Jessica Harper and screenwriter David Kajganich on the politics of Suspiria

Spoiler Space offers thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot points we can’t reveal in our official reviews. Fair warning: Major plot points for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake are revealed below.

Suspiria opened wide this past weekend, which means we can finally talk about its ending. And we don’t just mean the chaotic supernatural bloodbath of the climactic ritual, though we imagine we’ll be pausing it to better appreciate mutant hands hanging off of Tilda Swinton’s full-body Helena Markos makeup once the film hits streaming. Nor do we mean the film’s lone comedic scene, as the surviving members of the Tanz Academy coven clean up the brains of their rebellious sisters that have been splattered all over the ritual chamber.

We mean the big twist in the character of Susie, who reveals herself at the end of the film to be the manifestation of the all-powerful witch queen Mater Suspiriorum. This reveal changes everything that came before, upending the dynamics of the relationship between Susie and Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and casting new light on Susie’s persona as an innocent Mennonite girl from Ohio. We talked to Jessica Harper, who played Susie in the original Suspiria, about the evolution of the character following the North American premiere of the film at this year’s Fantastic Fest.

In that same interview, we also talked with the film’s screenwriter, David Kajganich, about the transformation, as well as an aspect of the film that frankly rather concerned us—a tragic romantic subplot about Dr. Josef Klemperer’s (also Tilda Swinton) guilt over losing his wife, Anke (Harper), during World War II. For a film that so boldly (and proudly) puts itself forward as female-dominated, why give the most sympathetic emotional arc to a man?

The A.V. Club: The whole thrust of the original Suspiria is Susie discovering that the school is run by witches. Here it’s clear from the outset. And that forced you to come up with a completely new narrative within this world, and a new narrative arc for the heroine.

David Kajganich: When we knew we were going to remake [the movie], obviously we wanted it to be quite bold and different and original. [And when] we decided that it would really be about the internal politics of this coven, then there’s no reason to hold back that information. The original is so iconic, anyone who knows one thing about that movie knows that reveal. So it seemed like, okay, as storytellers, why don’t we put that right out there from the beginning? Then we won’t be able to hide behind that mystery. It will mean that every minute of the film can be spent on things that are an elaboration of that [idea of the coven].

We knew we wanted the film to be about a different kind of Susie, and a different kind of power that she amasses by the end of the film. And that meant that we could open up the political context in Berlin in the ’70s. We could open up this continuum of being politically passive, being a witness, [versus] being politically active and politically revolutionary. All the characters exist somewhere on that continuum, for different reasons. And to me, [the film] is very much about becoming politically active. The way that Susie [becomes politically active] is a big surprise, and the way that Klemperer doesn’t is a big tragedy. To me, the film is full of everyone making choices about how to react to some very difficult and dangerous political situations.

AVC: Jessica, the way you played Susie in the original Suspiria is all about her journey of discovery. It’s sort of a coming-of-age story. In this film, she’s powerful and secretly guiding the narrative from the beginning. Do you have any thoughts about the evolution of the character?

Jessica Harper: In retrospect I could’ve been doing that, for all I know. You could go back and go, “Oh, that’s what it was about when she walks out of the house at the end [of the original Suspiria] and she smiles. She’s going to evolve into that.” It makes me think back about where I was at in that movie. And now, in the new movie, she has many more layers and is much more overtly complex. I find that so fun to track.

AVC: It was an interesting choice to center the emotional heart of the film around Klemperer and your character (gestures to Harper), Anke, going missing during WWII. It takes the focus away from this group of women onto a man’s emotional journey and Anke as this romantic ideal. What was the thought behind that, to introduce a man’s emotional pain into this story about women?

DK: That’s a great question. Because we’re saying, in the wider context, this coven had to go underground because they were disallowed any access to public power. Certainly, when the Third Reich came to power, they were pushed down. There’s a line in the film that all the Nazis wanted was for women to have their uteruses open and their minds shut. That was certainly a reality for women artists at the time.

And so we have, as a counterpoint to that, a man who had a voice at that moment in history and didn’t use it. [Klemperer] stood by as a witness, not just to what the witches do in our movie, but to what the entire Reich did, including losing his wife. And it was too big for him to react to in any way that was productive. All he could do is sit with the trauma of seeing evil perpetrated. And at some point, the film, and any historical scholar of that period, will ask, at what point does passivity bleed into complicity?

And when he finds out in our film that there is in fact a cult going on, that there is actual evil on the table, he wants nothing to do with it. He takes all Patricia’s things and he throws them into the river. And we wanted the audience to understand that that is a pitiable position to be in. That his pain is real, that he grieves for his wife, that he has been overwhelmed in his own story, by not just the evil of the Third Reich, but now this evil. And he’s completely disempowered.

And [I wanted to] contrast that against characters inside of the coven, who are working hard to amass private power—and using it. Like Susie, who is ascending to this quite important position within that power structure. So it seemed to me less like diverting the attention of the film to a man’s story and more contrasting the empowerment of the female characters in the story with one man’s disempowerment.

The only other male characters in the film are reduced to objects within minutes. That was really important to our understanding. Yes, women, if not given access to public power, will of course build private power. And whatever a man might be afraid of [in terms of] a woman’s public power, I can promise her private power is exponentially more.

AVC: Jessica, your character in this film, Anke, you could argue that she’s not actually there, she’s just a vision that was conjured up, like a hologram. How do you approach doing something really enigmatic like that?

JH: Of course, I am basically a witch in disguise. But when you play anything in disguise, you have to abandon any connection to the character you’re concealing. You need to be the person that you’re pretending to be entirely, otherwise it’s never going to play.

AVC: So just pure projection?

JH: I was just Anke. I didn’t have the witch thing underneath, because if you tap into that, it’s a spoiler. It takes the performance in a direction that makes it less credible. Because [Klemperer] would never know it wasn’t really her. So you have to look at it [in terms of] the way the character is being perceived. It informs the way you play the character. You haven’t seen your house in how many years, and you’re suddenly reconnecting? It’s all about the emotional.

DK: And who knows if they aren’t actually channeling something of Anke that still exists in that universe?

JH: Yeah, but his wish makes the magic, if that’s the case.

AVC: I did enjoy that the parameters of what the witches can do are vague. Because then they can just do anything.

Along with her role in the reimagined Suspiria, Jessica Harper also recently completed a multi-part podcast memoir about growing up in suburban Chicago called Winnetka. That’s due to arrive in February, and you can get updates by following Harper’s Facebook page.

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