Luz. 2019. Directed & Written by Tilman Singer.
Starring Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt, Lilli Lorenz, Julia Riedler, Nadja Stübiger, & Johannes Benecke.
Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln (KHM)
Not Rated / 70 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: Within are spoilers—
turn away, lest ye be spoiled!
Demonic possession titles are a dime a dozen in the horror genre. It’s become a sub-genre unto itself over the decades, after William Friedkin blew everybody’s tits off in 1973 with The Exorcist and made religious horror stories all the rage. Today, everyone from big name studio filmmakers to indie directors and writers continues to give demons a shot— some offering the same old tired tropes, some playing with them as a fun exercise, and others subverting them to try reinvigorating the sub-genre as a whole.
Luz is absolutely in the last of those categories. Tilman Singer’s debut feature turns concepts of the demonic on its axes and uses the sub-genre to interrogate the very act of possession. The complex plot involves a troubled cab driver called Luz, a mysterious woman named Nora, and an odd psychiatrist, Dr. Rossini. Luz is being pursued by an obsessive demon, who uses anybody, and everybody, in its way to get back to the woman it loves. She winds up in an accident that gets the police’s attention. But when Rossini’s called in to examine Luz, his very presence is dangerous for Luz.
The film presents several views on possession, through Luz’s character, as well as Nora / Rossini. Singer uses familiar aspects of the sub-genre while treading new ground, exploring how possession can be the controlling ownership of a lover, and the societal control of an institution like religion or even psychiatry.
The demon not only has to do with the idea of possession, its ultimate connection with Dr. Rossini treats the demonic as an allegory for the cyclical return of trauma— or any mental health issue— and how we can never escape its reach. All this cerebral horror is wrapped in an aesthetically stunning package that feels part Fulci, part Lynch, part von Trier while simultaneously announcing Singer as a distinct artist in his own right.
“Is this how you want to live your life?”
A surrealist piece of work like Singer’s offered up to us is great because it can pull on many strands. One of the most immediately obvious here is obsessive love. The story’s demon has been trying to get back to Luz, and does so first using Nora to get to Dr. Rossini. Quickly the vibe lends itself to this reading. Nora’s whole scene with Rossini in the bar reeks of seduction and eroticism, from the making of the drinks down to the very way Nora speaks to him and he hangs off every word with lust burning in his eyes. By the time the demon makes it to Luz that heated erotic tone becomes more that of passion, of longing, and the demon turns seduction into a dance. In the end, the demon remains a negative force— it represents the obsessive love of control. Luz walks away in the end after being possessed by the demon. Her autonomy’s gone, erased by obsession and possessiveness posing as love like that of an angry boyfriend who wants to control his significant other and mould her into the ‘perfect’ partner.
This reading is surely familiar to women, who’ve experienced this flawed perspective on love firsthand via men. Worth noting the scene where Rossini strip down and dresses in women’s clothing, with lipstick to boot— a casual reminder this obsessiveness and desire for possession knows no boundaries of gender.
There’s stunning contrast between the institutions of religion and psychiatry. Luz is etymologically linked with Hebrew and serves as the name of two different places in the Bible. Interestingly, Luz’s first encounter with the demon, when she “called it forth” as a girl, was at a Catholic school for girls, and the encounter during the film is through a figure of psychiatry. Although these two institutions are fundamentally different, they’re symbolic of control on the level of society. The demon was able to nearly get at Luz through Catholicism when she was a girl, and during the events of the film it uses the control of psychiatry to once and for all get hold of her. Excellent allegory comes out of this dual approach once the demon enters Rossini and becomes an overall image of societal control— religion and psychiatry would be part of what Althusser called ideological state apparatuses, though psychiatry can, at times, fall into the category of a repressive state apparatus.
The psychiatrist is placed in a room where he’ll conduct his therapy session which Singer frames like a church. He stands in front of empty seats, as if they were pews, and the room itself is big, almost cavernous, echoing the doctor’s voice as he speaks the way cathedral walls would bounce a priest’s reciting of verse from one to the next. Then Luz is brought in and, effectively, put through a form of hypnosis, along with psychological role play exercises to help bring her back to the moment of trauma when the demon first appeared in her life. The church-like images combined with Dr. Rossini’s unsettling techniques are an engaging way for Singer to show two state institutions manipulating an individual in unison. Whereas the prior reading is a more personal one, involving an allegory about relationships, this second reading is still a sociological one, but one that’s more broad, examining the social systems we all encounter in various forms.
“There is no night, no shadow for you.
There is no face, no name for me.”
Because Luz does focus on psychiatry prominently— the bulk of the film involves Dr. Rossini, from his meeting with Nora at the start to his extensive therapy session with Luz herself— an interesting allegory to pull out of Singer’s screenplay is to view the demon as a cyclical return of mental health issues. Luz’s limerent demon is characterised in terms of her trauma from what happened back in Catholic school with the molested girl, but we can see the demon as representative of any form of mental illness. It hunts Luz down, not unlike how trauma, depression, anxiety (etc) is always with us, or waiting to catch up, never allowing escape.
Some of the imagery specific to a reading of the demon as manifestation of cyclical psychological issues is the most striking. When we talk of depression it’s occasionally referred to as a fog that comes over a person, or one that lifts, as if it conceals them. The psychology of Luz feels enhanced during the therapy session when the room seems to fill with fog, cloaking the therapist, Luz, and everything else, distorting the events. Another important image is that of the lock necklace. The therapist, under control of the demonic presence, places a necklace shaped like a lock around Luz’s neck. This links demonic possession with the idea of possession, in terms of obsessive love. Following through on the symbolism, Rossini also chokes Luz at one point, so combined with the lock around her neck, his focus on putting things around her neck is akin to an image of trauma as choking or suffocating the afflicted. Everything during the eerie, demonic therapy session is like an allegorical cherry on top of the heady surrealism Singer conjures up.
Again, the fun of surrealism in film is there’s no single correct way to read a story. Luz is, above all else, an exercise in form and style. There’s a story and plot, yet the biggest focus is the hypnotic, emotional feeling that comes from the imagery and the intense performances. Anything else is icing on a devilishly delicious treat.
Singer uses the demonic possession template to weave an interesting story into a sensory experience. Along the way there are definite themes and concrete plot points to follow— the allegory and symbolism at play is no coincidence. There are many ways we can view the demonic possession at work, and every reading can bring out something new and interesting in what Singer’s doing. But, as previously mentioned, the main point of Luz feels like it’s the experience as a whole. No matter how you feel about the plot you’ll be sucked into the strangeness of the film, and by the time it’s all over you’ll wonder exactly how you wound up having such a mad fever dream.