“How frightful to know nothing of the origins of one’s blood.” So says Baroness Heidenreich, the arch-villainess of Marie Alice Wolfszahn’s chilling feature, Mother Superior. This gothic horror from Wolfszhan establishes the Austrian screenwriter as a promising directorial talent. Mother Superior has already taken the best feature award in the main competition at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and was hotly anticipated ahead of its run at FrightFest Glasgow 2023, an arm of the U.K.’s largest international thriller, fantasy and horror movie festival.
Mother Superior‘s Gothic Suspense
Wolfszhan’s movie charts a razor-sharp course between the edges of different genres. These include science fiction, gothic horror, and alternative history. The movie is a treat that unfolds against the backdrop of brooding cinematography. Two memorable central female performances also enhance the movie. One delight of the festival circuit is seeing national film, television, and theatre actors with long careers receive wider international audiences.
Inge Maux is an especially eerie screen presence as Baroness Heidenreich. The Austrian actor’s stage and musical career has focused on television serials and theatre. She’s performed at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, one of the German-speaking world’s most famous theatres. Maux may not be a familiar face on movie screens. Yet under the glare of the camera, her close-ups readily convey the psychological contrasts of a character motivated by obsessive, puritanical values. The film’s heroine is Isabella Handler’s Sigrun Fink, a young woman who has arrived at the Baroness’ estate, Villa Rosenkreuz, as a nurse. Traveling into the stark German countryside, Sigrun has an ulterior motive in working for the Baroness.
Sigrun’s duties are predictable: she cleans, provides medication, and offers the Baroness basic physiotherapy. However, Sigrun has come to the Baroness’ home to discover the truth behind her identity. This personal backstory has been lost within a buried chapter of the dark, hideous history of the Nazi regime. She has come to Baroness’ home due to the Baroness’ role as a director of a maternity hospital that cared for and bred ‘Aryan’ babies.
History within Horror
This story has dark historical origins. The Baroness’ hospital is based on the Lebensborn project and the “Wienerwald “maternity home in Feichtenbach, near Pernitz, Germany. These wards encouraged anonymous births and coordinated the adoption of ‘racially pure’ children by Aryan parents. Sigurn was born at the end of the Second World War and suspects the Baroness holds the key to her identity. Predictably intrigued by Sigurn’s lineage, the Baroness is poised to take advantage of the young woman’s desperate search for her own identity.
There are echoes of a Shirley Jackson-style story in the movie. Mother Superior combines a claustrophobic domestic setting with a focus on the occult. The Baroness’ brooding rural villa is the ideal location for the unnerving gothic tale where she still holds court with her reclusive and devoted housekeeper, Otto, the only other member of the household. With Otto as her accomplice, the Baroness takes advantage of Sigrun’s desperate search for her own history.
Behind the Baronesses’ cold exterior lies a burning desire for power, desperately searching for an outlet in a patriarchal society. This desire once found an outlet in the Nazi regime’s hideous and genocidal obsession with blood purity. Yet it is this same passion which underpins the Baroness’ fascination with the occult and pagan rituals. The Baroness is both the threat and the warning at the heart of the movie.
Occult Horror and Contemporary Feminism
The Baroness is a once-subjugated woman who gained power and yet uses it to subjugate others. She belongs in this strangely timeless gothic fairy tale. Yet she is an especially relevant and symbolic character for the political times we find ourselves in. Power can be oppressive no matter who wields it. From Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Leigh Whanell’s retelling of The Invisible Man (2020), this is a familiar theme in horror films. For modern-day feminism, a woman with power does not guarantee liberty or freedom for other women.
As the film progresses, horror aficionados will guess where things are heading in Mother Superior. First, there is a troubled young woman who comes to realize that the elderly occupants have dark intentions. Vivid nightmares full of strange pagan symbols haunt Sigrun’s dreams. She witnesses the Baroness and Otto taking part in strange and mystic rituals. Wolfzshan subtly negotiates the shifts between the pathos of Sigrun’s backstory and the vivid occult surrealism of the house. She often does this within the space of a few sequences.
Mother Superior moves between Sigrun’s inner psychology and weird, unnerving experiences of the Baroness’ home. Plaudits to cinematographer Gabriel Krajanek for envisaging, and bringing to life, the strangely eerie and claustrophobic domestic world in which Baroness Heidenreich casts her spell over Sigrun. This comes together in the final sequence as the power imbalance between the two women comes to a head and the stakes for Sigrun become irreversibly dangerous. The end draws you into the spiraling whirlpool of the Baroness’ chilling world, a world that promises to stay with you long after the closing credits.
Christina Brennan is writer and reviewer whose work has appeared in various places, including Little White Lies, Horror Homeroom, Horrified and Ghoulish Media. Her book George Sluizer’s film The Vanishing) will be published in 2024. She’s been a reviewer for the Salem Horror Film Festival and the FrightFest Film Festival: Author | Christina Brennan | United Kingdom (drchristinabrennan.com).