This article contains some spoilers for Suspiria (2018).
There is a simple truth when it comes to the Resurrection: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”.1 We are to be encouraged by the martyrs, by all who gave their lives in service of God, to be willing to die to our old lives and embrace eternal life with God. In the Christian imagination, this rebirth to new life only comes through surrendering to the power and grace of God. In Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, we imagine the disaster that comes from trying to control our resurrection. The horror of this resurrection comes not from clinging too tightly to the past, but from willfully ignoring the (sometimes painful) beauty of memory.
We are introduced to our protagonist, Susie (Dakota Johnson), as she runs away from her Mennonite home in Ohio to join an all-woman Berlin dance company. She leaves behind everything she knew for the sake of her dream, and is well rewarded: Susie soon becomes the lead dancer in the company’s upcoming show. However, the older women who run the company are secretly a coven of witches, using the dances as rituals to enhance their power and hurt those who threaten them.
Despite the growing dread that ‘something’ is wrong, Susie moves into the dormitory and spends all of her time surrounded by her new community. And as she becomes more and more entangled with the witches, Susie shows no regret about her previous life. The movie returns several times to Susie’s home farmhouse, where her mother (Malgorzata Bela) lies, bedridden, slowly gasping for air. But as her birth mother is dying, Susie makes a new home in Berlin. The young dancer seems to seek a new birth that will allow her to deny her stern and abusive mother.
Susie is caught between two warring factions within the coven, the sides led by Madame Blanc and Helena Markos (both played by Tilda Swinton). Blanc and Markos see potential in the young dancer, but disagree on what to do. We are presented clearly with two fantastical visions of rebirth, by two midwives: Blanc wants to mold Susie in her own image as a witch (literally giving Susie her dreams); Markos wants to consume Susie and achieve a sort of apotheosis as the witch-deity Mother Suspiriorum. Until the final moments of the movie, we are unsure which path Susie will take. But regardless of the choice, Susie rejects any ties to her previous life, and her previous mother.
Watching Susie twist and turn in her bed every night with bloody and horrifying dreams, we might be surprised by her willingness to enter into the coven. Yet Susie does not fear death, because she sees nothing worthwhile in her old life. Unlike Christ redeeming our suffering through the cross, she sees no redemption from her pain and boredom. Given the bleakness of an uninteresting life in a strict religious household, Susie becomes drawn to the dark promise of a new birth among the witches.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, regarding the resurrection of the dead: “It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. … What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”2
Susie, like Paul, seeks a new body in order to be changed into something imperishable. She would happily let her old life die, if it means a new life of glory and power. Where Paul trusts in God’s grace by accepting his own weakness, Susie trusts in the coven’s power to supplement her own ambition. Markos is unrepentant in her selfish desire for eternal life. Blanc tries to guide Susie into wielding her growing power. But both encourage Susie to turn her back on anything good in the world.
The movie is set in 1977, in a divided Berlin during the uprising of the leftist Red Army Faction against the government, caught in the wake of WW2. In this world, Blanc tells Susie to give up on ever finding peace; anything that appears good is only a facade. In the aftermath of death and destruction, Berlin only finds more terror. Blanc warns the young dancer, “Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.”
It is this rejection of beauty that allows Susie to turn so readily on her past. She sees no worth in her memories, and likewise cannot imagine anything good ever coming from her difficult upbringing. Bereft of hope, she sees the only way out through the bloody resurrection promised by the witches.
For those of us who believe in salvation history, even difficult memories are worthwhile to hold onto. In the Bible we read painful stories, listen to prophecies and psalms of rejection, anger, loss, and terror. We remember those stories, because they remind us that God is always with us, even in our desolation and utter despair. We remember that God loves us, even when we choose sin. These memories become beautiful, despite their apparent ugliness, because they remind us that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”3
Our flesh and blood, as they are now, will not inherit the kingdom of God; but that does not mean we should forsake our bodies and memories. To trust in the resurrection is to find the beauty in our earthly bodies, and embrace our own bodies as created out of love. For the coven, it’s unclear if the whole ordeal (and its violent consequences) will make anything better. They all seem caught in the same loop, reenacting the same desires through generations. Without hope, without beauty, we can only stand in dread of new life.
Suspiria is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. It is rated R for “disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references.”