The original title for the Austrian film Goodnight Mommy is Ich seh Ich seh, which translates roughly to “I see, I see.” This phrase is a reference to a German/Austrian version of “I spy with my little eye,” which proceeds instead as “Ich seh, Ich seh, was du nicht siehst” – “I see, I see, what you don’t see.” There is an abundance of visually stunning darkness and violence in this truly disturbing film. So what, then, are we meant to see that we do not immediately see?
In the opening to Goodnight Mommy, two ten-year-old twins, Elias and Lukas (portrayed compellingly by Elias and Lukas Schwarz), idle away their boyhood summer at a large countryside house. Curiously unsupervised for the first part of the film, they boys seem to exist in a single, golden, never-ending day of play, running through fields, swimming in the lake, and exploring caves. However, the light of the summer quickly turns sinister when their mother (the equally superb Susanne Wuest) returns home from an unexplained cosmetic facial surgery. To Elias and Lukas, the heavily bandaged woman now in their home is severe and menacing, and the boys begin to suspect that she is not their dear mother at all.
What unfolds throughout the film is seemingly a monster movie, the tale of a beast that descends from the hills to terrorize a town (population: 2). The mother stalks through the house with booming steps, almost machine-like in resonance and pace, trailed by a plume of ashen robes. She sets strict rules for the silence and sterility of the house, for which the boys are punished harshly when they refuse to comply. Stranger yet, the woman seems to prohibitively favor one of her sons, citing an unstated prior insult as justification.
The directors of Goodnight Mommy, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, are masterful at creating tension and mystery. Who is this woman? It seems impossible that she is their mother, or anyone’s mother for that matter. At one point, after making too much noise, the boys are locked in their rooms, starved and forced to urinate into cans. They begin to have visions of their mother undergoing demonic transformations. They realize they must fight back.
Many of the mother’s actions are objectively monstrous and inconsistent with her personality in the past. The film becomes more compelling, however, after the halfway point, when we begin to realize that we are, in fact, being told this story through the eyes of children. Lukas and Elias have legitimate fears and analyses, but their minds are walled by their own naiveté. We see hints of the mother as a damaged and strained person who is struggling to heal emotionally as well as physically. Through small clues—-snippets of conversations, flashes of computer screens–it is revealed that some significant change happened to this family prior to and beneath the surface of the film. Trauma does not discriminate between the young and the old, and ultimately, after the film’s graphically violent and shocking turn in the final act, devastation finds all members of the family alike.
As watchers of horror movies, we are trained to be vigilant, always on edge and scanning for the monster around the corner. This is more challenging in Goodnight Mommy, in which allegiances shift throughout. Where did I actually see the monster? For many years, horror films have focused on fear of children as a central theme, with movies such as The Ring, Children of the Corn, and The Exorcist all utilizing childhood as a conduit of terror. While not a direct subversion of this theme, Goodnight Mommy sets its goals higher, exploring the desolation and fear that can occur when humans at vastly different stages in their development attempt to reconcile themselves with transformative pain. Terror is never just about a monster; terror is found within.
There is a moment in Goodnight Mommy when the anxious heat of summer finally breaks, and the sky opens to a flurry of hail. The boys rush out to the back yard in cathartic glee to jump around in the chunks of ice. Inside, their mother stares coldly, her hollow eyes buried in bandages, her face obscured by blinds, her entire body sealed like a dissected specimen behind a pane of glass. In that moment, the boys and their mother are more like pillars demarcating negative space than a family. The void between them is terrifying, but nonetheless invisible. There is nothing there to see.