Interview: Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala
There’s a perfectly executed scene in Goodnight Mommy, in which the twin protagonists get cleverly meta in a game of “who am I?” with their mother. “Mama” the boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) write on a yellow Post-it note before carefully sticking it on her fragile, bandaged forehead. She’s freshly returned from surgery and her entire visage is wrapped in gauze save for her eyes and mouth—think Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. As her sons give her a series of clues, she can’t identify herself to save her life.
The game’s sense of uncertain identity quickly escalates to form the crux of the carefully crafted suspense of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s debut fiction feature, which unfolds almost entirely within the confines of an isolated house in the Austrian countryside. Pitting the uncanny against the domestic, the family’s dysfunction mounts to monstrous consequences. Their mother’s mummified face isn’t the only thing that the boys can’t recognize; her behavior is off-kilter too. Locking herself in her room for hours on end and drawing all the blinds closed, she’s become mean, neglectful, and borderline psychopathic. Luckily, the boys are good at making their own fun so long as they stick together. But when the bandages come off (revealing the face of actress Susanne Wuest) the twins channel their resourceful household tinkering toward more violent ends.
Shot on 35mm, the film’s kinetic outdoor sequences amidst corn stalks and hailstorms provide a harsh contrast to the still framing of the house’s stark interiors. The overall effect of its clean visuals and tightly calibrated ambient sound—an unnerving combination of serenity and terror—is sure to linger well past the closing credits. (Given the cringe-worthy nature of the subject matter, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film was produced by Ulrich Seidl, the partner and uncle of Franz and Fiala, respectively; Franz has collaborated with Seidl on several films.)
In pointed contrast to the chilly surfaces of their film, Franz and Fiala exude a great deal of warmth and, unsurprisingly, humor. FILM COMMENT talked with the writing-directing duo during New Directors / New Films about genre, mommy issues, and Austria’s conflicted relationship with Hitler.
The horror genre is an especially cumulative one: it’s difficult to make something new without referencing anything else. The first thing that came to my mind was Eyes Without a Face. A lot of reviewers have also pointed out similarities to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Are any of these references conscious, or did they manifest themselves unconsciously?
Severin Fiala: I think all of them are, in fact, unconscious. We love cinema and horror films and have watched a lot of these films together. But then when we had this idea for the story for our film, it just became about the story and the characters. We weren’t consciously thinking about other films while writing the script. There are so many films dear to our hearts that maybe come out here and there, but we didn’t intend that consciously.
Veronika Franz: Of course we’ve seen and we love Franju, but we also love Insidious, Bunny Lake Is Missing, so many different films. I really like the atmosphere and mystery of Nicolas Roeg’s films—the way you can’t really tell why it is so mysterious. I like this kind of tone. We really just wanted to make the kind of film we wanted to see, as simple as that sounds [laughs].
Horror is also a genre with which you can take a lot of liberties in terms of narrative logic, but in your film everything that feels surreal is eventually explained. Why was it important for you to keep the movie so firmly grounded within the realm of reality?
SF: I think the film is simply scarier if it’s rooted in reality. If it’s fantasy, you can push it aside more easily. In our case, we’re looking at family life, which is something everyone knows—everyone has a mother or knows about the bond between mother and child.
VF: It’s also about power games within families. Today as a single mom raising children you have to be in charge all the time, but the truth is that very often you’re not in charge at all—very often the children are in charge. So we wanted to thematize this relationship in modern families.
But we also really like physical film: films that get to you and make you shiver, make you want to not look at the screen. And then after the ride is over, we like you to be able to think: “What was that all about?” We don’t like you to be able to sit there and think it all through while you’re watching it—we want to kind of erase that and then afterwards hopefully you can find something in there to go back to.
This film does both: as horror, it’s both physical and quite cerebral.
VF: Good! That’s what we wanted. And that’s why it’s rooted in reality—otherwise it’s just a mind game. I think the film really does tell us something about the existential state of mothers and kids.
The film hinges on the audience’s shifting sympathies. The fact that there’s no neutral figure to offer objectivity is key to the suspense. Was the dual perspective the plan from the beginning?
VF: The original idea was that Mom was coming home and looks different, behaves differently, and the two boys start to doubt who she is. We wanted to tell it from the children’s perspective, and that’s why it was very important that the children would be beautiful and fragile-looking.
SF: You can’t tell this story from a neutral perspective. Everything the mom does could possibly be explained quite easily, but the children don’t see it. It’s the children’s world of imagination and fantasy, so you have to stick with them or else the whole mystery doesn’t work. So the first half has more of a dreamlike feel to it, we think, because that’s how children see the world. It’s not about effects, it’s about how imagination and dreams and fears come together and make the world look really different from how adults see it.
VF: We wanted to shift that after about two-thirds of the movie and we also wanted to change the aesthetics. So first you have very static shots and its quite dark in the house—we had to build like 35 blinds to make it that dark [laughs]. After about two-thirds of the way through, we changed that: we have a very hard light and a handheld camera, which moves…
SF: …with a more documentary feel. Not this imaginary mode of the children—at least so we thought.
VF: We really wanted to follow through on everything, so everything every person does can be explained.
