Much has been said about the relationship between Luca Guadagnino’s new remake of Suspiria and Dario Argento’s 1977 original. Guadagnino has taken the skeleton of the story — which concerns an American who joins a prestigious German dance academy only to discover it’s run by a coven of witches — and refashioned it to reflect his own obsessions with modern art, feminism, radical politics, and sexuality. But in many ways, the new Suspiria has more in common with a different classic of the arthouse-horror genre: Possession (1981), the only English-language film from Polish director Andrzej Zulawski (1940-2016).
Like the monster at its center — a hybrid creature that alternately resembles a golem out of Jewish lore, a tentacled alien out of H.P. Lovecraft, a phallus, and the biblical Antichrist — Possession has gone through several permutations since it first divided critics at the Cannes Film Festival (where its lead, Isabelle Adjani, was named Best Actress). Upon theatrical release, it was placed on the famous Video Nasties list in England, recut and dumped in a few of the remaining grindhouse theaters in America, and ignored throughout the rest of the world. It built a cult following and gradually earned its reputation as a legitimate masterpiece, but it remains under-seen due to its unavailability across streaming platforms — which is a shame, as it’s arguably the greatest film its kind.
Possession is a high-pitched fever dream of a film concerning the violent dissolution of the marriage between Mark (Sam Neill) and Ana (Adjani) after Ana takes a new lover, who it turns out is the monstrous — but likely divine — product of her own miscarriage in an underground U-Bahn station. It’s entirely unique on a tonal level, but it has much in common with other domestic psychodramas-cum-body horror classics, including David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) — and now Suspiria, with which it shares more in common than perhaps any film to date.
Both movies feature set-pieces depicting violent, orgiastic dancing (in a nice bit of synchronicity, Possession’s Ana, like the villains of the original Suspiria, is a ballet instructor); both feature actors playing multiple characters in order to achieve a sense of the uncanny; both are soaked in viscera and gore; both contain delightfully gruesome practical creature effects; and both make several overt pronouncements that link motherhood to divinity, and divinity to disease.
Most importantly, both share a setting: West Berlin during the late ‘70s. The Berlin Wall is an ever-present backdrop in both films, yet unlike most films where it plays a prominent role (such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold  or The Lives of Others ), the wall is not a force of obstruction in either Possession or Suspiria. Rather, it is a fissure, a crack in the world through which the disease of evil is able to pierce our reality.
Like the visual palettes of each film — the bleached, ashen cinematography of Suspiria, and the harsh primary colors of Possession — their examinations of West Berlin’s political landscape during this period are linked by their oppositional approach.
As Zulawski notes in Daniel Bird’s documentary The Other Side of the Wall: The Making of Possession (2009), shooting his film in West Berlin was done “not for reasons of exotic background, but reasons of profound necessity.” Born in Poland during the Nazi occupation, Zulawski left his homeland a year before embarking upon Possession, when his science fiction epic On the Silver Globe (1977) was shut down by order of the Polish Ministry of Culture two weeks before filming completed. His personal despondence over the concurrent dissolution of his marriage to the actress Małgorzata Braunek (who, like Ana in Possession, left him for a New Age spiritualist and charlatan), made West Berlin, with its “proximity to the vicious world behind the wall,” the natural setting for his next project, which would be his most immediately personal.
Guadagnino has called Suspiria his most personal film, although it is not an expectoration of deep-seated emotions, but an exegesis on the influences that shaped his aesthetic sensibility — Argento’s Suspiria first and foremost, but also the films of West German director Rainer Werner Fassbender (who Zulawski used as the basis for the antagonist of his own film about political terrorism and disillusionment, Le Femme Publique ), as well as the work of several feminist artists across a number of disciplines — dance, painting, sculpture, and photography (including the late Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, whose estate sued Amazon Studios for copyright infringement).
In place of the pervasive sense of dread visited upon West Berlin by the specter of its neighboring outland, Guadagnino turns his attention to the chaotic factioning within its own borders, as embodied by the terrorist acts committed by and on behalf of the Red Army Faction (RAF), or Baader-Meinhof Group, the militant leftist organization responsible for a series of attacks throughout the decade.
Guadagnino uses the violent headlines of the day — none of which get any mention in the original Suspiria — to mirror the witches’ power struggle that makes up the main thrust of the story. They also serve as a stand-in for the similar turmoil embroiling Guadagnino’s homeland during his own childhood — namely, the acts of the Brigate Rosse and Cosa Nostra. (Hailing from Sicily, home of the Mafia, it makes sense that Guadagino’s Suspiria resembles a mob drama as often as it does a horror film.)
Whereas Guadagnino’s film doesn’t take a moral stance on the actions or ideology of the RAF, Zulawski makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the totalitarian East, though he does show equal antipathy toward the amoral intelligence agencies operating out of the West.
In Possession, Ana’s doppelgänger, the patient school teacher Helen, sums up Zulawski’s viewpoint:
“I come from a place where evil seems easier to pinpoint because you can see it in the flesh. It becomes people, so you know exactly the danger of being deformed by it. Which doesn’t mean I admire your world.”
No doubt that between two, Possession is the greater film on every level, especially when it comes to its political concerns. Not that Suspiria ever stood a chance in this regard — it is, in the end, a period piece, one that can merely look back and try to recreate an epoch. Possession, having been shot on location, serves as its own documentary and time capsule. The Berlin Wall is the real Berlin Wall. Zulawski, having experienced this political reality firsthand, has an innate understanding of it that Guadagnino can’t match, though he clearly feels no need to translate that understanding to his audience in a comprehensible way — the utterly confusing manner in which the espionage subplot is presented in Possession make an already difficult film even more challenging, and unlike other elements and plot points, repeat viewing do little to clear up the viewer’s initial confusion. Far from proving a detriment, this narrative choice imbues the film with a sense of black humor that perfectly encapsulates the absurdities of the Cold War. By contrast, the straightforward exposition that Guadagnino uses to flesh out the world of his film feels especially laden and obvious (the first lines of the movie are literally “Free Baader! Free Meinhof!”).
That said, Suspiria is not wholly unsuccessful in its depiction of history. Though a number of its detractors argue otherwise, its evocation of the Holocaust and exploration of collective guilt are both emotionally impactful as well as surprisingly complex. Guadagnino doesn’t take the expected route of making his witches stand-ins for the Nazis, nor does he make the film’s ostensible hero — the brave and kindly Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, billed as Lutz Ebersdorf and gender-bending under a ton of prosthetics) — a complete innocent. All the forces at work, be they compassionate or malevolent, are blind to the repeated ascendance of ultimate evil, and that blindness is the cause of their undoings.
Possession, made at beginning of ratcheting nuclear rhetoric and fears of mutually assured destruction, is ultimately an apocalyptic vision. Evil is triumphant, its triumph announced by a soundtrack of air raid sirens and descending missiles.
In Suspiria, evil is likewise triumphant, yet life goes on. Walls come down, seasons change, technology advances. Revolutions die out, as do empires. Evil remains, feeding off our shame and guilt, but so too does love, the proof of its existence etched into our very surroundings.
Both Possession and Suspiria use the “sliced-up pair” that is West Berlin at the beginning of the end of the Cold War to explore the smear of evil upon the world. Zulawski’s film can only howl in the face of that evil, with no hope of ever fully comprehending it. Guadignino’s film, meanwhile, tries to compartmentalize it, so as to figure out a way to live alongside it.
It’s hard to say which response is ultimately bleaker, or more terrifying.