly what I was looking for, it's more of a female community and like any community that has demonstrations of power and all power relations can bring cruelty."
The director said he also intended to show the true nature of the violence and its consequences. "I am aware that we are often numbed by violence and more often women are subjected to violence," the man said. "Suspiria is more about human nature than the spectacle of violence."
That particular period in Berlin and its connection to feminism were the forage for both leading actresses. The movement of German women at that time "embraced difference and separatism as a way of claiming an autonomous and self-determined identity," Swinton said by email. "The Berlin of that time was specifically involved in the replicas of a traumatic existential commotion – those fascists, certainly leave a trail of destruction – and surely make those witches leave … for good, for worse".
Johnson said in a telephone interview: "It was about taking advantage of this anger, they were trying to verbalize their anger."
Dance was fundamental to this type of expression, Guadagnino said, giving Johnson's character "a way to cast spells and assert control over other people, but also as a kind of liberation."
Johnson trained for a year before filming began and studied the work of choreographers Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch, who were pioneers in the genres of abstract, non-narrative dance. "These women broke the mold of the expressionist dance, and showed that the dance itself can be a spell and it's not pretty," he said.
The choreography in the new version shows the movement style of German expressionism. "He's very aggressive and angular and animal and wild and raw, and that way he's very feminine," Johnson said.
Swinton said she modeled her Madame Blanc in several dance figures, starting with Martha Graham and Bausch, both for the examples they gave and for "the shape Madame Blanc cuts – her silhouette, her barefoot rooting, the precise choreography of their relationship with Cigarette after cigarette ".
The actress also had Wigman in mind, partly for her dances, but also because the choreographer had a problematic mental health history and, nevertheless, "managed, like Blanc, to keep her company in Germany throughout the Third Reich, that made heaven know what, offers to do it. "
Finally, Swinton quoted the 1948 seminal ballet film, "The Red Shoes," and his charismatic teacher Lermontov, who must persuade the dancer, "the interpreter of his work, to choose art over life."
If the atmosphere of post-war Berlin in turmoil as "witch artists" struggle for its existence reminds viewers of the current moment, Swinton added: "I suggest we think carefully about what forces gave rise to the political landscape in Germany in 1977 and the reactive initiatives that inspired, maybe we should look (back) and learn.