«Every loving mother can, under certain circumstances, also become a monster.»


Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala talk about their feature debut GOODNIGHT MOMMY.

In the prologue to GOODNIGHT MOMMY we see the Von Trapp family in their wholesome childhood world. Why has this piece of stylized past been placed at the beginning of a story which is enacted in a very modern present?

SEVERIN FIALA:  It's about the image of stylized, idealized and very Austrian family which simultaneously has something very eerie about it. The image of an ideal mother, or rather, the memory of her at apparently idyllic moments when you cuddle up to her in bed and she sings (Brahms’) lullaby to you, "Good evening, good night"…

VERONIKA FRANZ: ... And in the middle of the idyllic scene you're disturbed by the line: "If it is God's will, you shall awake again". I think we felt it was the ideal opening, because it draws attention to an image of a family that looks so wholesome, the must be something really unwholesome about it.

Making a horror film must mean seeing a large number of other works in this genre as a preliminary. How did the premises for a film of your own crystallize out of the act of watching these genre films?

VERONIKA FRANZ:  We saw a lot of films, and we should have seen even more! For example, it was only afterwards that we discovered there is a Korean film which is at least not dissimilar to ours in terms of plot.
SEVERIN FIALA:  But that doesn't matter. With horror films you don't really need to worry about doing something that's been done before. It's an inherent part of the genre that certain elements and stories are picked up again and again, reinterpreted and reinvented.
VERONIKA FRANZ: We started watching films together about 16 years ago – including horror films. (to Severin Fiala) How old were you then? 14? 
Veronika Franz (laughs) .... And yes, we love Dario Argento and John Carpenter, Brian Yuzna and Don Siegel. But you won’t see that in this film. 

Moving onto the writing process: what is the relationship between development of plot and character and the sensations and feelings that you want to trigger in the audience? Or to put it another way, the "physical" and the rational components of the narrative?

SEVERIN FIALA: There's a big difference between writing alone and writing with somebody else. If you can explain something to the other person, you get immediate feedback. Does the other person find something forceful or gripping? We really do sit together at a desk and tell each other our ideas first of all. If we find one of them appeals to us, we start working on it. The next time we meet we read out to each other what we have written and see whether it still works, whether it's worth trying to improve or should just be scrapped.

VERONIKA FRANZ: In that sense we are always the first audience for each other.

Does working with the conventions of this genre mean particularly hard work with readjustments, tightening the screw in successive stages?

VERONIKA FRANZ: Writing a story that’s gripping isn't so difficult, in our view. You give it to other people to read, and you easily get feedback about whether it works or not. The really difficult part, which kept us busy right up to the editing stage and afterwards, is the task of constructing a type of puzzle that everybody will see differently but at the same time works for as many people as possible. Because it really does turn out that there is a different truth for everyone. So the biggest challenge is to tell a story so that everyone can try to work out what's going on without feeling tricked in the end.

The original title (ICH SEH ICH SEH in German – I SEE I SEE) comes from a children's game but is also a "twin title" which is in itself a reference to the twin brothers in the story. The subject of identical twins and a mother whose appearance changes raises questions of identity within the story. Does this represent a core theme of the film?

VERONIKA FRANZ: For me, the title ICH SEH ICH SEH refers to fundamentally different perceptions. This applies particularly to children. Children see the world differently to adults, and they are deeply concerned when the appearance of someone they've known for a long time changes radically. And yes, what does identity mean? I'm convinced that a person doesn't just have one identity: it’s possible to have several. For the person to be able to act very differently in different situations. Every loving mother can, under certain circumstances, also become a monster.

The scenes, especially those that originate in the world of nature, have a special physical and at the same time destabilizing power – the lake, for example, and the field of corn – which certainly also has a lot to do with the camerawork of Martin Gschlacht. What were your visual concepts when you embarked on preliminary work with him?

SEVERIN FIALA:  It was important for us to show the world and the mother from the perspective of the children. So we started off by asking how children perceive the world, and how that could influence the film visually. But if we had filmed in exactly the way we wanted to in terms of artistic considerations, we would have come up again and again against the limits of comprehensibility.

VERONIKA FRANZ:  Sometimes in a genre film you simply have to film things that are boring and don't have much aesthetic appeal. I'm thinking for example about the hidden cat in the sequence where the mother is searching the children's room. To maintain the suspense the cat always has to be shown in close-up, to remind the viewer that it exists.  

SEVERIN FIALA:  But when you're inexperienced as a director you often don't notice things like that during filming. So it was very helpful that we started work on editing parallel to filming. That way we could check what was working and what wasn't. 

VERONIKA FRANZ:  ... Yes, like with the cat. That wasn't working, and we had to re-film it.

That all sounds as though the filming itself was very intensive.

VERONIKA FRANZ:  I'd definitely go along with that. I'm a mother with two children and three other jobs, and I've definitely never in my life had such an exhausting time as those seven weeks of filming. 

