An Interview with director Marie Alice Wolfszahn
We were delighted to speak with Marie Alice Wolfszahn about her debut film, the stylishly brooding occult chiller MOTHER SUPERIOR. Marie talks about the appeal of making a period horror film, the multimedia effects and why there will be a return home to Scotland.
Hi Marie Alice Wolfszahn! Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us.
MOTHER SUPERIOR is your debut feature. How did you decide you wanted to make this film?
To be honest, I didn’t know that Mother Superior would be my debut film when I first started the project – we were planning a long short film. During the production, the scenes got bigger and bigger, the characters developed, everyone added their magic; and finally in the editing room we realized we were making a short film. (We never tried to reach a certain length, we just let the story decide its course.)
It sounds like it just grew naturally. Tell us what made you decide to navigate a period horror?
I was drawn to making a period horror film that dealt with a cult. I have long been curious about faith and ideology. The power of imagination amazes me. To that extent, the relationship between fascism and the occult is a topic I have been researching for years. The existence of women’s movements dedicated to NS was something new to me. So I decided to look deeper into this paradox.
Meanwhile, Covid raged and opposing camps joined forces — esoteric naturopaths suddenly agreeing with Trump; left-wing liberals who have fallen for ultranationalist conspiracy theories. Confused and confused, I thought about how naively we label values - good/bad, allowed/forbidden, rational/weird – and how many possible combinations there really are. That is why it seemed appropriate to raise the topic of “brown esotericism” and, more generally, to draw attention to the danger that vile worldviews can go hand in hand with attractive ideals.
How would you describe it? How would you describe it? MOTHER UPPER?
It’s a quest for self-discovery, but during her journey, Sigrun goes astray. The desire to belong overrides your moral compass. It opens up to an insidious, twisted truth, with terribly false ideals.
The ending can be interpreted however you like – most people, I assume, will interpret it as a supernatural phenomenon, a transmigration of souls. The signs point to it, and it’s a genre film. However, there is also a realistic interpretation: Sigrun has been so manipulated/brainwashed that she ends up reluctantly following in the baroness’s footsteps. It’s even darker and the warning is embedded.
That’s pretty powerful stuff!
When writing the script, did you always envision it as a genre film? Were there any special effects in this area?
Yes, I definitely wanted it to be a genre film. Somehow, raw reality isn’t how my brain works. Our subjective perception is constantly creating its own fiction. We are consumed by much more than the tangible here and now. Being able to visualize the inner mind, visualizing the psychological projections of a character, is a fantastic way to bridge emotions, desires and fears.
The horror films of the sixties/seventies, such as Rosemary’s Baby and the old Suspiria, but also the documentary Gray Gardens about Little and Big Edie, influenced me.
70s horror, our favorite.
You are a filmmaker, but tell us about Marie Alice Wolfzahn – the multimedia artist. How did your background, especially in art, influence the film?
I think my background in art comes through in my compulsive love of detail. There isn’t a single prop or spot of color in every frame that I haven’t thought about carefully. In preparing all these old documents and indexes, we considered not only the paper, ink and font, as well as the authentically forged vulture eagle stamps (our paper bin was starting to look rather suspicious), but also the small print, such as the address of the issuing authority – aware there is a chance that no one will ever see this. It bothers me when things are resolved quickly, regardless of whether they end up being in the distant background or even made up. Walking into a set and being completely immersed in another era or realm makes it that much more real. For me, it’s not just about telling a story, it’s about forging the whole world physically.
It’s amazing how invested you are in the universe you’ve created.
You deal with what you call fictional reality: faith, fanaticism and ideology – and historical family dysfunction. Did you have any personal experiences during the writing or filming process?
There is no personal experience or family history that explains my interest in the subjects of my film. If anything, my heritage is Austrian and I grew up with the horrors of WW2, but I barely learned anything about the mythological backbone of NS ideology, which I think is very important to understanding how it can rule such a crazy worldview.
