Who makes you the person that you believe you are? — This is the question that directors/writers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala set out to ask in Goodnight Mommy. The Austrian psychological horror, released in 2014, is originally titled “Ich seh, Ich seh” (German for ‘I see, I see’) in reference to the game “I Spy.” The film follows twin brothers, Elias and Lukas, in and around their isolated lakehouse after their mother returns home from cosmetic facial surgery. With her face swathed in bandages, she appears unrecognizable, and her distant, cold, forgetful nature is even more so. From here, the theme of identity is explored by looking at how the main characters view themselves, their family and their nationality.
As a twin, Elias never sees himself without Lukas — even in death. While the major plot twist is revealed later, some may see it coming from the start. The way that the shots are framed, the minimal dialogue, and the fact that the mother barely acknowledges Lukas are all clues that he exists in Elias’s mind. There was some accident that killed Lukas, and Elias’ way of coping is to pretend that he’s still alive. Their mother has played along in the past, but she’s growing tired of the game and wants to move on. Elias takes this as a sign of betrayal and begins to project his suspicions (in the form of Lukas) that their mother is an imposter.
*It’s interesting to note that this delusional belief is a symptom of Capgras Syndrome, a psychological disorder commonly caused by dementia, brain injury and paranoid schizophrenia. While the latter diagnosis is never discussed in the film, it could be something that Elias suffers from.
Understandably, Elias isn’t the only one dealing with mental health issues. His mother is a TV presenter and recent divorcee with possible body dysmorphia. Her coping mechanism is to undergo mild elective facial surgery, but when she gets home, all she sees is a ghost staring back at her. Franz and Fiala modelled her identity crisis after mommy makeover plastic surgery shows that left children crying for their ‘real’ mother.
The family’s identity becomes characterized by a deadly accident, a recent divorce, and a notably absent father. On top of that, Elias discovers his mother’s dating profile and overhears that she’s putting their house up for sale. While he sees her trying to forget the past, Elias fights to keep his brother’s memory alive.
Until the third part of the film, the story is told from Elias’ point of view, and the audience is preoccupied with the imposter theory because his mother doesn’t act very motherly at all. Once the perspective switches from Elias to his mother, you’re made to sympathize with her. She’s not some selfish, neglectful monster; she’s just trying to do the best she can for herself and her child. Despite her attempts to bond with Elias, she can’t properly communicate with him, and ultimately, her silence is what kills her. Balancing self-care with self-sacrifice proves to be especially scary for the mother that has just lost one of her twin boys.
While the opening scene of the Von Trapp family singing Brahms’ Lullaby is serene, it sets an intentionally misleading tone. Goodnight Mommy can be seen as an allegory of how Austria and its people struggle to overcome their role in the Holocaust. In this sense, the mother is the Motherland (guilt-ridden, damaged and trying to heal) and her son, Elias, is the citizen (grieving, in denial over losing his brother to the war and distrusting of his country). National identity also provides more context to the two Red Cross workers that wander into the home. Elias ‘pays them off’ with his mother’s money, and on the way out, they give him a bandaid. Of course, the bandaid represents a quick-fix that never addresses the root problem, very similar to the mother’s plastic surgery.
When you combine a traumatic event and mental illness with an unstable home life and a national guilt complex, your identity is bound to unravel. Elias and his mother both become defined by Lukas’s absence, and their inability to come to terms with his death is something that will haunt who they are forever.