Goodnight Mommy is a chilling Austrian horror film with national guilt at its heart

As twins Lukas and Elias begin to suspect the woman who has come home from the hospital is not their real mother, there is a strong sense that it is the motherland which is rotten.

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In Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, Angelina Jolie starred as a woman convinced that the missing child returned to her by the police was not her own. That movie was played as melodrama, but the situation lends itself more readily to horror, as shown in the Austrian film Goodnight Mommy, which destabilises fully the bond between a mother and her children. Here, it is Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz), twin boys of about ten, who start to suspect that the woman who has come home from hospital (Susanne Wuest) is not their mother.

She is unnecessarily strict, forbidding any noise or boisterousness and singling out Lukas for punishments. Positive identification is made that much harder by the bandages covering her face.

The boys attempt to expose her by playing the game known in some quarters as “heads up”. She tries to guess the name on the Post-it note they’ve stuck to her forehead. They have cheekily written “Mama” but she can’t seem to get it, no matter how explicit the clues. (“Two children? Who do I know who has two children?”) Practically seething, she fumes, “Who am I?”

Good question.

It was clear from the start of Changeling that the mother was right: the suspense lay in whether she would be believed. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the directors of Goodnight Mommy, leave no doubt that something is wrong. It is horribly enjoyable trying to work out what that might be.

Klaus Kellermann’s sound design amplifies innocuous noises (a gushing tap, the flossing of teeth), while Olga Neuwirth’s score provides little sonic jabs to accompany visual shocks such as an extreme close-up of a bloodshot eye. Martin Gschlacht’s camera prowls among trees in the woods and through the corn stalks in a field. The clean lines and science-fiction chill of the family’s lakeside home, with its venetian blinds on every window, help lower the temperature of a film that could easily have overheated. Just look at the ingredients: creepy twins like the girls from The Shining, bandages that scream Eyes Without a Face, not to mention cockroaches, crucifixes, a whispering forest, a graveyard and an entire bunker  full of skulls and bones over which the boys clamber in their matching Crocs. Throw in an Indian burial ground and you’d have a full house.

That’s before we reach the sequence in which their mother is stalking the woods at night, disrobing and unwrapping herself as she goes. All right, so it turns out to be just a nightmare. But the episode highlights the terror that prepubescent boys might feel about their mother’s body, and all the desire and revulsion it provokes. They want to defile her. In one scene, the twins place a cockroach on her as she sleeps. In a second nightmare, they slice open her stomach to see cockroaches emerge in a kind of Caesarean stampede.

Goodnight Mommy does go to pieces in its final half-hour. There is a protracted torture sequence that could have had the same impact at a third of the length, as well as an implausible episode involving an unexpected house call. But the movie has already made an indelible impression by then. It was shot in Lower Austria near the Czech border, a region associated with Hitler’s family, and there is a strong sense that the horror at the story’s heart is domestic. It is the motherland, rather than the mother, that has gone rotten. (Asked why he keeps a lighter in his room, Elias snaps: “I wanted to burn some books.”) And though it is plastic surgery that has left the mother swaddled in bandages, there are also mysterious allusions to “the accident”. Like the children’s absent father, it’s a subject no one is in any hurry to discuss.

The film has national guilt on its mind. As Veronika Franz said last year: “It was only 25 years ago when the Austrian chancellor [Franz Vranitzky] first publicly said in parliament that Austria was not a victim – Austria was guilty.” Ulrich Seidl – the unsparing director who produced Goodnight Mommy, and happens also to be Franz’s husband and Fiala’s uncle – has made a career out of probing his country’s psychology. His recent documentary In the Basement explored the strange relationship between Austrians and their cellars.

All three film-makers are dedicated to showing what happens to a country when the bandages come off and the wounds beneath are still weeping. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis