Home - T Singapore

How an Abandoned Hotel Became a Witches’ Lair for ‘Suspiria’

By Alice Newell-Hanson

Mikael Olsson

In 1968, the last paying guests of the 200-room Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori in Varese, Italy, checked out. Since then, the property — a once-glamorous Art Nouveau retreat perched atop a hard-to-reach wooded Alpine foothill — has remained largely vacant, home only to caretakers and their families. The brightly painted walls have faded and peeled; sections of the ceiling have collapsed; the furniture, much of it left in place, has gathered dust. It was for exactly these reasons that the director Luca Guadagnino was determined to film “Suspiria,” his reimagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, on the property.

“When we arrived in Italy, we went to scout for alternative places, because this was logistically going to be almost a nightmare,” says Inbal Weinberg, the film’s production designer. In its prime, the hotel “was very much like the Grand Budapest Hotel, if there were ever a real one,” she notes. However, when she and her team toured the building, there was no electricity or running water. “But the hotel had so much going for it,” she says. So she set about transforming the building into both the film’s main location, a fictional dance school in 1970s Berlin, and also a functioning production site.

In the simplest terms, “Suspiria” follows a young American student named Susie Bannion, played by Dakota Johnson, as she adjusts to life at the rigorous, prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Cold War-era Germany. But nothing about “Suspiria” is straightforward; the school, as Susie’s friend Sara (Mia Goth) soon finds out, is run by witches who perform gruesome rituals in secret rooms hidden within the building.

Below, Weinberg discusses converting a grand hotel into a headquarters for a coven. In a twist typical of “Suspiria,” the photographer Mikael Olsson, who captured the accompanying images of the set, also has a bit role in the film: He appears as Agent Glockner, a German police officer (one of just three male characters).

Mikael Olsson

The Kitchen

While the turbulent energy of 1970s Berlin resonates throughout “Suspiria,” the Markos Dance Academy has an intentionally out-of-time feeling, says Weinberg. “What we were trying to convey is that the company has been around for generations, like a suspiciously long time,” she explains. Accordingly, the witches’ living quarters contain furniture from a range of different decades. For the kitchen, pictured here, Weinberg and Guadagnino looked to early Modernist interiors. The Frankfurt kitchen, one of the first mass-produced fitted kitchens, designed by the Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926, was a key reference, as was the 1933 Sonneveld House in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. While many of the academy’s rooms are grand and imposing, “this is the utilitarian part of their world,” says Weinberg. “I loved thinking about the mundane routines of the witches. Yes, they’re witches, but every morning they go down in their robes, they make coffee, they smoke and they eat pretzels and mustard.”

Mikael Olsson

A Dorm Room

“Creating the dorm room was a lot of fun. We decided that the bones of it would be like an institution from the ’30s,” says Weinberg. But she and her team layered in contemporary details in the form of the girls’ possessions. “We came up with a back story for each dancer,” she says. “For example, one is obsessed with David Bowie — she even cut her hair and bleached it like his. We had a ton of Bowie posters in her room.” Weinberg’s team also researched local Berlin bands from the period and imagined what clubs the students would have frequented. “Really underground bands from the ’70s gave us permission to use their posters,” she continues. “We tried to mix a little bit of contemporary culture in, and even pops of color with an alarm clock or phone — things that were very plasticky ’70s.”

Mikael Olsson

Madame Blanc’s Apartment

The charismatic dance teacher Madame Blanc, one of the two characters in the film played by Tilda Swinton, occupies some of the academy’s more opulent rooms. For the black lacquered dance room that adjoins the living room, Weinberg commissioned a custom rug from the esteemed French carpet maker La Manufacture Cogolin (two other designs by the company appear in other rooms). “Early on, we decided to have these secret graphic elements for the witches,” she says. “One was a kind of a geometric, Bauhaus claw motif. We used it on posters and on the door to the dance studio. Then I took the claw element and made it into this kaleidoscopic carpet.” The walls are upholstered with a textured silver fabric by the Italian fabric brand Dedar, which also created textiles that decorated the 17th-century villa in Guadagnino’s film “Call Me by Your Name.”

Mikael Olsson

1970s Kreuzberg

“We decided that the academy was in Kreuzberg, in our imaginations. It was a neighbourhood right on the wall,” says Weinberg. “But originally, we didn’t think we would shoot in Berlin because, quite honestly, the city of the 1970s is almost nonexistent now.” Nevertheless, the team traveled to Germany to scout for locations and found stray pockets of the capital that felt untouched. “We had to be very economical in how we shot things and piece together different corners we found,” Weinberg says. They also augmented those areas with decorative elements that evoked the time period. “We’d done a lot of visual research about Kreuzberg in the ’70s,” says Weinberg. “For example, they were fighting the government and police that were trying to kick a lot of residents out, so there were a lot of banners hanging from windows. A lot of them were protesting evictions of squatters.” The banner created for this set reads, “Occupied.”

Mikael Olsson

Room of the Feasts

Guadagnino and his crew referred to the hidden underworld of the academy as “the Mutterhaus,” or “mother house.” To create the ceremonial room at its centre, known as the Room of the Feasts, Weinberg and Guadagnino reimagined a loggia at the Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori by filling in its open archways. “We knew we were going to use these large walls, and we were trying to figure out the right texture and we didn’t want to just paint them,” says Weinberg. “It was Luca’s idea to use hair.” The team spent weeks weaving hemp-fibre threads into braids and creating sculptural hairlike masses. Adds Weinberg, “We conceptually decided that the texture of the wall is the hair of victims.”