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Marie Alice Wolfszahn and Isabella Händler talk Mother Superior

12 min read

Filmhounds sat down with director Marie Alice Wolfszahn and actress Isabella Händler to discuss their new folk Mother Superior ahead of the UK premiere at Glasgow on March 10th. The visually striking and morally challenging film follows Sigrun (played by Händler) as she attempts to uncover her past by caring for an elderly baroness who ran a Nazi eugenics program where Sigrun was born. Sigrun uncovers more than she bargained for but will stop at nothing to find out who she is. We talk about the driven protagonist, the terrifying manor house, the potential oxymoron of Nazi feminists, and why this period piece acts as a powerful post-COVID fable. 

 

is quite historical, did that entail a lot of research and preparation for your performance and for production?

Marie: The mythological, ideological backbone of the NS is something that I've been researching for a while. I recently discovered these feminist writers within that realm, and I was surprised because it makes no sense to me, that was when I thought “wow, that's really crazy. That is interesting. That is relevant.” I always say it is and it isn't a COVID film because it's not like COVID [began] and I was like “so what do I want to do? I could write a film!” It was happening before, but of course, it gave me the time to go fully into it. Then all these bizarre things happened during COVID, especially in the beginning, when there were all these protests and things. There was basically opposing parties teaming up, people who we consider to be liberal and into alternative medicines and things were suddenly supporting Trump. There were all these bizarre mixtures where you were thinking “how do these guys get on? How does this work?” It's the same with the Nazi feminists [in the film]. I just realised that there are a lot of ideologies possibly finding some mutual grounds, but looking from the outside we assume it is totally contradictory. I thought that was interesting because it really boils down to what do we think is right or wrong. What is allowed and what's not? It is a little bit uncomfortable because, some things you agree with, and then others you're absolutely shocked by and it doesn't make sense, it's confusing.

Isabella: Obviously, the Lebensborn [Nazi program to increase Aryan births] is a very important topic in the film, especially for the character Sigrun, because she was born in it. I really got to know, through Marie, this part of history. When we started working I got a very detailed overview, it was very new for me. I had to research by myself and together with Marie, and I got filled with all this information which was for me, of course, very important to build the character. Sigrun is born in this scenario, then as an adult is left not knowing where she comes from, who her parents are, and more or less who she is. She goes on to search for that. This was actually, for me working on the character, one of the most important aspects, she really needs to find who she is and where she comes from for herself. That's her driving force for all the bad decisions she goes on to make. I think it's a very human need to want to know who you are, I always tried to focus on this aspect. I think it is also important today, and probably always was for us humans. As Marie said before, these movements, even the weirdest combinations of political or theoretical movements, are about belonging to something. For me, this was a very interesting, and at the same time delicate, aspect of the role.

 

Was it a difficult performance to nail down in terms of that balance of subtlety and conflict?

Isabella: Yes and no, because I really tried not to overthink it. Maybe that sounds a little weird but I really had Marie's help to bring all the important facts like the past into it, and then I tried in our shooting to be in the present of Sigrun at that moment, really trying to find who she is in that moment, and then the film tells the story. I always tried to be open to see what was coming. I always wanted her, which sounds stupid because it's not real, to be really sensitive to what's coming and as open and as natural as possible, and to see how she will interact with other people. She was patient, and at the same time, she was really focused on her goal. She was maybe waiting and really looking, but she experienced all of it at the same time. Maybe she seems a little laid back, but I think she really waited for a chance to get the information she needs, and then everything gets more complicated. But she knew what she was doing, without knowing what was coming. She knows that her story will not be the stories she has been told. We get a glimpse that she tried a lot before. So she really tried to get the information, and couldn't because of the bureaucracy, so this is the final chance.

Marie: She is around 30 at that time, so she's been living with this emptiness and these questions for such a long time. So it's a big chance, and she needs to grab it, but at the same time she's used to long stretches of time waiting for something. I was more interested in really discussing this character, basically creating this person. Bella did a wonderful just to become this character. I wouldn't know what mood Sigrun would be in [at times]. We have created this person, but even with a friend that you know really well sometimes you don't know how they're going to react to something, depending on their mood and everything. I was super grateful that Bella was so great, she would ask me all these amazing questions that I might have not even thought of at that point, and then we really filled every little gap of the past. I don't want to call it method acting, that would be too much, but Bella would have a really deep understanding of the person that Sigrun is, I could even ask her for advice, we really created this person, which I enjoyed. I think over almost three months, during the summer, we would meet every other week to rehearse, talk, and just really go down very deep. So that was cool.

 

It is quite a small cast. Did you find it helpful to have time to focus on the four characters?

Marie: For sure. I really like these Chamber Plays. It is pretty amazing if you have restricted space and I think it's really interesting when you can just concentrate. It was a great time, even though making a film during the early COVID days had quite a lot of challenges, no question. Bella was there by the time we met Inge Maux, the Baroness, we basically had time to rehearse and really talk on a deeper level about these characters in the film. It's great when you have everyone's ideas and inspirations all flowing together, It's not like “you need to do this and this” but it's really a mutual effort, that's how I felt about the whole endeavour.

Isabella: I personally enjoyed it to the fullest working with my colleagues. I really have to say, they're great people, and amazing colleagues, and actors and actresses. Inge, she's amazing, I was so glad that Marie chose her, she fits wonderfully. When we were in New York and showing the movie it was in German, but translated into English. A lot of people really laughed when Inge was doing scenes. I think when it's not your mother tongue, and you get it translated, there is this black humour to her character, and it was so enjoyable for me to see her and to get a different response than from our audience who understood German, so it got a bit of a different layer. I have done other movies where there were more people involved, but I think it is always a special time when you work in a safe environment with an amazing director like Marie who is incredibly talented, focused, and passionate about the project. And then you have colleagues who are good people, and you don't want the time to end. There were days when Inge, for example, just had days of shooting, and then I played my part by myself because she already had to go, then it was sad because I missed her but it was a wonderful experience. At first I was a little nervous because Inge is a really good actress, Jochen Nickel and Tim as well. But from the moment we started, I think everyone was really focused and eager to make a really good performance. In the end, we all want that, we all want to do a good job.

