- Pre-Face, Sur-Face, Inter-Face, Post-Face:The Horror Story of Goodnight Mommy
The opening scene of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's 2014 Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh ich seh) is an obscene preface (Figure 1). A dirndl-clad mother encircled by seven beaming and utterly Aryan-looking children all sing Johannes Brahms's putatively halcyon lullaby "Guten Abend, gute Nacht" ("Good Evening, Good Night"). For a horror film about a brutal matricide, this excessively harmonious first image appears to do nothing more than adumbrate its own violent demise. Foreboding is already contained in this singular image and its soundtrack. In particular, the lullaby's ominously coded message introduces the present film as a dream that could easily turn into a nightmare, sleep unto death:
Morgen früh, wenn Gott will,wirst du wieder geweckt
[Tomorrow morning, if God wills,You will be awoken once again]
The obscenity of this image lies not only in what Marina Warner would refer to as the terror of death so often embedded in the lullaby but also in its cinematic citation.1 This grainy and harshly [End Page 90] saturated image would be uncannily familiar to an Austrian viewer (or a German one, for that matter). Framed like a picture by the black screen, it is an Ur-image from the national cinematic album.
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This image was extracted from the final scene of Wolfgang Liebeneiner's 1956 West German classic film The Trapp Family (Die Trapp-Familie), which later went on to inspire a sequel, The Trapp Family in America (Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika, 1958), as well as the famed musical and film The Sound of Music (1965). The image's appearance here seems to recast a revisionist past in cinematic anticipation of its own rebuke. Historically based on among other things this Austrian family's flight from the Nazis, The Trapp Family (and the aesthetics of this final scene in particular) is inescapably part of the apolitical ethos of an archive of films from the 1950s often subsumed under the genre Heimatfilm. These features routinely served to present nostalgic and even escapist narratives to German-language audiences in which tradition, nationalism (pre-Nazism, of course), family, and a return to the simplicity and the idyllic nature of the hinterland was intended to offer temporary respite from the onerous memory of the horror of the recent past. While Johannes von Moltke has persuasively argued for the critical recovery of the Heimatfilm as not only an important Germanlanguage film genre, one that Thomas Elsaesser calls "Germany's only indigenous and historically most enduring genre,"2 but also one rich in nuance, the films of this genre still remain linked to a historical legacy of parochialism and repression of historical violence. Addressing this repressed history of violence has been a task [End Page 91] of much Austrian cinema since the early 1990s, as exemplified by many of Michael Haneke's German-language films. To paraphrase German film critic Katja Nicodemus, contemporary Austrian cinema is born of muted screams and carefully swabbed blood.3
But while critics have largely praised Goodnight Mommy for its ability to conjure up horror in the simplicity of the domestic and the quotidian with notable comparison to Haneke's 1997 Funny Games, Franz and Fiala's film has not been examined in much depth, and the filmmakers, both new to the director's chair, remain relatively unknown.4 Yet at a time when Austria, indeed much of Europe, has been swept up in a wave of frightening new nativism with the late 2017 election of the populist Austrian People's Party, which formed a coalition with the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Austria, founded after World War II by former members of the Nazi Party, I propose that this film invokes some startling observations about cinema and politics.5 At the site of the face, cinema shows itself as a violent medium of the history and politics of whiteness in Europe and in Austria...