It’s hard out there for a witch, as we can see in Lukas Feigelfeld’s feature film debut, Hagazussa. Set in a 15th century village, this film tackles the misogyny of superstition, its intergenerational impact, and a new perspective of vengeance. It is presented a series of progressively disturbing vignettes that depict a young woman slowly understanding her place in this monstrous world and giving into a call from deep within the Austrian woods.
Based on German folklore, Hagazussa (which means “witch” in Old High German) follows a young girl named Albrun (Celine Peter) and her mother, Martha (Claudia Martini), who are shunned from their village in the Austrian Alps for being suspected of witchcraft. This is a fact that is neither confirmed or denied, but the prevalence of witchy imagery, such as the bubbling cauldron, collections of herbs, and black cat, seem to allude to at least light alchemy. The mother-daughter pair live a quiet and secluded existence, until Martha contracts a plague-like illness, covering her in festering pustules.
“…a slow, almost torturous, story [set in] a quiet world that is punctuated with moments of violent humanity.”
Much of the horror at the film’s beginning comes from the pained screaming and muttering from Martha as her illness destroys her body. Young Albrun must take care of her dying mother, watch her decay, and hide when her illness renders her into a monster. There doesn’t seem much more terrifying as a small child than to witness the death of your mother, and only friend. This strange illness eventually claims her mother, who runs out of their home in a blind rage, only for Albrun to find her bloated body, covered in snakes, in the middle of a swamp.
Hagazussa then jumps forward a number of years to a grown Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) who now has a child and a herd of goats to tend. She is still shunned from the village and still suffers abuse from the townsfolk, from being called names to eventually being manipulated into a faux friendship. When this faux friendship’s true nature is revealed and she is sexually assaulted, Albrun’s mental state begins to unravel and through the help of a psychedelic mushroom, she detaches from reality, answering what seems to a call from the woods to fulfill her witchy destiny. As the psilocybin courses through her veins, she lets maggots crawl between her toes and she caresses the trees, as if she has a newfound connection to nature. But she also seeks vengeance in a rather unconventional way through this detachment, which means tragic consequences for her and her baby.
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Split into four parts, this is a slow, almost torturous, story that elicits a type of frustration only films like this can create—previous examples include The VVitch and It Comes At Night. You want the story to move faster, but at the same time you are sucked into a world that inches past your eyes; it draws you in and seduces you.
The camera moves over wide shots of luscious trees laced with fog, forests bathed in green, and snow-covered woods, creating a quiet world that is punctuated with moments of violent humanity. Its majestic green scenery and droning music (masterfully done by experimental rock band, MMMD) seem to hypnotize you. Hagazussa casts a spell of its own that will disgust, entrance, and potentially infuriate viewers. But it doesn’t care. It wants to tell a story of feminine violation and the harmful consequences of such violation.
“[Hagazussa‘s] disturbing imagery does not rely on gore, but will still stick with you hours after viewing”
Despite the film’s violence and focus on the abuse of women, it contains strange moments of eroticism, ways for Albrun to potentially release frustration. It comes when she milks a goat and seductively caresses its udder, when she lets the milk drip down her hands then sucks it off her fingers, when she masturbates in bed after putting her child to sleep. These small moments are the only times she can find pleasure; she has been made to feel like less than trash her entire life and it is heavily implied that her child is the product of rape by the townsmen, aiming to teach her a lesson. She is constantly denied pleasure but she still wishes to pursue it.
This story wouldn’t be so strong without the powerful performance of Cwen as Albrun, who barely utters a word but her command of facial expressions convey her pain, sadness, frustration, lust, and even brief moments of joy. She is often the only person on screen, with the exception of her baby, so she carries much of Hagazussa’s emotional impact as she begins to descend into a trippy hell of her own design. A certain scene involving vomit and screaming is particularly impressive (and chilling).
Feigelfeld’s debut, which was also his final film school project, is a promising first feature for the director, showcasing his directing, editing, and writing abilities in such a haunting way. I am both excited and a little worried—in a good way—for his next project. Hagazussa has a very limited release in indie theatres right now, but will hit streaming services later this month.
Hagazussa is a slow burn that’s lack of definitive answers or explanation will turn some away. But for fans of slow-burn horror that creep into the darkest recesses of your mind, this is a must-watch. Its disturbing imagery does not rely on gore, but will still stick with you hours after viewing. It is a terrifying film about female violation and anger, and could even be read as a rape-revenge tale, albeit a strange and subversive one. Go into Hagazussa with an open mind and prepare to never want to drink milk again.
“Hagazussa is a slow burn [that will] creep into the darkest recesses of your mind”