Goodnight Mommy: the trauma of birth, motherhood and Austrian darkness

During the last week, I saw a couple of people sharing contents about an Austrian horror movie called Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh ich seh, 2014). I never heard about it before, although the film was originally released last year. And after watching the trailer for the first time, the only thing I could do was associating its imagery with other works such as Funny Games (2007), La Piel que Habito (2011), Mama (2013) and an old point-and-click game named Sanitarium (1998).

However, this doesn’t mean I thought the movie would be a cliché. In fact, the comparisons didn’t stop to pop into my head when I finally started to watch Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’ work. It was rather pleasant to be reminded about Ex Machina (2015) while I was experiencing a minimal, clean and bright scenery of an idyllic Austrian countryside as a new approach to a (post?) modern “horror” movie. The quotation marks were added because many could understand this label as a synonym of “scary movie”, while Goodnight Mommy did not even scare me a bit. As a matter of fact, I felt rather anguished and sad during the 99 minutes of this work.

The story is mainly focused in the relationship of twin brothers who are enjoying their vacations at their mother’s house, although she has been away for some days due to a surgery. This lonely prelude is important to show us the complicity and the affection shared by these boys (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) and how they fulfill their lives with games — all of them sustained by a particularly childish curiosity. They seem to have their own shared imaginary and a singular way to see the world, which is what makes them apart, but complete. It’s well traced where the children end and the adults begin, as they are clearly portrayed as beings from different universes as the movie flows.

When die Mama (Susanne Wuest) comes back home, she isn’t just a stranger for the time and the space that separated them. Her face is covered by bruises and bandages that make her look even more hostile and unknown. She seems aggressive and upset for reasons that we, from the eyes of a child, are not supposed to know or understand. Everything remains in silent gaps of parental guidance and uncomfortable family games.

It was enough for me to understand that, being Goodnight Mommy an Austrian movie, they certainly had been influenced by one of the most known contemporary painters in the country. Gottfried Helnwein was the subject of my Master’s thesis and I spent almost three years in a constant investigation into his work and his ideas. I even managed to go to Austria for an interview during his retrospective at Albertina — with 250.000 visitors, it was the most successful exhibit of a living artist in the history of the museum.

In a way, Goodnight Mommy felt like an homage to Helnwein’s work as it lents us the eyes of a child. One of the painter’s tropes is how children are special and how we lose their magic when we become adults. How the world corrupts us and destroys our most precious gift: innocence. And that could happen in several ways, from education to social and economical issues, for instance. In this case, the brothers feel their own mother has become a threat. Although some “strict” rules are already part of their daily routine (using a timer when they’re brushing their teeth or doing domestic services), there is a discomfort caused by her sudden and unexplained rudeness.

As the punishments and the aggressiveness continue, the twins start to question if, in the end, that woman was really their mother. She does not look like die Mama, she does not care, she does not love. As her face covered by bruises and bandages become an association to rebuke and oppression, she simply cannot be a mother anymore. She is a monster, she eats bugs and she does not even look like a living being. As a scary and imposing shadow, she inhabits the house and the nightmares of her children.

It is pretty much like Gottfried Helnwein’s early drawings. In the series Mother’s Day (1993), the Austrian painter portrays this game where a child stabs and is stabbed by her mother. In Helwein’s imagery, the adult usually representates the perpetrator, especially when it’s a man. On an interview, the artist mentions the ideas behind his work (especially the Epiphany trilogy), which are basically connected to his own historical background as a person born in Vienna right after the end of World War II. In this occasion, he mentioned that “the most significant issue on the time track of the occident is Christianity and the male dominated world of conquering an oppression. The constant slaughter of the ‘weak’ — women, children, the Jews, and other ethnic minorities, through holy wars, crusades and the constant extermination of the inferior”.

But in spite of considering both women and children as victims of an oppressive tendency in occidental culture, the first are still adults and, therefore, corrupted.

