“Not knowing anything would be the best,” is Austrian director Veronika Franz’s message to prospective viewers of The Lodge, the new movie she directed with her trusty collaborator and nephew Severin Fiala. I went into the movie cold, and I agree: The less you know about this domestic horror flick, the better. Stop reading and go see it.
Well, if you must know something (and after watching, I wanted to know a lot, which is why I interviewed Franz and Fiala this week in New York), know that the film concerns cult survivor Grace (Riley Keough), who offers to look after her new boyfriend’s children at his country house in the days before Christmas while he’s home working. Grace and the kids, Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aiden (Jaeden Lieberher), all have histories of trauma—shadow experiences, if you will—but they can’t seem to acknowledge their commonality. Tension ensues and intensifies, the events get more and more bizarre, and eventually, it seems like they might be trapped in the cabin forever.
Like Franz and Fiala’s previous movie, 2014's Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge boldly revels in dark places, suggesting that children may be capable of doing very bad things. It’s maybe the bleakest Christmas movie of all time: slow burn but make it frostbite. Franz credits the movie’s considerable (and damp) atmosphere to its cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (perhaps best known for his work on Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Rebecca, Bunny Lake Is Missing, and The Innocents were among the directors’ influences. Not on the list was Hereditary, despite a few similarities The Lodge shares with it (most obviously, a motif of dolls posed to mimic what’s happening to the characters, but there’s also a similar domestic desolation at hand). We talked about that and much more during our conversation, which has been transcribed, edited, and condensed below.
(There aren’t really overt spoilers, but there are themes discussed that may lessen surprises upon viewing. You have been warned.)
JEZEBEL: As a filmmaking pair, it seems that exploring the potential evil of children is your beat.
SEVERIN FIALA: I think it’s about the potential evil in all of us, in a way.
VERONIKA FRANZ: We kind of think it’s also [about] goodness. Both sides of one coin. We always think of The Lodge [as] a film without a monster. There are monsters, but…
FIALA: They’re inside all of us.
FRANZ: They show depending on the situation.
FIALA: I think [The Lodge] is about trauma, dealing with the past. I think we have the feeling that every one of those characters has lots of things to deal with that they might not have overcome, but they want it to appear that they’ve overcome.
I think what’s interesting about that is that Grace and the children have shadow experiences. So much commonality, and yet they clash because they lack empathy for each other. I think that’s at the root of a lot of human conflict.
FIALA: That’s exactly how we felt.
FRANZ: That was the ground for the movie. That was what we wanted to tell.
FIALA: They’re similar stories, but they can’t connect over those stories, and that’s what makes it sad.
FRANZ: There’s a monster in between them, which is the death of the mother, but they cannot communicate. They cannot come together. This is tragic. For us, it’s more a tragic story than an evil one.
FIALA: All of our films could also be considered family tragedies, not just horror films.
It seems like what you’re saying is that more than your work being about the potential evilness within children in such a pointed way, it’s that you aren’t afraid to investigate or suggest this could be at play.
FRANZ: I think it’s also about the innocence of children. They can do bad things because they’re innocent. This makes it interesting and, in a way, Grace is maybe a grown-up child. She has an innocence to her.
FIALA: We as filmmakers aren’t afraid to go to those dark places. Children and grownups and everyone can commit things that are really awful. We are not afraid of talking about that. It’s not so much that we want to show the evil in people, but we are not afraid to look there.
You said your movies, including this one, are not just horror. That’s to say you do consider this to be part of the horror genre?
FIALA: We love horror films. We’re always proud when someone says, “This is a horror film.” We think horror is one of the most powerful ways of talking about all of those dark sides in society. People still go there, they still watch it. That’s why we love horror. To be totally honest, I think it’s hard to put the film in a box or put a label on it, and even harder for us because we’re very close to it.
FRANZ: Psycho thriller…
FIALA: Family tragedy. There are many layers to it, but if someone calls it a horror film, we proudly say, “Yes.”
In terms of the genre exercise, what I most appreciated is that you didn’t use jump scares. That seems intentional.
FRANZ: Yeah, we’re not so much interested in jump scares or this kind of formula which exists. We like to play with expectations, maybe, but we like silence. We like a slow pace.
FIALA: Jump scares are a relief, in a way. They relieve tension. Afterward, it’s easier to watch.
FRANZ: We like to hold the tension.
FIALA: We don’t want to give the audience that relief.
FRANZ: We also don’t like the music telling you when you have to be scared. You should just feel it. You should feel uncomfortable. You should not know where it’s going or how to feel. Maybe then you fill in your own thoughts and feelings.
FIALA: That’s maybe why not so many people know to watch it. I think it’s true: We want to make the audience uncomfortable. And I think that’s something not a lot of people love, but we do. In cinema, when we go to a film and feel uncomfortable, we love it. It’s not for everyone. Some people want to be entertained or be on a free ride. That’s fine with us, but ours is… a more dangerous free ride.
You respect your viewers’ intelligence.
FRANZ: Yeah, we trust the audience.
FIALA: I think you have to as a director. Otherwise you lose trust.
FRANZ: We also like not explaining everything because we think it’s nice to talk after the movie has ended about the questions or thoughts you have. If you’re honest, everyone sees a different movie anyway. The more formal it is, the less it is. It’s like a hamburger always tastes like hamburger at McDonalds. If you follow that recipe, it’s always the same. But if you try to do something different, everyone will see differently and that makes it interesting. You are an individual and you see it individually and you can talk to other people about that, about your own fears, about their fears, and this is what interests us: That people talk afterwards or they think.
FIALA: In Hollywood, they’re afraid of questions. If the film is done and people leave with questions, they think it’s a bad thing. We think it’s a good thing.
I think it’s a refreshing thing. I was seeing trailers for this in the middle of last year. Was it a rocky road getting it into theaters? Did the release date get pushed back?
FIALA: Yeah, but only because the schedule was so full. There are those big studio horror films and they decide late when they’re going to come in and it was on a date that we had picked.
FRANZ: The movie’s release was never in question.
FIALA: It was only a question of the date, and the problem was the trailer was already released and then they pushed it back, which always looks weird.
This premiered at Sundance in 2019. You had obviously written and worked on it before Hereditary came out. Hereditary comes out and it has a whole doll component to it…
FRANZ: Thank you for thinking. Sometimes people ask us, “Did Hereditary inspire you,” and we say, “No, actually, we’d never seen it.” There are coincidental parallels.
FIALA: We got to know [Hereditary director] Ari Aster and he loves film history, knows a lot, and he likes the same things we like. We seem to come from a similar…
FRANZ: …Cinephile background.
FIALA: It’s weird that we ended up making something that has so many obvious connections without ever discussing it or even knowing at the time.
FRANZ: I only watched it two weeks ago. When I read the synopsis, I thought, “Oh my God.” But now that I have seen it, I think it’s quite different. There are dollhouses in both movies, but they play completely different parts…
FIALA: It’s a similar problem as the hamburgers or the boxes with labels. In journalism, there’s a time issue, and sometimes it’s only about finding something that’s very superficial and then everybody seems to cling onto those things. Then it’s out there and the proof for everyone, which is kind of sad.
The Lodge is now playing in theaters.