As I mentioned earlier, I am very fascinated by the power of the imagination, as I believe it affects all human motives. I always say that we live in a gray area between reality and fiction.
There is no objective truth as such – I don’t mean that there is no ultimately right or wrong, but every decision has an explanation. Our values and worldview depend on our upbringing and influences. A person who stones a homosexual is terribly wrong, but he is acting according to his personal truth. This is certainly no excuse, but the better we understand the narrative, the easier it is to change it.
The performances are all exceptional. Walk us through the major casting decisions. Especially Isabella Händler as Sigrun.
My DoP had previously worked with Isabella Händler, loved her energy and introduced us. We became friends immediately, did a reading test and that was it – he was my Sigrun. Isabella is of course a very different person in real life, but she has that strong willed yet gentle spirit and untainted curiosity that I was looking for. In the end, we developed the character together over several months and discussed every possible little background of Sigrun’s life.
The baroness, on the other hand, conducted a longer search. I thought of a very frail, thin lady who refused to eat, but the actresses I cast were either too young for the role or too old for the challenging filming process. One day a friend of mine sent me Inge Maux’s demo disc. I’ve seen her in theater plays and thought she was brilliant, but I didn’t think she was a burly baroness. I slowly fell in love with the idea and tweaked the script a bit. Inge has Jewish roots, is often cast as Yiddish characters, and loved the irony of playing a Nazi baroness. It was a perfect fit.
Of course, it fits the character perfectly. I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing him.
The film won the Best Lead Award at the 2022 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. Do you think that put more pressure on you?
No. I couldn’t believe my ears when I got these amazing awards (Best Film and Best Director). It was a confidence booster and a comfort that the team, the cast and I did something right. It was my first time working with experienced actors and directing long dialogue scenes. I used to ask myself if I had enough to offer to help them bring these characters to life. But I’ve found that there are many different approaches, mine is empathy and sensitivity to everyone’s needs and openness to other people’s opinions. We were a very strong team and everyone was in it for the project, not the (small) cash. There was a certain magic on set that made us all. That being said, I am incredibly humbled to receive such a huge accolade.
The recognition is well deserved!
You studied art in Edinburgh, so when your film debuted at FrightFest Glasgow, was it a kind of homecoming for you?
Indeed, Scotland was a homecoming for me. My mum and I moved to Edinburgh when I was 15 and I went to school there for a year. I later returned for my studies and majored in film at ECA. I love wild nature and crazy weather, gothic architecture with overgrown cemeteries and dark alleys, sinister folk stories and tragic lyrics. Scotland definitely had a strong influence on me and shaped me into who I am.
The end of the film suggests that we haven’t seen the last of Sigrun. Any plans for a sequel?
Funnily enough, the plans include a prequel of sorts. During my research, I stumbled again and again on the grandmother of esotericism in today’s sense – the 19th century spiritual teacher named Madame Blavatsky. There are photographs of him in the High Baroness’s room. There is no movie about Helena Blavatsky, even though she paved the way for every New Age movement we think of today. His teachings are very controversial and he was not necessarily a real person, but his life story is spectacular and his theories are everywhere. I’m not sure if this is going to be a biopic or more of a fiction, but I do know that it explores the supernatural both ways.#
That sounds exciting.
2022 was a great year for the genre. What were the standout film choices?
The innocent ones written by: Eskil Vogt
Lucifer written by Peter Brunner
Hueser written by Michelle Garza Cervera
Blaze by Del Kathryn Barton
Moloch written by Nico van den Brink
Something in the dirt Written by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson
You made fantastic decisions.
what awaits you
In addition to researching the film Madame Blavatsky, I am writing a Christmas folk horror with a wonderful American author, Elise Salomon. It takes up the ancient myth of the Wild Hunt, the eerie procession of ghost riders across the winter sky. Again, there is a strong female character with rather ambivalent motives.
2023 sounds interesting to you. Good luck with these projects and thanks for sitting down and talking. We had a lot of fun.
More interviews with filmmakers, actors, directors and more Click here