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Fear of Fear: Luca Guadagnino’s Visual Influences for ‘Suspiria’

"We wanted to tell a story set in Berlin, 1977, and we wanted to make a film from that era as if we were there."

At age 13, director Luca Guadagnino saw that Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic giallo thriller, Suspiria, was airing on Italian public television—just he was about to sit down to dinner. He recalls, “I said, ‘I don’t want to eat,’ and went and locked myself into a room all alone to watch it.

“I was terrified and exhilarated by its crazy boldness, its formal dare, the music, the evocative power of the concept of witches,” Guadagnino says. “This movie made such a humongous impression on me.” (It wasn’t long before Guadagnino began fantasizing about remaking the movie: “I had notebooks in which I would write, ‘Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino.'”)

“Still, the question remained of how to approach such a revered project,” he tells Michael Nordine. “For me, making films is a natural act, and I do what I believe I need to do, so of course it is interiorized, my knowledge of Dario’s film and my respect for it, but at the same time, it is a part of me and who I am that I pursue what I want.

“I believe that, when you do a movie, you always have to have a zone of darkness, a zone of incomprehension, in order to completely let yourself not resist the process of making your film. You have to submit to the movie happening.” To read the full interview, click here.

Guadagnino brought his cinematic dream to vivid life with a translation of the film that awed and inspired him from an early age.

The film starts with the same premise as the original: a young American dancer named Susie finds herself drawn to a dance company that secretly houses a coven of witches. While the original takes place in the small southwestern German city of Freiburg, Guadagnino’s version is set in a divided Cold War Berlin at a time when terror attacks from the far-left Baader-Meinhof Group have reached a fever pitch. The young dancers’ dawning awareness about the true nature of the Markos Company is mirrored by their growing understanding of the compromised world they are entering.

“Moving the bulk of our story to Berlin during the tense final weeks of the Baader-Meinhof era meant we could situate the dance company right in the middle of a recent example of society’s battle with its addiction to fascism,” says screenwriter David Kajganich. “At the time, there was an anger rising up in Germany’s youth about what their parents and grandparents had perpetrated on Europe with the war, which the older generations had not yet fully understood—let alone taken responsibility for.” 

“The mess of divided Berlin and the horrors of the Third Reich haunt the school,” says Emily Yoshida, “ruled over by artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and the seldom seen grand dame Helena Markos. Their institution could be seen as a kind of counterbalance, a fortress against the ugliness that Berlin has seen, a beacon of hope through art and expression and physical integrity.”

Guadagnino says the film reflects the feminism that swept Europe in the 1970s “in the way we describe the archetypical figure of the witch and the way the movie showcases a variety of female characters and empowers and de-victimizes the women.”

Guadagnino collaborated again with director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. “Many people expect the film to be in vivid color like the original,” says Mukdeeprom. “But upon reading the first script I started to see the movie in my own way, and I didn’t feel an element of strong color.”

Instead, the film’s visual style flowed organically from its setting, according to Guadagnino: “We wanted to tell a story set in Berlin, 1977, and we wanted to make a film from that era as if we were there.”

The director was specifically inspired by the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific German filmmaker whose vast oeuvre includes The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Veronika Voss (1982) and the television epic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

“Sayombhu and I discussed [cinematographers] Michael Ballhaus and Xaver Schwarzenberger’s work for Fassbinder as well as the paintings of Balthus,” says Guadagnino. “We wanted to encompass something that was from the period and the place rather than mimic a mood or find a random one. 

“The palette includes a variety of grays and browns and rust and pale blues and greens. We really wanted it to be a reflection of the period and the German cinema of the period.”

Read more: “We Should Recreate The Real World In Another Dimension:” Director of Photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom on Suspiria

“Although I sometimes shoot digital, filming on film always makes for a better practical experience and more rewarding aesthetic choice in storytelling,” says Mukdeeprom in an interview.

“First of all, I love the experience of working with an optical viewfinder and the real interaction this gives you with the actor’s performances and the light, as opposed to the uncertainty of the small screen display in a digital camera. Additionally, Luca wanted this production to look wintery, evil and really dark, and to populate the shadows with special details.” To read the full article, click here.

“Though split focus diopters, crash zooms, color filters and a stuttering slo-mo that leaves an aurora of motion behind it, do all appear, these potentially tacky effects are used sparingly, perhaps in playful tribute to the excesses of the original,” says Jessica Kiang. “Mostly, the director’s instinct, complemented by Thom Yorke’s plaintive, comparatively pared-back score, is to beautify and render elegant the freakshow he is creating in-camera. It makes Suspiria oddly hilarious, as well as deliciously confusing to the eye: the images are gorgeous; what they are of is repellent, and one’s reaction is often off-balance, horrified, admiring laughter.” 

“I love the acute Berlin-ness and 1977-ness of Guadagnino’s version,” says Richard Lawson,  “the way the film staggers and dances in the dreary, long fallout of war, its stabs of beauty thrashing out through an uneasy gloom.

“And there is such beauty!” Lawson continues. “The photography has a rich grain to it, looking old but not slavishly so, without any retro gimmick. The film’s spaces—its cramped offices and lonely bedrooms and echoing rehearsal halls—are all credibly realized. They’re textured, worn, haunted by human activity. Though the film trends toward the surreal, Guadagnino keeps its stage distressingly real. That these frightening things could happen in these drab but stately places makes it all the more unnerving.” To read the full article, click here.

“The cinematography and sound design take things to 11 again and again—like rich colorization and heightened audio (an almost extinguishing flame sound) as the lights dim before dance practices,” says Nathan Mattise, “or the use of quick cuts, silence, and title cards at various points of the film. The film has room for moments of laughing out loud and genuine sexiness in between unraveling its mystery and introducing horror. 

For production designer Inbal Weinberg that meant steering clear of the aesthetic of Argento’s original: “The 1970s Suspiria is of course an iconic horror film with a very stylized look and color scheme, but it’s specific to its time and too unique to re-create,” she says. 

“Instead, Luca and I agreed that our film should have a realistic quality to it, and we wanted to juxtapose that realism with the supernatural elements that are slowly exposed in the film. We felt the more authentic the environment, the scarier it would be when things start going wrong.”

Read more: How an Abandoned Hotel Became a Witches’ Lair for Suspiria

“Guadagnino has created a platter of quick-cut psychosis shots—fingernails dug into hardwood floors, faceless women scaling door jambs, blood, dancing lights—that pepper the film as it descends into its finale,” says Angela Watercutter.

Suspiria is a film of rare and unfettered madness, and it leaves behind a scalding message that’s written in pain and blood,” says David Ehrlich. “The future will be a nightmare if we can’t take responsibility for the past.” To read the full article, click here.

Kiang describes Suspiria as “a long, deliriously filmic, primal banshee-howl of macabre imagination that leaves us hormonal and drunk on that lovely delusion: the beautiful, thrilling, lurid lie of cinema.” To read the full article, click here.