This article contains MAJOR Suspiria spoilers.
That escalated quickly. One moment, the matrons of the Markos Dance Academy are celebrating the talent of their new star, Susie Bannion, and the next their attempted ritualistic sacrifice backfires in a visual orgy of blood and cacophonic disaster. When the smoke finally lifts, and the actual gore and dancing stops, the only thing that’s clear is Susie Bannion is the actual Mother Suspiriom reincarnated. And the dance academy is hers.
But what is this about, and how did it come about? In essence, the ending seems to act on several levels: the metaphysical; the intersectional; and the vaguely historical. On the first count, the ending, like much else in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, is a major departure from how Dario Argento originally envisioned this tale in 1977. Whereas Jessica Harper’s Susie in that film was a traditional heroine at the center of a dreamlike mystery in her dance academy—which is only revealed late in the picture to be a coven of witches—in Suspiria (2018), she is quite literally the Mother of Sighs that the film is named after.
To understand the carnage that ensues in the film’s climax, it is crucial to know who the Three Mothers are, a fact which is curiously underplayed in the actual film. The concept of the Three Mothers is borne from the poetry and prose of English essayist Thomas de Quincey. In 1845, de Quincey wrote Suspiria de Profundis, a collection of musings that were fragmentally published in Scottish magazines. Among these prose fantasies was “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” a piece that imagined three companions who served the Roman goddess of childbirth, Levana: they were Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, and Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs (the oldest and most powerful of the three).
In the original Suspiria, Argento and Daria Nicolodi took this daydream and formed the basis of a mythology around them that would extend to two loose sequels beyond Suspiria, and now its elevated horror remake. In the original film’s canon, the Three Mothers are weird sister-witches who’ve wandered the earth spreading death and pestilence in a kind of competition since the 11th century. Each ultimately built their own house and influence in different parts of the world: Tenebrarum in New York; Lachrymarum in Rome; and Suspiriorum in Germany (though not Berlin in the original film). In the 2018 remake, Helena Markos has claimed to be Suspiorium since the dance academy opened in 1895, and now in the autumn of 1977, she is dying in her latest form.
Portrayed by Tilda Swinton under several pounds of makeup, Markos has remained “away” on business from her academy for likely years as she’s withered under a failing body consumed by cancerous sores. Despite claiming to be the Mother of Sighs, many, including Madame Blanc, Swinton’s other matron of the dance academy, are greatly skeptical… and as it turns out for good reason. Yet the irony is that Swinton’s Madame Blanc is also said to have created the “Volk” dance in 1944, which raises the question of her complicity, as the dance is the centerpiece of Markos’ ritual. Its creation was also notably during the reign of the Nazis (we’ll come back to that), and one wonders if it was part of another transference ritual that extended Markos’ life 30 years before the events of this film. For when Susie debuts as the lead dancer, it is during a revival of the “Volk.”
For the purposes of the film, the dance is intended to prepare Susie’s body as a vessel for Markos to possess and gain another 30-60 years of life in the athletic shape of Dakota Johnson. Hence why all the dancers in the Academy are lined up in a trance, performing a mesmerizing and feral choreography. When complemented by rapid editing and a lurid crimson filter over the frame, this is the one time Luca Guadagnino indulges in Argento’s colorful excesses.
Meanwhile the three pupils who dared to realize the vile purposes of this school—Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), Olga (Elena Fokina), and Sara (Mia Goth)—have been enchanted not only to be subservient to the ritual, but to sacrifice their lives to it. Each young woman has been disemboweled and stands obediently in silent acquiescence for the glory of Markos, each representing one of the Three Mothers, including the one Markos is impersonating.
Madame Blanc, meanwhile, attempts to prevent the ceremony’s completion. In part, it is because she has grown unusually fond of Susie, who she implicitly views as a younger mirror of herself (Susie is fawningly enamored with how Blanc danced the “Volk”), but also because she disbelieves Markos’ claim that she is Suspiriorum and wishes to lead the coven herself. During a rather democratic circle of votes at the beginning of the picture, Blanc challenged Markos to be the grand dame of the academy, but she loses. While everyone claimed there would be no animosity about votes cast, that magnanimousness was obviously a lie. Once Blanc attempts to persuade Susie into not submitting her body as Markos’ vessel, Markos severs Blanc’s head so severely that she’s hair’s breath away from a full decapitation.
However, Susie doesn’t stop the ritual, because she has come to bear witness to these garish practices and use them as evidence for her coming sentence of Markos’ followers. Susie is of course the real Suspiriorum, something her flesh-and-blood, Mennonite mother in Ohio instinctively understood, as the very religious woman considered her daughter to be a great sin she has smeared across this world. If Argento’s original vision of Suspiriorum is to carry over here, despite being the Mother of Sighs (and thus sympathetic for those who have lost, including mothers in childbirth), Suspiriorum is also intrinsically linked to Death. A kind of Goddess of Death, she proves to be just as partisan as Markos was toward Blanc. In addition to eradicating Markos, Susie/Suspiriorum eradicates all matrons who voted for Markos to lead the coven instead of Blanc. One perhaps wonders if she even would have obliterated Blanc, who she did not save from becoming a Pez Dispenser.
