'Suspiria': Why It Dropped Ballet and Became a Cold War Period Movie
In Dario Argento’s original 1977 horror classic Suspiria, an American ballerina named Susie Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) travels abroad to Berlin, only to discover her elite dance school is staffed by actual witches. The remake, directed by Luca Guadagnino and out in theaters on November 2, follows pretty much the same story, except for two things.
One, Susie studies modern dance now, not ballet. And two, Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have consciously created a period film that is unambiguously set in 1977. Argento’s film never addresses the divided German — split between socialist and Soviet-controlled Berlin — where it takes place. But the chilling winds of the Cold War blow everywhere throughout Guadagnino’s movie.
As Kajganich and Guadagnino tell Inverse, the two aimed to differentiate their movie from Argento’s by emphasizing the political strife of 1977 Berlin to underscore the harrowing journey of their Susie Bannion (now played by Dakota Johnson) as she navigates her strange supernatural surroundings.
"Luca and I decided to imagine the original was a fever dream made in 1977 but wasn’t about 1977.
“Luca and I decided to imagine the original was a fever dream made in 1977 but wasn’t about 1977,” Kajganich says. “What we could offer as a remake is to widen the brackets of the original story, include the history swirling around that time and place and make connections to the story inside of the dance company. Once we talked about what that story could offer us dramatically, it could allow characters more ethic tapestry to be a part of. It was a lot less daunting than reimagining the original.”
“We were drawn by the time,” Guadagnino explains. “1977 was something that meant a lot to me, probably because of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. That was an important year for cinema. But it was a year a a lot of things happened, particularly the great blast of rebellion that was infesting Europe. And also most importantly, the feminist riots that were asking for different approach to femininity at the time. We thought the mirroring to whatever happens in the coven was a good way to do this movie.”
Kajganich adds that the tense atmosphere of Cold War Berlin is a solid, if also imperfect parallel to emphasize the internal politics of the academy’s coven of witches, who are also in upheaval when Susie Bannion knocks on their door.
“Susie’s story is about reinvention, peeling back layers until you get to the core of who that character is,” Kajganich says. “What was happening in Germany at the time was a moment where the youth was in revolt. The coven can see the writing on the wall. There was this opportunity exert their influence into the cracks of hostility between the generations. What they don’t realize is that same revolt is happening inside the company.”
Naturally, it isn’t a perfect 1:1 parallel. “It’s a complicated answer,” says the screenwriter. “It was very difficult at the time. Certain groups of people rebelling and the idea of examining their own culpability during the war. It was why people were clamoring so loudly and violently for the country to do just that. What their motivations sometimes were was unclear or dangerous to some people. It was a violent time.”
Another key, if less severe difference between Argento’s and Guadagnino’s film was the departure from ballet to modern dance, two different forms that explore the body in different ways. Kajganich says the change came because of multiple reasons, not the least of which because of “fascistic” ballet can be.
“Nine out of ten movies about ballet is about how fascistic ballet is,” the screenwriter says. “It puts the body through its own horror show.”
While Suspiria is indeed a horror movie, the filmmakers approached dance as something inherently feminine, which the coven use to hide spells. The dances in Suspiria was choreographed by choreographer Damien Jalet, who adapted parts of his 2013 piece “Volk” into the films’ bewitching finale.
“Classical ballet was choreographed by men. It takes the female body and put it into a task that is difficult and unnatural in a way that seems objectifying,” Kajganich says. “A lot of choreographers I studied, Sasha Waltz, Mary Wigman, Pina Bausch, were trying to use the body to present the joy and tension of being a body in space. Modern dance is meant to have a dialogue with an audience. We didn’t want to imagine Madame Blanc hiding spell work in choreography in a fascistic way. She wanted there to be real art inside of her work, not subject women into rigorous postures.”
While ballet was formalized sometime in the 15th century in France, modern dance was a 20th century German art. Its presence in the reboot really drills down the time and place Suspiria takes place in a way that’s absent in Argento’s original. By looking back in retrospect, the filmmakers hope to see clarity in how the characters in Suspiria respond to the conflict just outside their walls.
“We can try to understand everyone’s motivations on that continuum, to being so politically active to the point of insurrectionist, to the other side which was being apolitical, to not get pulled into what people thought was a very destructive conversation even though it was a very necessary conversation.”
Ultimately, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is simply trying to tell its own version of the story, irregardless of how Dario Argento told his over 40 years ago.
“Honestly, I don’t think we tried to make something different for the sake of it,” Guadagnino says. “Dario’s film meant so much to us so profoundly that we were feeling emboldened to do our own movie, from passion for that film. Dario Argento’s film invited us to be who we wanted us to be.”
Suspiria is in theaters now.