When you talk to Luca Guadagnino about his new version of Suspiria, there’s only one question he doesn’t want to answer. “Do not ask me why I wanted to make this movie,” he jokes as we sit down in a publicist’s office overlooking the Financial District. You can understand journalists’ curiosity, even if it’s a bit of an obvious thing to ask: Why did the filmmaker behind sumptuous, sun-filled movies like Call Me by Your Name and A Bigger Splash decide to remake Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film about a Berlin dance academy that’s run by witches? The Italian director has called Suspiria his “most personal film,” and over the course of our short conversation, he spoke to Vulture about the movie’s relationship to motherhood, why Tilda Swinton is playing three roles, and why he loves Dakota Johnson’s face.
What do you remember about your first visit to Berlin?
I went to Berlin very late in life. In person, I think it was when I Am Love was presented to the Berlinale at the Culinary Cinema section, which was 2010. My interaction with Berlin has always been through films and through books. The first time I went to Berlin was through Fassbinder’s films. That was when I understood that cinema was not just entertainment, but could also be a reflection of history, of society. I found endearing his capacity of being completely unsentimental, and at the same time so earnest — soft with his skin ripped out, and the flesh exposed.
Suspiria takes place in 1977, when you were 6 years old. The Red Army Faction in Germany is part of the background of the film. Italy at the same time had the Red Brigades. Were you conscious of these things going on as a kid?
I was conscious and not conscious. I definitely remember the sense of dread in the street. ’78 was the year in which Aldo Moro, our former prime minister, was kidnapped and killed. Even if I was very young, and I couldn’t understand the politics, I could see the effect on people around me. And I grew up in a place that was really tough. Palermo, being the capital of Sicily, is also the center of the other state, the Mafia. There was a moment during the ’80s in which the Mafia decided to go on a war. Every day there was a killing. The idea of a moment of dread in society that reverberates in everyday life is something that I feel. It’s what Dakota says in the film: “Why are people ready to think that the worst is over?”
You’ve said that this is a film about motherhood. Which aspects of motherhood were most important for you to bring to the screen?
I think that if we decide not to take into consideration the cliché that a mother is a caring, nurturing person who is bound to her role of raising a kid, we see that the relationship between the mother and the kid has a more complex layer. Then we can say that a movie in which someone wants to be born again and kill the daughter in order to do that is a real depiction of motherhood somehow.
Have you shown this film to your own mother?
She saw it in Venezia. She told me she can’t stand horror films in the first place, but also she’s biased. She’s Algerian but also very Italian, so everything her child does, it’s good. I think she saw the movie superficially, because she said to me, “Oh, it’s beautiful.” I think she didn’t want to deal with what is onscreen.
What would you have preferred she got out of it?
I hope people are always open to see things in their real-life nature. But always we are in denial. Oliver is in denial at the end of Call Me by Your Name, no? And I think Elio is not.
Is that something the sequel will explore?
No, I don’t think this is thematic. I think it’s more an aspect of a personality, you know? Maybe if the denial is still there, maybe Elio being a bit older will question that denial to Oliver as a friend.
Call Me by Your Name has a lot of scenes where the characters are underwater, in a way that’s very womb-like. So much of this film takes place during a rainstorm. I was wondering what that precipitation means to you.
I think it’s instinctual. I would say in a banal way that in the symbolism of the psyche, the water is the mother. And it’s telling that I can’t swim. If I don’t touch ground I will drown. It’s something that should be discussed in the privacy of therapy maybe.
There’s a pivotal dance in the movie called “Volk,” which in the film’s world was created in 1948, during the era of the Berlin Airlift. How much backstory for the Markos Dance Academy have you created?
During the war, I think they were silent. I think they buried themselves within the company. They have enough money that they could pay to be left alone. The witches are very rich.
I was trying to figure out which side they would have been ideologically.
I think they were witnessing. They were not interested in that. They’re more interested in what happens within, to the degree that their building is in front of the Wall, and they’re letting it happen.