SEVERIN FIALA: Yes, filming is relentless. Apparently simple things become incredibly complicated – like finding the right curtain, for example. How thick or transparent does the material have to be for the curtain that the children are hiding behind, so they feel hidden but the mother can still make them out? One line in the screenplay: "The children hide behind the curtain" entails hours of discussions. The cameraman has to be involved, because he has to judge how visible the children will be, while the set designer needs to decide whether it fits optically, and we have to make up our minds whether the children have the feeling in psychological terms that they are out of sight.

You decided to use 35mm film. Why was that?

VERONIKA FRANZ: This may sound strange, but I think a story that is filmed on 35 mm physical film embodies a greater mystery than a story made with digital techniques. So it was primarily an aesthetic decision, but a secondary consequence was that we weren't able to film endlessly. The choice of material itself definitely led to greater intensity and concentration.

SEVERIN FIALA: I still remember when I started at the Film Academy, and I was so frightened and nervous about pressing the shutter release. It takes a great deal more concentration to work like that than to press the button of a digital camera and see immediately what results you get.

VERONIKA FRANZ: And our love for the physical cinema doesn't only relate to aesthetic or contextual aspects: the material used for the film also contributes to the physicality. Although a lot of people advised us against the idea, fortunately the problems they warned us about didn’t materialize. As first-time directors working with children it was difficult for us to estimate the time we would need. Ulrich Seidl, who produced the film, was very encouraging about using 35mm physical film, and he took responsibility for the risks if we weren't able to complete the shooting on time. But we did stick to the schedule.


There is one scene in the film where it is hailing. Was that a gift from the gods?

SEVERIN FIALA: Yes; it was very important to us that, despite all the machinery of a shooting schedule, we should be able to take advantage of such gifts. So that if it started hailing, for example, we could grab all the equipment and run outside. You have to be fast with things like that. The hailstorm only lasted about 10 minutes. With a rigid production plan it would be inconceivable, but with our team we could do it. And without that unexpected gift, the film would be poorer.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a film about being a child, about the primeval fear of being abandoned, losing the mother. But in the end it's also a story about the relationship between a child's world and the adult world.

SEVERIN FIALA: The beginning in particular says a great deal about childhood and being a child in the countryside, but not just that...

VERONIKA FRANZ: Yes... The film also tells the story of being a mother; it's about a woman who can't or won't step outside herself. A woman who wants to start a new life and needs time for herself to do so, and also wants to be left in peace. As a result she doesn't see clearly what she's doing. She experiences the feeling of being overwhelmed which I know very well as a mother. I think it's also a film about power. Bringing up children very often has something to do with power relationships. Of course, as a mother you have power, but you often feel completely powerless and restricted. It is the children who possess you and can dictate the situation. At least, emotionally.

What did the two boys, Lukas and Elias Schwarz, bring to the production?

VERONIKA FRANZ: We held auditioned 240 twin boys, and generally one of the twins was more talented than the other. But Lucas and Elias were both equally good, and there were also things that one of them could do particularly well. They're not just intelligent children; they also have an air of mystery and the kind of stamina I’ve very seldom experienced, even with adults.

SEVERIN FIALA: When we were writing the script we were hoping that the children would bring some physicality to the production. And they gave our film precisely this kind of rough-and-tumble aspect, that playful physicality.

Your film tells a very eerie story. What kind of advanced knowledge did the boys have when they were filming?

SEVERIN FIALA: All they knew was the opening situation, and they didn't get the screenplay, even though we wanted to film the screenplay exactly as it was, even the dialogue. But we wanted to achieve that by using playful methods. That's also why we filmed chronologically, to enable the actors to grow into the film more and more. They didn't know from one day to the next what was happening and how the story would continue. Of course, that increased their interest in the project.

Susanne Wuest was your first choice for the part. Why?

SEVERIN FIALA: We've known her and liked her for a long time. She has a very beautiful face that can be transformed into something eerie. A disturbing beauty.

VERONIKA FRANZ: he didn't get the script in advance, either. We only told her the story once. I think some of the physical aspects of shooting the film weren’t easy for her. At the same time, in the end that's why she acted with so much more conviction. I think there really were situations when she thought "I'm not going to do that". The things that were uncomfortable for the character were also uncomfortable for Susanne, so she brought a certain unease to bear. And that was good for the film.

Cinema, the way you two depict it, appears to strike a subtle balance between reality and abstraction in the sphere of fantasy, while also pushing your own capacity to the limits. Does this also apply to future projects?

VERONIKA FRANZ: Our next project is intended to develop in exactly that way. It's a story entitled “Through the Hand of the Executioner” about a historical phenomenon concerning young women who actually wanted to commit suicide but as a consequence committed murder. It's not going to be a piece of costume confectionery: it will look more like a documentary film. And, like GOODNIGHT MOMMY, it will again be a hybrid between reality and something eerie, and that will make it a great challenge...

SEVERIN FIALA:  ... which we are taking on so you don't get bored (both laugh).

Interview: Karin Schiefer
July 2014