Guadagnino only embraces the colorful giallo horror of Argento in this finale because the sequence is about judging excessiveness. Suspiriorum will claim the powerful coven that Markos has run in her name. She takes ownership of the matrons who were deferential to Blanc and will keep the oblivious students as her proxies—save for the three sacrifices to the Three Mothers. Claiming to offer each girl whatever she desires, all three Patricia and Olga plead for death, which is understandable since their viscera hanging out.
Suspiriorum is still a witch in this universe, and one who embodies Death. To live is to die.
This is something that Jozef Klemperer (also, remarkably, Tilda Swinton) knows too well. As the most intriguing and acute aspect of the film, Jozef represents both the failing and perhaps salvation of the patriarchy in the film’s meatier subtexts. He is himself a sympathetic victim: a Jewish psychiatrist who still mourns a wife he has not seen since the early ‘40s. Still, he clings to the hope of her having survived the Holocaust. His wife begged for them to leave Germany years before he did, and only then sending for a wife who never came. The witches prey on this vulnerability when they create a vision of Jozef’s wife, played here by Jessica Harper (the original Susie Bannion), but it’s of course a lie. Pretending to have escaped Germany and starting a new life in Britain, Harper’s Anke tells Jozef everything he wants to hear: He is not to blame for her death.
But after succeeding at luring Jozef back in the neighborhood of the academy, it’s revealed that his wife is long dead. They then rather accusatorily mock Jozef’s claims of innocence: “Women tell you the truth and you tell them they’re delusional.” Jozef earns no pity from witches, who historically were women often accused of villainy due to their self-efficiency and independence from traditional societal roles. By contrast he failed to save his wife in the same way he has now failed to save Patricia and Sara. At the beginning of the film, Patricia brings Jozef a book on “The Three Mothers” and begs for him to understand her life, soul, and even her sex are in grave danger. Yet Jozef simply scribbles away, not even pausing to consider this woman as anything but hysterical… until she’s disappeared and presumably damned.
Only then does Jozef take interest in the dance academy he’s been told is comprised of witches, even though he does little to save Sara from the exact same fate as Patricia. Jozef is the epitome of the patriarchy’s inadequacy, even when it attempts to be benevolent. It still sets the rules in this world, a fact that many women, including Markos’ witches, succumb to.
At the very end of the picture, they decide the ritual of passing Markos to another vessel can only be successful if they have a witness. A male witness. It would seem nothing matters in this world unless a man is there to verify it. No matter how many women can come forward and claim they were harassed or assaulted, many men only accept it when another male supports an accusation with their own evidence. And Jozef can only truly believe in witches when he sees them for himself. Hence his fate to learn the hard way.
Nevertheless, Suspiriorum ultimately spares him the memory of what happened in the bowels of that academy (or the pain of knowing his wife). Maybe it is because he himself has been marked as “lesser” than an authority in his lifetime. As a Jewish man who lived and survived Nazi Germany, he’s been marginalized and treated as Other. This subjugation gives him a natural connection to women like Sara or Patricia: he’s been categorized as lesser-than the men who make the rules. This vulnerability gives dimension to the fact that Jozef—the only major male character in the whole film—is also played by Ms. Swinton. It also explains the Mother of Sighs’ pseudo-mercy for a man with a lifetime of bitter sighs.
She claims they need pain, but not his. For all his obliviousness, he at least attempts to be an ally to women he cannot fully understand. Even so, he must still endure a kind of punishment when he loses the memory of a cherished wife whom Suspiriorum likely deems him undeserving of knowing. He doesn’t even recognize his housekeeper at the end.
Which in turns brings us to the historic implications of the film. While a bit muddy, it is suggested that the “Volk” was created by Madame Blanc when she was more directly underneath the tutelage of Madame Markos. Unveiled in 1944, the dance was created in the shadow of Nazi Germany’s final days. And as the word “Volk” literally translates to “people,” it could be argued the dance is meant to represent the German people. Blanc tells Susie early in the movie it is about creating art and finding light during even the darkest or cruelest of times, but it is also reflective of a generation who looked the other way while inflicting that cruelty. This kind of insular thinking is challenged by Suspiriorum when she judges Markos’ farce as unworthy, much in the way that the film is set during the German Autumn of 1977, a time of political upheaval that included political assassinations and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181.
As Markos’ academy literally faces the Berlin Wall in the new Suspiria, it chooses to be ignorant of the evil in the world outside, helping propagate it no more and no less than Jozef’s inability to help Patricia, a political activist who becomes terrified at the realization that her academy is a front for witchcraft. Jozef fails to act, much like he did in the lead-up to the Holocaust, and women he cares about, yet patronizes, die. The academy is reflective of the older German “Volk” around it, still putting its head in the sand during a season of violence and upheaval, much as Markos’ witches did when they mastered their greatest dance during the events of the Holocaust and a war that led directly to the gloomy Wall facing its doorstep.
Now that Suspiriorum is returned, these priorities will presumably change. The suffering will continue, but not in the way it has for the majority of the 20th century up to that point. In this way, Suspiriorum’s second coming heralds the turning of the tide.
At least, that’s one way of looking at it.
*An earlier version of this article stated Sara said “to live” to the Mother of Sighs. Thank you to @fierysadness for the correction.