For some reason I was only interested in children. Always. Even long before starting painting, children were for me the most precious beings that existed. I always thought children as special, children have an essence, have so much possibilities. You look at the child and there is a whole potential utopia, everything is possible when you look at the child. And then somehow I became startled on how society destroys it in many degrees, through education, through manipulation. Children lose the spark they had in beginning. They lose it, and when you look at most of the grownups… There’s not much left from the hope, the fire seen in the eyes of children. They have imagination, tell stories, make up things. Their universe is limitless. But for the grownups, everything is limited, they are scared of things, anxious, they’ve lost their own universe.
For me, children are something sacred, almost like spiritual beings more than anything else. And at the same time when I saw how this world is kind of brutal, abuses children generally in many different ways I see this is a kind of metaphor for the conflict that is going on in the history of mankind, like a brutal, physical force of the material universe against the spirits, spirits who are sensitive, subtle, the opposite, light. I always thought children are the most beautiful things and knowing that they get abused and punished and pain is inflicted on them, that was something that always startled me. I always was thinking. And that was the reason why I started to paint, because that was the subject. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Nobody talked about. So I thought, maybe I draw it. So I started to draw and paint. And it was really the motivation and reason why I began painting. (Gottfried Helnwein)

During my research, I could trace some parallels between the “Helnweinian children” and the Divine Child archetype proposed by Carl G. Jung. This helped me to understand the child’s journey from her sacralization to her fall, which is adulthood. As much as they are suject to the dangers of the world, children may be obligated to strangle their innocence and take up arms. In both cases, Helnwein’s work and Goodnight Mother, the moment when children feel threatened by something or someone (an adult), they literally find a way to protect themselves by using guns and strategy.

Lukas and Elias spend days inside their bedroom after being grounded for questioning their mother. Children are not supposed to do this, for the simple reason that they are children and, therefore, not supposed to understand or be aware of things. But they still ask. Their curiosity is what keeps them asking random and fancy questions regarding absolutely everything. I remember when I was a child and I asked my mother why she took some pills (anticonceptives). She said she had to, otherwise I would have a new brother or a new sister, which was something I didn’t want at that time. Despite her fair explanation, I couldn’t understand why she had to use medication for something that I knew, for some reason, that it was a “choice”. And although I didn’t really know how children were “made”, I knew it wasn’t something that happened “out of nowhere”. She ended up angry and just stopped me. Years later, we laughed about my curiosity and her awkwardness, but it was really frustrating by that time.

Usually, when a child inquires an adult about is her reasons or her authority, he might be punished for his “insolence”. After days without no real expression of her love, die Mama is put in question: she is not the same person, she doesn’t follow the ideal stuck in their children’s minds and hearts.

During the first minutes of Goodnight Mother, we already have a clue about how motherhood can be idealized as we watch an excerpt of a kitsch film in German, where a woman sings lullabies to children. As society, culture, religion and even media enforce a certain stereotype regarding what is it to be a mother, it feels like children themselves can create a particular ideal, as they are also subject to such influences. That is what Jung called archetype: recurring images populating the collective unconscious as myths, dreams, images, art and so forth.

In Goodnight Mommy, the twins can’t relate that faceless woman to their inner image of a mother (die Mama), which is a caring and nurturing figure. The shock caused by the mother’s repulse provokes some sort of a new phase in the separation process, which is something that is always happening during our lives, since we were born. This idea can be found in Freud’s work as the concept of separation anxiety, but also in Otto Rank’s book The Trauma of Birth (1924).

In this publication, the Austrian psychoanalyst states that all human beings are born traumatized, as birth is by itself an inevitable and violent separation from our mother. Our first impressions are mediated by our mothers, as much as their body are our first home. As we are ripped apart from our primordial uterine harmony, the separation is responsible for causing us an anxiety that can be reverberated through life, since we are always in a constant process of separation. From birth to breast-feeding; from the first day in kindergarten to going to the university and moving to a new city; from being away from people you love to lose them to death.

