Interview with Marie Alice Wolfszahn director of Mother Superior

James Whittington
August 16, 2023

NYX: Are you a fan of the horror genre?

MAW: I am indeed but it isa broad genre. I adore psychological horror, slow burns, terror with a message – “Elevated Horror” to use this fairly new term. Not seeing the monster is so much darker. Exploring the human psyche, the root of evil and where its allure comes from is what I am looking for in horror.

NYX: Where did the concept for Mother Superior come from?

MAW: The power of imagination fascinates me. Faith, ideology, folklore and fanaticism are recurring themes in my work. The connection between fascism and occultism has been part of my research for years. Eventually I discovered the existence of NS-devoted women’s movements – “folkish feminists” who fought for equality but believed in “Aryan supremacy“ – which was bewildering. This was during early Covid times and opposing parties teamed up for protests – left-wing liberals agreed with Trump, spiritual New Agers spread ultranationalist theories. So I began to think about how naively we put labels on values; and how dangerous it is to believe that there may not also be appealing ideals within despicable ideologies. In German we have an expression “a wolf in sheepskin”. It felt like the right time to pick up on this perplexing phenomenon of ambivalent moralities.

NYX: Was it a difficult script to write and did you have a cast in mind?

MAW: It was and it wasn’t. I do tend to get lost in details and endless research and overwhelm a story with background information. So the hardest process was to take a lot out again and let the characters do their magic – let the emotion rule, not my complex thought-construct. I did have someone in mind for the Baroness – a very fragile, petite lady funnily enough, but she turned out to be too old for the challenging filming process. A friend sent MeInge Maux’s demo reel. Slowly I began to fall in love with the idea of a more corpulent Baroness and adapted the screenplay a little. Inge has Jewish roots, is often cast for Yiddish characters and adored the irony of playing a Nazi-Baroness. It was a perfect fit. I cannot imagine a different Baroness anymore. I didn’t know Isabella Händler while writing but soon after my DoP, Gabriel Krajanek, introduced us. We bonded immediately, did a reading rehearsal and that was that– she was my Sigrun. Isabella is of course a very different person in real life but she has that strong will, yet gentle spirit and untainted curiosity that I was looking for.  

NYX: Is it true you were influenced by the classic documentary Grey Gardens from 1975?

MAW: I love Grey Gardens.The two Edies are such intense, multi-layered characters. They’re loveable and terrifying at the same time. I was inspired by their strange reality of being stuck in the past, living in memories, refusing to see the crumbling of their existence. The Baroness has traces of that. What is also fascinating is their weird dynamic of mutual dependence and manipulation, this ambivalence in their relationship – respect and admiration as well as contempt and ridicule. Aspects of that are in the bond between the Baroness and Sigrun.

NYX: The cast share some very intense scenes, did you have much time to rehearse?

MAW: We did for the most part which was amazing. Availability was the benefit of a production during full on Covid. The summer I would spend between preparing the location and,together with Isabella, shaping the role of Sigrun – we discussed every little possible backstory of her life. Inge came on board a little bit later but early enough for rehearsals both in Vienna as well as at the location.During the shoot we would certainly also rehearse but, in the end, the magic happens when you say “Action”.

NYX: The location is as haunting as the story, was the whole movie shot at this stunning home?

MAW: Pretty much, apart from the interrogation and the scene in the pub. The house is the fifth character and it was the first character I knew. I adore abandoned places –history is inside the walls and you can feel it. The challenge is to catch the atmosphere on camera, not just the aesthetic but the smell, the dust, the temperature. Of course the house didn’t look like this when we first entered.Most rooms were empty, the furniture that was there was underneath layers of debris and mould. Bats were flying around (super cute, their excrement is everywhere not so much) until we woke the house out of its deep sleep. But the atmosphere was always there. And so were most of the props, one just had to discover and dig them out first. To have a whole summer playing with a giant deserted dollhouse, together with my Art Department force (my mother Cristina and Manuel Biedermann), was a dream come true.

NYX: How hard was it to get the period detail right?

