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‘Goodnight Mommy’ Directors on the Value of Violence and How Horror Should Be ‘Challenging’

'Goodnight Mommy' Directors on the Value of Violence and How Horror Should Be 'Challenging'

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.”

“Lots of children and teenagers experience a moment where they doubt that their parents are really their parents,” added Franz, co-director and Fiala’s aunt. “It’s like coming of age, confronting who you are and who your parents are. Lots of children think: Am I adopted? Can these really be my parents?” Franz herself remembers experiencing this disorienting feeling. As a child, she would falter upon seeing her grandfather with a newly shaven face. But the scariest moment occurred while playing a game of hide-and-seek with her mother. “My mother was covered with a blanket and acting really scary,” Franz remembers. “I thought: This is a monster now; she’s not my mom. She’s showing her true side and the monster is coming out.” That feeling of breached trust and dissociative identity never left Franz.

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. 

Directing the twins, however, proved to be less streamlined. In the film, the boys engage in both inspired play and extreme acts of violence. Of course, child non-actors are not particularly adept at switching gears. “We can’t just tell them, ‘Just be funny and play now,'” said Franz. “We have to get them into the mood.” To do that, the directors intermittently played with the children, even if it meant delaying the shooting schedule. “But they grew with the challenge,” added Franz. “We also worked with surprising them and making them look scared. In the end, it was not necessary at all. Actually, in the end they pretended to be surprised when we tried to do it for a scene, just to make us feel good.”

Because the violent scenes mostly came together in the editing room, the boys didn’t comprehend the extent of the gore. At the premiere, the boys’ parents decided not to let them watch the second half of the movie. “They knew how the scenes were staged, and they remembered that it was kind of boring or ridiculous shooting those scenes,” said Franz. “But even at the beginning, which is not really scary, they were kind of like, ‘It’s not as boring as we imagined.’ That’s the power of cinema, that it still works no matter if you know how it was made. You can’t distance yourself from what you see. It was good that they didn’t see all of the film. I think they would have been really scared.”
The violence in “Goodnight Mommy” is brazen and unflinching, drawing unavoidable comparisons to Michael Haneke. In the latter half of the film, audiences will be loath to keep their eyes open. “Two people fainted,” said Fiala. “That’s the best compliment we’ve had so far.” The directors have a strict philosophy on violence: If it could happen in the real world, show it. “I think if violence is grounded in something which is true to characters and to the world, it’s important to show it in cinema,” said Franz. “We need to confront people. It’s our obligation to show what’s going on. That’s what film is about.”

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.”

According to Fiala, violence in art house horror films is more difficult to pull off than in big-budget slashers. “If you do it in an arthouse film, people tend to run away or say, ‘Why should I watch something like this?'” he said. “But this is a horror film, and a horror film draws you into it and at the same time repulses you. You say I don’t want to look at this, but you look between your fingers because you want to see it. That’s what’s so great about horror.”

The twins are not the only in-sync pair in “Goodnight Mommy.” Behind the scenes, Franz and Fiala achieved an incredible feat — as co-directors, they operated on the same wavelength, making every decision together without exception. Though it’s an unorthodox process that seems daunting, the directors are unfazed by the ease with which they pulled it off. “It’s boring to talk about, mainly because we did everything together and decided everything together, from the first idea in writing to the last day in the editing room,” said Fiala. “We have never disagreed on set on anything,” added Franz. “The only discussions we really had were in the editing room.” When they did have dissenting opinions, the directors maintained perspective; they never allowed arguments to become personal. “We only argued because of the movie,” said Fiala. “We are not vain and it’s not about ego. It’s only about what we think is best for the movie.”

“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.”

Trust, then, is at the heart of “Goodnight Mommy.” Franz and Fiala have broken down the most sacred trust contract of all: That which exists between parent and child. They’ve exposed the machinations of identity as fragile and unstable. Whether parent and child or doting lovers, contradiction is in the fabric of our being. We may never be able to predict another person’s behavior from one day to the next. For Franz, this is more terrifying than any bloodbath imaginable. “Our film is about a loss of trust, and maybe you cannot restore that,” she said. 
“We like to be challenged by films,” continued Fiala. “We don’t like films to just simply entertain. For us, a film also has to be problematic or unpleasant at the same time. It does something to you… to your body, and to your mind afterwards.” 

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