Suspiria's Problematic Take on Fascism and Guilt
Suspiria (2018) ends by belatedly confronting its psychiatrist character, Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton), with the fate of his wife. We are in 1977 Berlin, and she has been missing for four decades. Dancer-turned-coven leader Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) tells Klemperer what he already knows but the audience does not: he cautioned his wife against escaping Nazi Germany and by the time he helped her flee it may have been too late. He never heard from her again. What he does not know, and what Susie tells him, is that his wife was captured and sent to Theresienstadt death camp. As Klemperer sobs at this revelation, Susie says she will erase his memories: “they’ll melt in the sun and be gone.” She touches his face, he has a seizure, and he remembers neither where he is nor who his housekeeper is.
It is no accident that director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have relocated the story of Dario Argento’s Suspiria from Munich to divided Berlin and added Klemperer’s storyline. They want to say something about fascism right on the heels of its comeback world tour. What then are we to make of Klemperer’s final scene; does Susie want to forgive Klemperer of his mistakes or erase him from existence? Susie refers to the memory wipe as a “gift” but it’s unclear if the bestowal is sincere or ironic. Either way, the implications of the act make me question Kajganich’s verdict on the generation of witnesses to the (original) Nazis.
In an interview with Collider, Kajganich tells us that we are to view the act ambivalently: “…Susie may be giving a gift to Klemperer in the form of wiping his memory or it might be her first Fascist act.” Kajganich does not specify what he means by “Fascist act,” but the point is clear enough: the memory wipe is both merciful or cruel. In another interview with The Black List, he says,
“…we tried to, in a way, pull back the rewards and punishments that can be a kind of simplistic parsing-out of the politics of the film and problematizing it a little bit so that the audience really has to try to decide for themselves what they thought was happening at the end of the film and why.”
An ambivalent reading of Judge Susie’s ruling is troubled by a number of complicators: the gentle, soft direction of the scene in question, its proximity to and juxtaposition with the witches’ violent ritual, Dakota Johnson’s wispy performance, and the unexplained nature of Mother Suspiriorum’s supposed authority. Beyond not knowing the origin or full extent of her powers and knowledge, this is the first time she speaks with Klemperer. What is her qualification to make judgements here? I find myself asking the same of Kajganich himself.
Taking our questions back a step further, we can acknowledge that to be put on trial, a defendant must be charged with a crime. That Klemperer deserves either the punishment of exile or the reward of forgetting his painful past are both troublesome conclusions, but beyond that, Kajganich makes an assumption of guilt which should be unpacked: what, according to Kajganich, is the nature of Klemperer’s wrongdoing?
In weighing the insinuations of the Klemperer storyline, Jewish Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi comes to mind – particularly his final collection of essays, The Drowned and the Saved. In “Stereotypes”, an essay about assumptions placed on Holocaust survivors, Levi notes that he is often asked “Why didn’t you run away before?... Before the trap snapped shut?” He lists many reasons: attachment to one’s homeland, difficulty of emigration, the ability of individuals to ignore warning signs. The reasons why it is unfair to assume a given person should have acted sooner are plentiful. Levi concludes:
“One must beware of hindsight and stereotypes. More generally one must beware of the error that consists in judging distant epochs and places with the yardstick that prevails in the here and now, an error all the more difficult to avoid as the distance in space and time increases.”
This is exactly the trap into which Kajganich falls, and it’s a form of historical victim-blaming. In his interview with Collider, Kajganich says that Klemperer “was complicit in standing by and letting an entire nation come apart in terms of its dedication to human values... when called upon to react he finds he can’t somehow. It’s too big. It’s too much.” While that’s true in a broad sense, Kajganich misunderstands what “standing by” meant in Nazi Germany. His is a binary, “you’re either with me or you’re against me” outlook. By punishing Klemperer so harshly in the witches’ sabbath and afterwards, Kajganich communicates that those whose loved ones fell prey to the Nazis are guilty for failing to protect them. What a simplistic view of history and of what it means to live under fascism. We might say that Kajganich understands this complexity to some degree but Susie doesn’t, and that is what makes the memory wipe her “first fascist act.” Yet what Kajganich says in Collider betrays his own simplistic understandings of complicity and guilt.
The script does not give us any information to suggest that Klemperer directly aided the Nazis, an act certainly worthy of punishment. We could argue that Klemperer is guilty of not doing enough to stop the Nazis, but not only does the script not leverage this complaint, it’s a loaded accusation. In order to properly condemn Klemperer, we must be able to say that we would act differently in his position. Levi reminds us: “the pressure that a modern totalitarian state can exercise over the individual is frightful.” Using the shorthand that lumps Klemperer in with Nazis is inaccurate. Given only the information Suspiria provides, he is the wrong target at which to aim.
I am not arguing for the innocence of those who lived in Nazi Germany, but I do urge for a more complicated understanding of what Levi elsewhere calls “The Gray Zone” between victim and perpetrator. To judge him for not acting is to say we are superior, that we would act where he didn’t. That attitude of infallibility (‘we would never allow that to happen’) makes us susceptible to political complacency in our own time.
Ultimately, Klemperer’s memory is wiped. The last article in Levi’s final collection of essays is titled “Letters from Germans.” In it, Levi shows us letters he received in response to his 1947 account of his time in Auschwitz. The letters express to Levi everything from condescension to self-flagellation, dismissal, anger, and in some cases, real self-examination. He even becomes close friends and pen pals with one of the writers. Levi writes, “I never forgave our enemies of that time… I know no human act that can erase a crime,” but he also notes that he does not hate Germans. The guilt of complicity does not wash off, but that does not mean it cannot be grappled with productively. Perhaps the only right thing to do with guilt is to grapple.
Suspiria is not interested in such subtleties. Kajganich does not give us enough information on Klemperer to prove him worthy of punishment unless we simplify what it was to live in Nazi Germany. Josef Klemperer is punished as far as possible (as the script notes, “past what he can tolerate psychologically”) in retribution for his passivity during the war, and then has his memory erased. What Kajganich says about whether or not that is a gift or a punishment is irrelevant. It’s off-putting that Suspiria’s narrative should first delve only shallowly into Klemperer’s involvement in his country's history, then vacillate from the extreme of visceral punishment to that of complete absolution. Furthermore, the film makes an American outsider/mother-witch of dubious origin the overseer of this judgement and glibly tosses in references to the Holocaust to tie it all up.
Frankly, I am made angry by what this movie wants to say about the legacy of the Holocaust, which seems to be something along the lines of ‘acceptable resolution comes if the perpetrators are subjected to torment as punishment and then eradicated from history.’ But the script fails to properly cast Klemperer as a perpetrator, and in real life, there is no merciful memory wipe. It is my stance that we all must struggle with the legacy of the Shoah and similar atrocities forever and never come to a simple conclusion. There is none to be reached.
Why is it important that we hold Suspiria to task? Movies are not required to reflect real life, but Suspiria purposefully includes real life events so as to comment on Germany’s past. I do not see the uncomfortable nuances in Primo Levi’s writing reflected in Kajganich’s script nor Guadagnino’s movie. I do not see a serious moral questioning of what happened prior to the judgement made upon Josef Klemperer. I only see a willingness to put his life behind us. Levi asks, “And, finally, have we not tried to dispose of them by declaring that they were ‘things of another time’?” This is exactly what Susie and Suspiria itself attempt to do. The movie literalizes this banishment of Klemperer’s memory and struggles in the final shot: all that remains of him is a mark upon the wall of his cottage. The movie does not come down firmly enough to say that it sees this loss as a problem. Suspiria’s dismissal of the causes and effects of fascism offers nothing thoughtful.