Give Your Soul to the Dance: Suspiria

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Please note: this article contains spoilers 

“There are going to be a lot of haters, but I hope they’re honest enough to see this new version first.”[1] It’s October 2015 and Luca Guadagnino is pondering the likely reaction to his planned remake of Suspiria. Production is still a couple of years away (he’ll end up making 2017’s internationally acclaimed Call Me By Your Name first), but the Italian director — on promotional duties for A Bigger Splash (2015), another remake — understands the intense feelings Dario Argento’s cult horror film inspires. He has, after all, been obsessed with it since first seeing a poster outside a cinema when he was ten.[2] Struck by the bloody image of a ballerina with a severed head, he spent the next few years imagining what the film might be like. When he finally saw  it on television, aged 14, he was both terrified and mesmerised. He also started drawing his own posters, this time with the addendum: “A film by Luca Guadagnino.” 

If Guadagnino has been dreaming about making his own version of Suspiria for more than 30 years — and discussing it with star and frequent muse Tilda Swinton for more than a decade[3] — it only started coming together when David Gordon Green dropped out of the proposed remake back in early 2015 (Green would go on to pay tribute to another horror classic with the recent Halloween sequel).[4] Already attached as a producer, Guadagnino wanted to make a film about “motherhood and guilt”[5] that would use the original as a jumping-off point not a rigid blueprint (in interviews he’s described it as a “cover version” rather than a remake[6]).

Beyond the basic set up — young American student arrives at a prestigious German ballet school only to discover it’s a front for a coven of witches — the two films are wildly different. That’s evident from the eerie melancholia of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s score (a world away from the baroque prog-rock stylings of Goblin’s original soundtrack). And it’s very evident from the radical change in visual style. Argento’s film is a technicolour fever-dream, a look inspired by Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the films of Powell and Pressburger (especially their ballet-themed 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes).[7] Guadagnino’s film is full of washed-out greys and earthy browns more redolent of its 1977 Berlin setting. Indeed Argento’s signature deep reds only seep into  Guadagnino's film incrementally, adding to the shock value of the full-on bloodbath Guadagnino unleashes in the film’s wigged-out finale — an artistic choice some commentators have read as a way of teasing out the theme of repression and all its dangers.[8]

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That’s supported by the way Guadagnino infuses the film with politics. Setting the film in same year the original came out and relocating it to a divided Berlin (Argento’s film was set in the fairytale-esque town of Freiberg), Guadagnino has the events of the 1977 German Autumn continually play out in the background. References to the Baader-Meinhoff gang, the Lufthansa Air hijacking and the Red Army Faction’s murder of Nazi supporter turned industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer feed into a plot that’s rooted in the history and legacy of the Third Reich. Snatches of dialogue make explicit reference to Nazi Germany and an entire subplot involving an elderly psychiatrist haunted by the disappearance of his Jewish wife raises questions about guilt and denial and what it takes to break the spell of the past. The supernatural elements of the plot are clearly meant to pull double duty as political metaphors and even the latin title, which translates as “sigh”, takes on added significance in the film’s exploration of pain and suffering.[9] That said, Guadagnino’s abstract approach never makes meaning explicit and he takes obvious delight in leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for film fans to follow, including an oblique reference to The Aryan Papers, an unmade Stanley Kubrick film about the holocaust that the director abandoned after Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List (1993). "Everything is political, whether you are aware or unaware” Guadagnino told the New Yorker recently — something he learned from studying the late Jonathan Demme’s work and seeing how this quietly subversive filmmaker worked a critique of the Gulf War into the finale of Silence of the Lambs (1990).[10] 

That spirit of subversion is there in the casting too. Aside from bringing in Swinton as the Pina Bausch-like teacher Madame Blanc and Dakota Johnson as the school’s new star pupil Susie Bannion, Guadagnino pays tribute to the German New Wave cinema of the period by casting the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder collaborator Ingrid Caven and Angela Winkler, star of The Tin Drum (Dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1979), as senior members of the coven. He also gives a big nod to Argento by casting original Suspiria star Jessica Harper as the aforementioned psychiatrist’s missing wife. But it’s the casting of the psychiatrist himself, Dr Joseph Kempler, that’s turned out to be one of the most audacious elements of the film. He’s played by first-time “actor” Lutz Ebersdorf, a retired psychiatrist Guadagnino apparently found in Berlin[11] — though do take note of the quotes around the word actor. Online sleuths suspecting Ebersdorf was really Swinton quickly figured out that his surname was a compound of the German words “Eber” meaning “swine” and “dorf” meaning “town”. Put them together and you get “Swinetown”.[12] It’s a nice gag, and Swinton and Guadagnino kept up the rouse all through production (Swinton insisted on wearing prosthetic genitals) and on through the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere too, only fessing up to the New York Times in October, with Swinton saying she wanted to play Ebersdorf playing Kempler for the fun of it (she also dons hideous prosthetics to play the sunglasses-sporting witch Mother Markos).[13] But the stunt casting had an artistic motivation too: figuratively speaking the character is possessed by the spirit of his missing wife so what better way to inject this idea of femininity into him than have Swinton play the part, especially in a film in which possession is a key theme?[14] It also helps make Suspiria a timely movie in the age of #MeToo. The female-heavy cast — there are 38 parts for women and only three for men (one played by Swinton) — help focus attention on the film’s ideas about gender suppression, with pointed and coded references to the need to believe women in times of political hysteria.

But back to Guadagnino’s prediction about its reception. Now that the film has been out in the world, it turns out he wasn’t far off the mark. Inevitably there’s been a glut of pre-release haters enraged at a supposed classic getting the remake treatment, but the polarising effect it’s had on those who have bothered to see it has inspired a wealth of smart responses trying to figure out whether it’s a radical reinvention of the genre or a pretentious failure.[15] The only consensus seems to be that it’s not easily forgotten. Which for a film that also explores the cultural role of memory may even be the point.

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic, The Scotsman

November 2018


[1] Alistair Harkness, ‘Tilda Swinton a faint echo of David Bowie in new film, A Bigger Splash’, The Scotsman, 23 January 2016,

[2] Nathan Heller, ‘Luca Guadagnino’s Cinema of Desire’, The New Yorker, 15 October, 2018,

[3] ibid.

[4] Katie Rife, ‘Here’s everything we know so far about Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake’, The AV Club, 30 August 2018,

[5] Luca Guadagnino, quoted in Harkness

[6] Michael Nordine, ‘Luca Guadagnino on Suspiria, His Zone of Darkness, and That Call Me by Your Name Sequel’, 3 September 2018,

[7] Aja Romano, ‘How Suspiria turns the color red into a plot point’, Vox, 9 November, 2018:

[8] ibid.

[9] Nate Jones, ‘Luca Guadagnino Reveals Dakota Johnson’s Secret Second Role in Suspiria,’ 24 October, 2018,

[10] Heller

[11] Tom Grater, 'Suspiria' lands in Venice, Tilda Swinton suggests Lutz Ebersdorf Oscar campaign’, 1 September 2018,

[12] Vivian Kane, Tilda Swinton’s Other Role in Suspiria Has Been Revealed and It’s Bananas, The Mary Sue, 10 October,

[13] Kyle Buchanan, How ‘Suspiria’ Transformed Tilda Swinton Into an 82-Year-Old Man’, New York Times, 10 October, 2018,

[14] ibid.


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