MAW: I mean, of course it is hard but this is where the fun begins. Finding the perfect paper, stamps and retro fonts for forging old documents, natural colours for the patina,authentic packaging for medicines, fitting old book covers, dusty laboratory glass, ancient technical equipment, etc etc. And if we did not find it, we had to build it. Set design is the only profession where loosing yourself in details is improving the job. Thankfully there were all sorts of weird things in the house and my family has a tendency to collect stuff since generations.Still, it was insane but I loved every bit of it.

NYX: This is your debut feature, were you nervous the first day on set?

MAW: For sure. This was my first time working with experienced actors and directing long dialogue scenes. But I realised there are many approaches, mine is empathy and openness to input. The cast was well prepared and once you have a solid base, you can then experiment within that. When your and your team’s visions flow together it becomes this beautiful mutual effort. There was a certain magic on set that made us all go the extra mile. The whole experience was definitely a confidence boost for me.

NYX: What lessons in directing did you learn whilst making Mother Superior?

MAW: For me, the ideal scenario is to talk intensely about the characters beforehand so the cast has such a deep understanding of their roles that they know better than I ever would how the persons they are playing will react to certain things. Of course,one may still try out various approaches for scenes but more like mood swings rather than contrasting methods.

NYX: The movie slowly builds as the lead character, Sigrun, discovers more of her past and her sense of belonging increases. Was this difficult to pace in the edit?

MAW: Actually, the challenge was to make it faster at times. We felt that Sigrun, as well as the audience, needed to discover certain things earlier. For example, the whole backstory of the “Lebensborn” (SS program to increase the Aryan birth rate) and the fact that Sigrun was born there, was to be only fully revealed in act 2.Finally, my editor, Georg Eggenfellner, and I decided that following her emotionally is more important than the surprise factor. So we cut back to the interrogation scene earlier than in the script. But this is nothing unusual.Editing is all about feeling the flow. For the most part, we followed the screenplay.The only parts that kept changing drastically again and again were the dream sequences.

NYX: Do you believe in any sort of paranormal happenings or an existence beyond?

MAW: Oh I like that question. Could fill this page if we really get into this. But in essence: Yes,I do believe in things beyond the here and now. Clearly, there are realms outside our spectrum of perception, far above our capacity of comprehension. It’s absurd to think that there are not more layers/forces/entities/systems than the proven ones. Try and convince someone from 1500 of the existence of Dark Matter.Yet for me, the significance is not what really exists but the effect it has onus. As mentioned before, I’m highly intrigued by the power of imagination since it influences all human motives – we live in a grey zone between reality and fiction. I believe that belief has the ability to create (to a certain extent).For a Hindu, Shiva exists and may really appear to him. A Christian nun may really hear the Holy Mother. An Amazonian shaman may really feel his spirit animal. Same on the dark side: someone may really be possessed by a demon and speak in tongues in an unknown language – but it will be a demon his culture knows. What these phenomena are – that people of faith, of hypersensitivity, of insanity (or whatever it takes) may experience – is impossible to grasp. But I don’t doubt that they pick up on something. Their mind will do the rest.

NYX: There seems there could be a lot more to this story, will we see a continuation of sorts?

MAW: There are plans for a sort of prequel, at least in the sense of kindred themes. For years, I keep circling back to the grandmother of Western esotericism: Madame Blavatsky, a 19thcentury occultist and spiritual teacher. There is a picture of her in the Baroness’chambers in “Mother Superior” (in my imagination, she’s her reincarnation).I’ve always wondered why there is no film yet about Helena Blavatsky. She has paved the way for so many movements and her theories are omnipresent. Her teachings are controversial and she was most definitely not a genuine person but her life story is spectacular and undoubtedly worth telling. I’m not sure if this will be a biopic or genre film but it will explore the supernatural either way.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

MAW: Apart from a film about Madame Blavatsky, I’m co-writing a Christmas folk horror with Elise Salomon, a splendid author based in LA. It deals with the Wild Hunt, an ancient myth of a procession of ghost riders seen in the winter skies. Elise came to me in search for an Austrian director and it has been a highly inspirational, fruitful collaboration for both of us.

NYX: Marie Alice Wolfszahn, thank you very much.