Sarah Kirk describes Mother Superior as a captivating and haunting debut feature exploring occult magic and the eternal cycle of the feminine being.
Writer and director Marie Alice Wolfszahn mesmerizes with her debut film, Mother Superior. Starring Isabella Händler and Inge Maux, the moody folk horror centers on themes of racial purity in post-Nazi Germany, familial lineage, self-discovery, and pagan rituals with beautifully striking cinematography by Gabriel Krajanek, alongside standout performances. Solfszahn's adaptation of the "Dweller on the Threshold" is creative and beguiling.
Sigrun, an anesthesiologist in training, takes a position at Rosenkrauz Manor, a secluded, gothic mansion with a dark history. Here, she cares for the elderly baroness who resides in the manor, hoping to find a linkage to her past. Sigrun's quest to find her parents and understand herself brings her face-to-face with danger. Rosenkreuz Manor holds strange dreams, blood lineage, occult morals and magic, and a threat to her life and identity. Fate brings Baroness Heidenreich and Sigrun together in the film's enigmatic story.
Krajanek’s haunting cinematography features a remarkable opening with newspaper clippings scattered around a room. Furthermore, the immersive camera shots as Sigrun enters the mansion emanate an eerie atmosphere and the nagging idea that something is amiss. As she entered the house, a high-angle shot peers down at her from the circular staircase. Sigrun is like a fly in the spider’s web. Krajanek and Wolfszhan evoke the gothic with occult imagery: shots of animal bones, a celestial woman cloaked in white, and blood.
In one notable scene, unsettling camera movements evoke a sense of dread as the baroness pricks Sigrun’s finger, and the shot lingers on the blood spreading like a flower into a testing kit. Separately, Sigrun explores the house, and the camera moves along the dark and dusty corridors, pausing to focus on closed doors signifying that there is more to the manor than meets the eye. The cinematography creates a mystifying air, with Krajanek’s aesthetic commanding our attention.
Händler captures the beauty of Sigrun and her desperate, yearning nature to discover her place in the world. To do so, she must learn about her past. Her determined nature comes across in her actions, like when she snoops around the house after being told not to. She also states her intent with the baroness, expressing her desire to find out where she comes from. Sigrun is impressive in this way, as she leans towards inquiry versus being afraid. Her independence drives her to continue searching for herself without outside interference. Sigrun’s unwavering spirit and proclivity for curiosity remain her notable characteristics, portrayed believably by Händler. The internal pain of not knowing where she comes from is Sigrun’s driving force for her behaviors, which Händler draws upon for her performance.
The first time we glimpse Baroness Heidenreich, she already conveys a sense of authority and unease. Maux is delicate in her approach to Heidenreich, perfecting her image as the Aryan baroness with her constant comments and ravings on blood lineage purity. When muttering and talking about her past medical career to Sigrun, her eyes light up with passion. She appears mischievous with her dazzling eyes and intense stare. Her Parkinson’s disease periodically overwhelms the Baroness—her bright face and regal nature are diluted as she yells in confusion. We never know which side of the baroness we'll see. Händler and Maux bring intense feminine energy to their roles, lending to the film's feminist airs.
With performances that captivate, strong direction, and a bold story, it’s hard to believe this is Wolfszhan’s first feature. Mother Superior is an inspiring debut taking on history's past barbarous ideologies and adding layers of matriarchal terror with its tenacious female lead. Wolfszhan successfully creates a mysterious, culturally and politically provocative film.
Mother Superior premiered internationally at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on October 15, 2022.