 

That house was just so perfect for the movie, slightly magical, slightly creepy. Was this all shot in the one house?

Marie: Pretty much. There's the interrogation scene somewhere else, and then of course the one scene in this pub. But other than that it was all in the house. Again, it was like a chamber play in every sense. I always say the house is the fifth character, it was the first character I knew. The house is [owned by] friends of mine, many years ago they bought some land and this house is on it, it is basically falling apart. I think most people assumed they would take it down and replace it or something. Thank God they didn't and it is just sitting there. I already celebrated a birthday there many years ago and took lots of pictures and stuff. It was always in the back of my head. And then actually my cinematographer, Gabriel Krajanek, who was the one who introduced me to Bella, wanted to do something and then he was like “didn't you tell me about this amazing house?” I have a love for abandoned places, it almost sounds esoteric, but there's so much old energy or something, you can feel the things that happened there. Mother Superior is obviously fiction, it's nothing to do with the house itself. Actually, there's some aspects because there was an old lady living there with her caretaker, so she was actually the last one to live in this house up until the 1980s or something, she got to almost 100. It's so important to catch an atmosphere, catch and create it. That's why I really think it's an additional character, because if you it away, in a different setting it would be a completely different film, I'm not talking about the visual language right now, even a conversation would probably have a different meaning if it was taking place somewhere else. Of course the house didn't look like this when we first entered, there were piles and piles of [poo] from a bat colony, and we were there with shovels and masks. The cool thing was if I wasn't rehearsing with Bella, I was in the house. I was there a lot with my mother and Manuel Biedermann. We were waking this house out of its sleeping beauty state, most rooms were empty at first. The blueprint was there. Sometimes it is also great when you're writing and you're just completely free in terms of sizes of rooms or things, but I really like when you have something very specific. It's almost like you have your mind floating around this location and it is more real.

Isabella: The house was my costar, there was one diva on set and it was the house! I agree with Marie that it is amazing, I fell in love with it. From the minute I walked in it was wonderful, and Marie and the rest of the team did such an amazing job preparing it, the set designer was incredible. Of course, this makes such a difference as an actress when you are in such an environment.  Marie said before, I'm not 100% method actress, but in this case I really had the feeling jumped into another time, another world, and it was wonderful working there. I got really creeped out once because I forgot my mobile or my cigarettes or whatever and I had to go back, it was really like “oh, now it's dark, and no one is in here anymore.” I ran up and grabbed my stuff, and I left the house super-fast again. So this old energy, I totally agree with Marie, says history. You can smell it even. I am not a Lara Croft type, so I went in and I went out there very fast. In some scenes when she is walking around, for example, checking out some spaces, I was checking it out. Thanks to the house, I did not have to pretend to search for something because there was so much to look at and to be genuinely interested in. So that was really helpful. And how cool is the kitchen!

 

There are a lot of conflicting values in the movie, the cult has feminist but also fascist and eugenicist ideas etc. Is there a central message or central idea you wanted to get across, or do you think it's more about blurring those lines and making things uncomfortable?

Marie: I think a message can always be multi-layered. I see it as a bit of a warning to just consider that some really appalling, shocking worldviews or ideologies can walk hand in hand with very appealing ideas. I think this is something to really be aware of because it's quite easy to slip into something but there's another side to it, and another side of the medal that you didn't consider. It's easy to get attracted by things. I always find it very hard when people are pointing fingers at our grandparents and that generation like “how could they do that?” Well, do you really know how you would have reacted back then? A lot of times, actually, it was the more “modern” thinking people who were actually drawn to a lot of these ideas, a lot of these things are happening again. Good things too, going back to your roots, not eating meat, growing your own food, looking at old folklore and myth. I love this stuff, but there's a lot of things that were very appealing, but then look what happened. I think it's good to know that something as horrible as these ideologies may look interesting in the beginning. It is not as simple as villains walking around with bloody knives. Some things look amazing, and then they're not. I also think sometimes it's good to lure people into it in the film, and then be like “hah! Got you!” to just basically experience that a little bit.

Isabella: I am totally going to agree with Marie there. I think belonging to something, to some group, to family, to religion, to whatever, is very important to people. Sometimes I think I want to belong somewhere, it's even more important than to what, and this is totally transferable to our society nowadays. I think what Marie said is really important. I also like the idea of the “gotcha” moment. I think it is there a little bit in the end of the movie, I always call it the Kill Bill walk, and it's like “yeah, she's free! Look at all of these women” and then you think “oop!” and that's what it is, you can connect to a person who chose to do this I think this is also a message which is important.

Marie: Exactly. I remember some of the reviews were like “hmm, how did she mean this? She doesn't say it obviously”, and sometimes I'm surprised that some part of the audience, I'm not saying everybody, was expecting such a clear “this is good, and this is bad.” Isn't the world much more profound? And isn't it also more interesting to think about this? Do we really always want to be in this comfort zone of like “this is okay to like, and this is obvious to hate.” I think it's good when a film is confusing and it's making you uncomfortable, at least this type of film. Of course, I also love fairy tales. It's good when you think about it, when you're wondering “how was this meant? Is that okay?”

Mother Superior is showing at Frightfest Glasgow on March 10th