There’s a line in the film about how the world needs guilt and shame. Do you agree with that?
I think that I wish for more people to be able to deal with their guilt and overcome it. I think it’s more about the character, and it’s really bound to the title of the film, suspiria, which means sigh. Something of pain, or suffering.
Here it’s also about the historical guilt of the German people.
It’s about the collectiveness of Germany, which at the time had still to deal with what happened and what they did.
Do you think they have?
This is a very important question that should be asked to historians and philosophers. The process has been very long, and as a whole, the German nation did deal with that, and they’re still dealing with it. I don’t think it’s something you can overcome easily. It’s very telling that after the war, for 20 years, there was a silence about it. So not only was there a need to deal with the guilt and shame of what had been made by Nazi Germany, there is also the guilt and shame of the 20 years of obliviousness. It’s striking how Germany, being so ripe in its history of civilization, sophistication, and culture, has been able to go there. Maybe this is because I’m a Latin person, but every time I go to Berlin, there is a sense of oppression I feel.
I don’t want to sound generic and banal, but I think Germany has really dealt with great pain. Many great artists still deal with that. Think of Anselm Kiefer, for instance, in his sculptures.
Without getting too spoiler-y, the movie suggests that one way to deal with it is getting your memory wiped.
That was a great idea of David Kajganich. You feel that something good has happened to a beloved character. But in truth, it’s a monstrous act. Without memory, even the most painful of memories, we are nothing. We are not human. So the person who wipes off the memory is really a villain.
This is your second film with Dakota Johnson.
Isn’t she amazing? You know, she plays two roles, but the second role is not in the movie that is coming out. I’ve never said it to anybody, but this is a little present for Vulture. She was playing Naomi, the twin sister of Susie, back in Ohio.
Do we ever see Naomi’s face?
For a second in the main titles at the beginning: her sister looming there.
What was your first impression of Dakota?
I was casting A Bigger Splash, and we had to recast the role of Penelope. She was having a little holiday in Europe, so she came to see me in Crema. I remember she was very suspicious. She was really private in that meeting, but I knew it had to be her. I found her very sharp. I like intelligent people. And I like her face very much.
What is it about her face?
It can change very much. And I instinctively felt that the camera would love her face. I don’t want take off the individuality of Dakota in what I’m saying, but I can see Tippi Hedren. Dakota’s her own thing, but there are these remnants. And that’s so attractive to me because I am a big fan of Tippi. I love all the great Hitchcock blondes.
You made her a redhead here.
Auburn hair comes with a sense of unknown, to me.
When you two made that first film together, what did you learn about directing her?
She’s really bombastic, and she’s really bold. She doesn’t shy away. She goes for it. She’s not pretty and nice and acting. She’s really committed to be.
She’s not an actor who’s worried about her angles.
Oh, no. When an actor is worried about the angles, it’s the end of it. It’s like a date gone south.
At what point in the process did you decide that Tilda Swinton would be playing three roles?
After I got her the script, it was an ongoing conversation I had with David about these three roles. I felt it had to be Tilda for all of them, because this is a film that deals a lot with the uncanny and unconscious. I thought it would be good to have Tilda playing all the three aspects of a human psyche — the id, the ego, and the superego.
Which of the three are which aspects of the psyche?
We have the audience to understand that, no? You should reply.
I would say that Markos is the id. And then Lutz …
It’s not Lutz. It’s Klemperer.
Do you like the performance as a whole? Which do you prefer?
You have to be impressed by her performance as Klemperer, or I guess, her as Lutz as Klemperer. But there was something about Madame Blanc I really enjoyed. Which was your favorite? Can you separate them?
I’ve read that you would ask everyone on set what they thought of Lutz as an actor.
Half the crew didn’t know Tilda was playing Lutz. Ingrid Caven thought she was acting with Lutz Ebersdorf until the end.
Did she think he was a good actor?
I think so. I mean, he is a great actor.
It’s sad he’s only going to do one movie.
He’s quite old. Maybe if he doesn’t die, we can hire him to do something else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.