When Lukas and Elias decide their mother is really a threat, they organize themselves in an almost militaristic way, with shifts of surveillance and even by crafting their own weapons. They start to use strategy to test their enemy as they cut their hair in the same style, so the doppelganger mother won’t be able to distinguish them. But are they able to distinguish their own mother from a pretender?

Funny enough, if you pay attention to the house, you will see that there are many pictures hanging on the wall, but they are all silhouettes, faceless shadows. Could this have something to do with the incapability of all the characters to recognize themselves? Probably. As often as the house decor is featured in the movie, it’s rather possible that even the location has much to do with the story — and, for some reason, the boys even discover that their mother could be selling their home, which sounds like a new and scary loss.

So they plot a trap, as things were going too far and dangerous for them. By being rational to an extreme level, they tie their mother while she sleeps and start to torture her, as she doesn’t seem to know how to answer to their questions. It’s interesting to notice that they start doing it while wearing masks, moster-like masks. This might have something to do with both the idea of persona (mask in Latin) as a social mask that we wear in public, thus borrowing its significance, and as an accessory to cover our face, thus being able to disconnect our actions from ourselves.

But more curious than that is the fact that they ask questions that could possibly be trivial for adults. By asking what is Lukas’ favorite song, they decide whether if that woman was or was not their mother. Although they can use references such as a different eyecolor seen in a video recorded by die Mama and old photographs where they can see her original face, it is rather more complicated than that.

Nevertheless, this was enough to convince them that they should keep her tied in her bed for days. It is rather shocking to see what the children were able to do with their own mother, as a consequence of their disappointment and even fear. First you can see the woman as the same monster she is portrayed during the whole movie, but the crudeness of the torture scenes brings us back to the ground: she is, above all things, a human being and, supposedly, their mother. Seeing her tied, hurt and filthy makes it even more inhuman than the creepy insect scenes mainly featured in the trailer. In my opinion, horror movies shouldn’t be all about louder sounds, dark sceneries, screams and random creatures: reality is more disturbing and fearsome by just being itself possible.

It is probably worth mentioning that this theme might be, in a way, a constant in German-Austrian culture, especially if you consider works such as Rammstein’s video for Mein Herz brennt, or even the Fritzl case in Austria. Helnwein tells on an interview that many times, when he identified himself as an Austrian, people were considering the “dark side of Austria” instead of something else.

Violence against the weak and defenseless is as old as the human race. Worldwide, there are probably more slaves now than there were in the time that slavery was legal. Since Austria suddenly came to the world’s attention again recently as a result of the Fritzl case, the foreign media have been speculating about Austria’s ‘dark side’, and some have promptly been reminded that this aspect has long been a theme in Austrian art. In literature as well as in visual art. And it was my pictures, above all, that invaded people’s consciousness. The sort of woodcut picture that the international media uses to illustrate Austria, when they notice it at all, is annoying sometimes. A few years ago when I was in America and my nationality was brought up, people would immediately say: ‘Ah — Waldheim!’, later: ‘Ah, Haider!’, then it was ‘Fritzl!’. If it weren’t for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mozart, Austria would be fucked. (Gottfried Helnwein)

On an interview for the German Vanity Fair, Helnwein argued that it is actually possible to affirm that Austria has “a tradition of darkness” (eine Tradition der Dunkelheit). He mentioned examples such as Kafka and Sacher-Masoch, Thomas Benhard and Hermann Nitsch as a proof of this gloomy mood presented in his homeland. The painter says that groups such as the Wiener Aktionismus couldn’t exist in places such as “Stockholm or in a city with palm trees. Even if compared to Germany, things in Austria are even more absurd.” To explain that in a better way, Helnwein mentions the case of the Austrian terrorist Franz Fuchs, who sent letter bombs that killed four people and made Vienna’s former mayor Helmut Zilk lose part of his hand. “When trying to kill himself with a pipe bomb, he lost both his hands. In the courtroom, he waved his stumps and cried incessantly Nazi slogans. That’s very Austrian”, tells the artist.