SF: But the mother doesn’t see that and the children don’t see that because they have different perspectives of the world. A neutral person could explain everything from beginning to end. But then it would be a boring film [laughs]. Our film is about this clash of perspectives and people not communicating clearly or talking to each other. That’s what maybe links us to Austrian cinema, where crises arise because people aren’t talking to each other. This film becomes not about talking but about seeing the world in a different way.
I’m sure you’re sick of Haneke comparisons, but lack of communication is a central theme for him as well. And your opening with the Von Trapp family singing is something that’s very specifically and recognizably Austrian. Can you speak a little bit more about the Austrian specificity of the film?
SF: The communication theme, we feel, is very Austrian—Austrians are not so straightforward, like Germans maybe. They’re always talking around issues—they never speak up or say what they mean.
VF: They cover their true thoughts and feelings very often behind irony, or by simply not talking. They also didn’t talk about Hitler, so it has a long history. It was only 25 years ago when the Austrian Chancellor [Franz Vranitzky] first publicly said in parliament that Austria was not a victim—Austria was guilty. I mean, that was 25 years ago! Until then, Austria would always say: “Oh, we were the first victims of Hitler Germany” even knowing that Hitler was Austrian. [Laughs] And I think that’s very typically Austrian—kind of avoiding the truth.
SF: Many Austrian films address that, so that’s maybe what links us to them. But in the specific case of Haneke, we don’t really see the connection. We’re often compared to Funny Games, which for us is a film actually against horror cinema—and we love horror films.
VF: We don’t like that, actually. [Laughs] He’s very moralistic. And besides, it’s a completely different situation if two strangers are entering a house from the outside world, [instead of] two children dealing with their own mother. But maybe the connection is something about the precise coldness of our style. Personally, I’m more connected to Ulrich Seidl’s films that to Michael Haneke’s.
Veronika, you once said of Seidl’s films: “You take one step further, and you have a horror movie.” Which is kind of what you’ve done here. I’m sure you picked up a lot from working with him.
VF: Yeah, I think it’s more general, actually. It’s the Austrian art-house film, basically, which we are rooted in, but we wanted to take it further. The working method was very different from Ulrich Seidl. We had to shoot in six weeks, and we shot every day and had a really firm plan. Writing with Ulrich, we just kind of write short stories, or very precise treatments, but we don’t write any dialogue. We develop the dialogue with the actors and actresses, so very often the ends of the films change. This was not possible in our case, because we really had a firm plan.
SF: But what we learned from Ulrich Seidl is that we wanted to be as open as possible within our strict shooting schedules for surprises—for real life. Like when the hail happened, we were shooting a completely different scene inside, but we all ran outside to shoot that. We had to shoot that because it’s real and it’s there and it’s really good. Also the children’s… rülpsen? [mimes burping]
Ah, the burping contest! I loved that!
VF: Yeah, the burping contest! [Laughs] The boys were just doing it in front of the sound technicians. We passed by and heard it, and thought, we have to shoot that. What we also took from Ulrich is that we shot chronologically: we tried to go with the children through the story. We didn’t have the script on set, so the children didn’t know the story. They knew the basic situation: this is your mom, she’s coming back, she’s acting strange, and you have to find out who she is. We revealed the story to them day by day, in bits and pieces.
SF: How the story evolves and how they follow it is just how the children follow it in the film. That kept the actors interested in what was coming next. If you tell children how it all ends on the first day of shooting, they lose interest.
Working with young kids must make it challenging to get your vision across—especially given the dark subject matter.
VF: It’s very easy, actually.
SF: The only important thing is to keep them interested and to keep the atmosphere light and playful.
VF: Working with actors is always about trust. If they trust you, it’s very easy, and children just trust you. They want to do as good a job as possible, and they trust what you tell them to do. It’s more complicated with adult actors, because of course they have their own ideas, and maybe they don’t think you are right.
The kind of subtle suspense that drives your film is something I’d imagine is hard to convey in the writing stage—so much of it is in the sound and pacing, making the ordinary eerie. I particularly loved the sound in the moment when the mother is eating crackers in bed. Can you talk about your collaboration with the sound designers and how you built up the tension from the writing stage to the final product?
VF: The writing we did together—we didn’t separate the duties. So we sat together writing the script and would read it out loud to each other.
SF: You can really feel if it’s boring or stupid. It’s embarrassing to read your script out loud [laughs].
VF: It’s not very pleasant. But I think that helped with the suspense because we could see, OK, this is not working, and we could try to find another solution for the scene.
SF: Then we had this finished script, and we know it’s not perfect. If something is not working, you can try to fix it during shooting, and then the last chance you have is in the editing room, which is really connected to writing. It’s like rewriting the whole story.
VF: We knew there was going to be almost no sound. I mean, we have a very good sound designer obviously and a very good composer—Olga Neuwirth, an Austrian composer, and she’s also based in New York. It was very funny when we showed the film to her: she would say, “This film doesn’t need any music.” [Laughs] So we knew we wanted to make kind of a silent film that only has very precise tones. She was a little bit disappointed because she wanted to compose more music, and I think it ended up being only three or four parts where we used her music. The rest of it was a very delicate balance to not make it too loud. I dream of a film without any dialogue, so if we could have a scene and spare the dialogue, we would do that.