READ MORE: New Directors/New Films: ‘Goodnight Mommy’ Is an Arthouse Shocker Best Seen Cold
When I was a child, I dreamt my father was split in two. He came to tuck me in, told me a story, shut out the lights and sat beside my bed until I fell asleep. Minutes later, someone else entered the room — someone who looked exactly like my father. But my real father was still sitting beside me. Or was he? Dad One turned on the lights to confront Dad Two. They each fought desperately for my recognition, pleading with me to believe they were who they said they were. They recounted memories and information that only my real father could have known. They were equally convincing. I was petrified. Was I awake? Was this a nightmare or some cruel test? Would I ever see my real father again?
To watch “Goodnight Mommy” is to experience this very nightmare. The expertly crafted Austrian horror film — originally titled “Ich seh, Ich seh,” which translates to “I See, I See,” a German children’s game — stars a pair of identical twin brothers (Lukas and Elias Schwartz) whose mother (Susanne Wuest) has just undergone facial reconstructive surgery. But the mother who returns to their isolated countryside home is not the same as the mother who left in the first place. Her face is obscured with a haunting bandage, and her personality seems to have changed for the worse. She’s no longer the engaging, warm maternal figure the boys know and love. Instead, she imbues the entire house with an aura of coldness. She’s detached and indifferent to the boys’ wants and needs. She exhibits bizarre behaviors, including the apparent rejection of one of the twins, and doesn’t like the same things she did before the surgery. Sometimes, she even seems psychopathic. Who is this haunting simulacrum of a mother?
What begins as an uncanny undercurrent escalates into a twisted dissection of identity, a cat-and-mouse game that finds all parties fearing for their lives. The familiar transmogrifies into the gaping unknown. An atmospheric, tension-laden psychological thriller becomes a brutal horror film that challenges bonafide fans of the genre. With “Goodnight Mommy,” co-directing team Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have tapped into one of the deepest fears in human relationships: that the person you know and love today may not be the same person tomorrow.
“That’s how children can feel,” said Fiala. “They feel like, ‘If that’s my mom, then she always has to look and be like this,’ but in every one of us there are so many different possible personalities, and they change all the time.”
One day, Franz and Fiala were watching a reality television show featuring women who volunteer to undergo plastic surgery. “Moms are separated from the children for a month or two and they get a new mouth, new teeth, new cheekbones, new haircut, and new clothes,” explained Fiala. When the family is reunited, what is positioned to be a magical, music-swelling red carpet moment is subverted by unmistakable horror. “If you look closely at the children, their eyes are horrified,” said Fiala. Franz added: “There was even one moment when a girl grabbed her father’s arm and said, ‘This is not our mother.'”
For Franz and Fialia, this moment was the seed of the story. And how better to tell a story about identity than with a pair of identical twins? “It was quite easy to call schools and ask the principal if there were twins at the school, because every principal knew about them if there were,” said Franz. They called hundreds of pairs of twins into their casting office. It was a surreal experience; in the end, they had “quite a scary collection of twins sitting there,” said Franz. The directors asked each pair of twins to play a game of “I Spy” in front of the camera, but the game proved a moot point because the twins could read one another so well. “They each knew what the other was referring to immediately,” said Franz. The same phenomenon repeated with “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” “We actually also tried this in the movie, but we cut it out because the twins would always pick the same thing.”
Finally, the directors settled on a different audition tactic. “We tied the actors to a chair and told the children, ‘Okay, now this woman has kidnapped your mother, and you have to find out where your mother is,'” said Franz. “We told them you can do whatever you want to find out.” Most of the twins proceeded to yell and scream at the actress in an overblown theatrical manner. But Lukas and Elias Schwartz were calm and discerning, exuding a quiet courage. “We knew instantly that those were the ones,” said Fiala.
To Franz and Fiala, it’s inconceivable that Hollywood blockbusters would show mass death without blood on the hands. Franz finds this to be an irresponsible move. “In films like ‘The Avengers,’ if thousands of people just die without shedding blood, that’s actually really concerning,” she said. “It’s PG-rated, so 12-year-old children can watch that. They have the impression that it’s okay, there’s an explosion and there’s gunfire, but it’s no big deal.”
“The most important thing is that we trusted each other 100%,” added Franz. “If you don’t have that and you have to discuss every detail, then it’s impossible to make a film together.”