Written & Directed by Lukas Feigelfeld
The first film most viewers will compare Hagazussa to is Robert Eggers’ The Witch. While both pictures do tell period stories about witches, they are very different when it comes to their tone & pacing. The Witch is a tightly structured film with clear character development and themes about family. Hagasuzza is more akin to the work of Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy) with its creeping crawl and slow psychedelic horror burn. Ultimately, I found myself often frustrated with Hagazussa because its narrative is so fluid and ill-defined. It’s all mood without a compelling main character with a clear arc.
Albrun lives in rural Germany in the 15th century and is an isolated woman whose mother went mad from disease years earlier. Now Albrun lives with a baby girl, whose parentage is in question, fending for herself with only her goats to rely on. The townspeople hated Albrun’s mother and continue their revulsion with the daughter. One person, Swinda, befriends Albrun and it looks like the young woman’s life may have some light in it, until a betrayal. Once it’s clear that there is no hope for our protagonist, things get very dark, very fast.
Hagazussa is a masterpiece in tone and mood. Scenes are oozing with bleak atmosphere, the music droning with violins that hint at the looming horrors of the world creeping closer and closer to Albrun. The human body is malleable and will contort and bend, spasmed with fear. There is a clear connection between Albrun and the earth, a theme explored in many traditional witch stories. The “hag” is often a symbol of profanity and obscenity against the status quo. The Church is a sterile clean entity while the realm of the occult and black magic is filthy, a green & dark peat, smelling with precious fertile life. There are moments when Albrun gets caught up in the visceral sensation of milking a goat or the feel of the bark on a tree. It’s a seduction of nature that starts with the sublime and ends in the abominable.
There are some brilliant images, Albrun sinking into the algae murk of a nearby pond that blooms and twists from a blue-green to a bloody red pulsing womb. This gives birth to a new woman, crawling from the bog-like an animal on all fours. Candlelight twists the shadows and reforms Albrun’s face into a nightmare before she does something so awful I cannot describe it here. The camera is clever in how it frames the most nauseating and upsetting acts. We see things from over a character’s shoulder, or the use of cross-cutting implies what happens next, and we jump cut to the aftermath. One scene that lingers with me is in the final act, where Albrun has a feast that brings her to wretching her guts out on the floor of her cabin.
There’s not much substance here, though. Yes, there are themes about being a woman in a world of patriarchal violence and a cold, religious body. But none of these ideas are given enough development or content to really say much more about them. The acting is solid, and it’s clear that the lead, Aleksandra Cwen, is putting everything she has into the role. The promising opening 25 minutes gives way to a meandering, unstructured exploration of mood. In the end, this is going to be a film that appeals to people with a particular taste, and those who love this sort of movie are going to treasure it.