However, before starting a daily routine of torture against their fake mother, Lukas and Elias searched for help in a church in their village. This seems to be also a very Austrian aspect that I discovered while talking to Gottfried Helnwein. I also discovered that he had this same kind of education during his childhood in Lower Austria, where he used to visit several Baroque churches. This provided him his first experiences with imagery, as television and comics weren’t so popular during the first years after the end of World War II.

I spent a large part of my childhood in a fog of incense in the naves of cold churches, surrounded by martyrs writhing in ecstasy and covered in blood, flaming hearts wreathed in thorns, crosses, instruments of torture, mystical stigmata and dying virgins gazing in rapture towards heaven. The ‘bible picture book-comic’ the ghostly flickering red lamp, the Latin murmurings of the priest and the monotonous whispering of litanies and rosaries, the mummified corpse in faded brocade behind semi-opaque windows, the High Mass and processions accompanied by the ringing of bells — all this dug its way deep into my childhood soul!
Christianity is the first religion to have put pain, bleeding and death at the centre of its spirituality. For the first time, God is not only associated with triumph and cosmic power, but with human wretchedness, agony, fear, indignity, suffering, failure, succumb and death. Christianity has influenced the history, art and culture of the last 2000 years like no other ideology. (Gottfried Helnwein)

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Die Erweckung des Kindes (The Resurrection of the Child), by Gottfried Helnwein

Now, if you didn’t watch the movie, I would suggest stopping reading this essay and try to continue it later.

Because when you finally reach the end of Goodnight Mommy, it’s likely that you feel cheated. In my case, I realized that the movie was really successful on lending me the eyes of a child, because I was actually able to see the world as if I was an infant, isolated from this “higher level of reality”, also known as adulthood. I could feel uncomprehended, fragilized, but still aware of all things the adults don’t seem to know and maybe even try to avoid, because we end up losing some capacities when we grow up — simply as Helnwein puts in his interviews and creations.

Although it could be disturbing to see die Mama in bandages and with insects popping out her belly, all those feelings of fear, anxiety, loneliness, deprivation and negation experienced by Lukas were perfectly expressed and absorbed by me as the most intense things proportioned by the movie. It was basically the same feeling that many of us could have experienced by watching movies such as The Others, The Sixth Sense or even Melancholia: a combination of plot twist and a void that keeps swalling us for days.

Lukas wasn’t able to accept his brother’s death in the accident that could have forced their mother’s surgery. We don’t know what really happened, not even if this surgery was just a trick to help Lukas cope with the situation. However, the remaining twin just blames his mother and turns her into the monster he wanted to see, so he can fulfill the void caused by something as surreal as losing a loved person. The conclusion is that both the decisions took by the mother and her child lead them to their own distruction. Frightening and sad enough, they appear all together again, watching the corn field burn together with their home.

With all that being said, I could just finish this text by saying that I didn’t feel scared at any moment while I was watching Goodnight Mommy. Rather than that, I felt deeply sad, as much as I felt while watching the American version of Ringu, because I wasn’t interested in the gore and scary scenes, but in this ever interesting stories about mother-child relationship. And finally, I am only able to add one last quote and lesson learned with Gottfried Helnwein:

That is what I always see, this extreme contrast between something that is positive, good and divine, and then you have something that is completely destructive and evil. In societies like this, people look the same, they are all friendly, but when you research a thing deeper (and I did it), then you see. Because I wanted to know how bad does it get, what people do, and it is hard when you find what people are doing on this planet and what they did. It’s like it takes your breath away. You have to stop, because you tremble. But it’s important to know, it’s there.

Written by

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.

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