Karlovy Vary: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala on Playing Games in ‘Goodnight Mommy’

The Austrian arthouse chiller arrives in Karlovy Vary as part of Variety's Critics' Choice selection.

Karlovy Vary Critics Picks
Courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Mutually catholic taste in movies is what brought writer-director team Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala together 17 years ago, when Fiala, then a film student, would babysit Franz’s children in return for VHS rentals. “We’d have these crazy marathons,” Fiala explains with a smile. “One time we watched Cassavetes’ ‘Faces,’ ‘Tetsuo II: Body Hammer,’ ‘Lancelot du Lac’ and ‘Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan’ back to back.”

Such highbrow and lowbrow affections are both evident in their film “Goodnight Mommy.” A supremely unsettling arthouse chiller, this tale of mother-child discord gone hideously wrong has been freaking out the festival circuit since its Venice debut last fall. Now arriving in Karlovy Vary as part of Variety’s Critics’ Choice program, its reputation has been well established.

“We’ve had two viewers fainting in screenings before,” Fiala says, “which is pretty much the best response. Horror is a genre that’s meant to do something to your body — you shiver, you sweat, you faint.”

Not that Franz and Fiala specifically set out to make a horror film at all: Having first collaborated on “Kern,” a 2012 documentary portrait of eccentric Austrian actor-director Peter Kern, they were inspired by the advent of “Extreme Makeover”-style reality shows to pen a story about young twin boys adamant that the newly surgically-altered woman in their house is not their mother.

“We were interested in the idea of lost trust, what it means to have to prove your identity as a mother, and that became a gruesome horror story,” Franz explains. “We wanted a film that gets at you physically, but with issues you can think through. Ultimately, we like to play.”

Though the pic marks their narrative helming debut, the duo didn’t find the transition from non-fiction filmmaking too drastic. “It’s hard to say if it’s easier or more difficult: in both cases you know what you want to find out and you have to find a way to get it out of your characters,” says Fiala. “In a similar way, ‘Kern’ was also about identity, what’s staged and what’s real.”

For Franz, meanwhile, her directorial work thus far reps a natural extension of her ongoing creative collaboration with husband Ulrich Seidl, the celebrated Austrian provocateur whose films include “Import/Export,” the “Paradise” trilogy and last year’s hybrid doc “In the Basement” — all co-written by Franz. For his part, Seidl acted as producer on “Goodnight Mommy.”

“In a way, Ulrich’s films are all horror movies, just not in a genre sense,” she laughs. “He liked the script very much, though he obviously had his own images in mind when reading it. I think he was quite surprised by what film it turned out to be in the end!”

“Of course, he doesn’t want us to make an Ulrich Seidl film,” Fiala adds. “As a producer, he’s very honest, not interested in money. But he wants to test your ideas to see if you’re absolutely sure about them.” Shooting on 35mm was one such idea. Though it was a pricey risk, given the limitations of the budget and the presence of two inexperienced child leads, Seidl agreed to stump up for the stock, to the film’s glistening visual benefit.

There’s little interfering, then, with Franz and Fiala’s joint creative convictions. “We do everything in filmmaking together — literally, physically together,” Franz says. “Even when we’re writing, we’ll sit next to each other, passing the laptop back and forth as we have ideas. Michael Haneke didn’t believe we could work this way. ‘One of you has to be the boss,’ he told us. But if you trust each other, and have the same movie in mind, it’s absolutely possible.”

Do they have a new movie in mind, then? A few, it turns out. Franz reveals that they’re currently mulling two “more serious” projects based on true events. The first, with the working title “By the Hands of the Executioner,” concerns a spate of 18th-century murders committed by suicidal young women seeking redemptive execution; the second, on a similarly macabre bent, examines Austria’s last executioner — a part-time film projectionist — in the years before the country abolished capital punishment in 1950.

While touring festivals with Goodnight Mommy, meanwhile, the pair have also hammered out a treatment for a slasher movie, set entirely within the confines of a multiplex. “We just wrote it for fun — Veronika gets bored quickly,” her partner quips. “It’s all about film and staging, another kind of play on the audience. We could just make the same film over and over again. The only problem comes if people stop liking it, and we can’t stop making it.”