starring Isabella Händler, Inge Maux, Jochen Nickel, Tim Werths
written and directed by Marie Alice Wolfszahn
by Walter Chaw Marie Alice Wolfszahn's Mother Superior is an overly familiar period piece about a young woman engaged as a caretaker for a mysterious and ailing older woman in a rambling country house--a plot most recently explored in the superlative Saint Maud and Sebastián Lelio's pretty good The Wonder, due out soon. It's possible to mine interest and value from a template so threadbare, but there's a built-in danger of playing with a premise the audience has likely already started to unravel as soon as the particulars are established. In Mother Superior, the young nurse is Sigrun (Isabella Händler), whom, we gather from the opening-credits sequence, is maybe the offspring of a Nazi breeding program. She goes to work as a nurse for creepy Baroness Heidenreich (Inge Maux), who is suffering from Parkinson's disease--though it only really manifests in some trembling when she tries to drink tea. Why would an aspiring anesthesiologist agree to be the hospice nurse for the Baroness? also-creepy caretaker Otto (Jochen Nickel) would like to know. Unfortunately, five minutes in, most everyone who's seen another movie would be able to tell him.
Because movies aren't just puzzles meant to be solved, it's worth noting how Gabriel Krajanek's cinematography is ravishing and does a wonderful job creating an atmosphere of dread--of the weight of cultural secrets pushing down on a society beginning to excavate its culpability in a collective offense. He conjures with Wolfszahn a few haunted images in dream sequences where a demon bride, all in white, hints at infernal delights. (Sadly, few delights, infernal or otherwise, are forthcoming.) I'll say, too, that the performances are uniformly good if ultimately betrayed by Wolfszahn's script, which is both pedestrian and padded. Consider how an entire character--a reporter with a crush on Sigrun, Wilfried (Tim Werths)--is introduced, it seems, because they've run out of things to do at the house, and because of an unfounded belief that a very familiar premise needs an entire scene devoted to exposition. I briefly thought Wilfried would turn out to be like the Jeff Daniel Phillips character from Lords of Salem, pining for a woman he loves unrequitedly, aware she's gradually losing herself to a dangerous obsession and unable to save her. But, no, he's merely a plot device after all, his purpose so obvious he isn't even accorded the dignity of a bloody exit.
Consider, too, a framing device of Sigrun being interrogated--played on an old CRT television for purposes unknown--that again makes explicit what is already apparent. I think Mother Superior is the victim of a few things, chief among them a lack of confidence in itself and, by extension, in its audience. I feel like I've seen this movie a dozen times in the last two or three years alone, and while I wouldn't say that any of them have been terrible, familiarity does breed contempt. Mother Superior isn't about anything, although it's adjacent to a great many big topics (WWII and the Holocaust, for starters; elder care, too); and while a certain suspension of disbelief is expected--indeed required--for films like this, when Sigrun walks in on her elderly charge and her man-servant chanting in purple robes and pipetting strange fluids into each other's mouths, well, there are countless reasons to engage in a dialogue or flee. Choosing neither, Mother Superior lost me. It's a good-looking piffle--a horror movie by a first-timer that feels like a demo reel for a director hoping to make different kinds of films. It's a horror movie made by someone who doesn't seem to have seen many horror movies. That could work, I suppose. Anything's possible.