IN GENRE-VISION! Hagazussa

IN GENRE-VISION!

Hagazussa

Dir: Lukas Fieglfeld

A woman, Albrun, lives alone in the German Alps during the 15th century. She is an outsider, branded a witch by an uncaring, xenophobic local community. Her short life is marked by madness, violence, isolation, and fear.  

This cheery description does not, however, do the film justice. Hagazussa (a word from an Old German dialect literally meaning “Witch”) is a truly masterful film. Eschewing a straightforward expository style, the directorial debut of Lukas Fiegelfeld is more a poem than a simple story.  Hagazussa cuts directly to the heart of the Folk Horror experience. It deals with the way of life of the outsider, instead of glorifying it’s alienation.  Hagazussa puts you in the driver’s seat with one of the most feared entities in the late Medieval period: the Witch themselves.

Broken into four distinct acts (entitled SHADOWS, HORN, BLOOD, and FIRE,) Hagazussa guides us through the life of Albrun (portrayed with shocking intensity by Aleksandra Cwen.)  The film drips in atmosphere, primarily opting for environmental sound over music.  Special effects are used sparsely, and to a crushing effect.  

It’s tempting to write off Hagazussa as riding the coat-tails of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but ultimately the comparison stops at the edges of genre. They share obvious similarities (use of time-period appropriate clothing and language,for instance) but beyond that, the reflections cease. It also shares some features with modern horror generally. The film relies less on stylism and more on realism. It deals with the dirt and grit of agrarian life. The cinematography is beautiful but also does not deny the visual power of stagnant water and mud. The sparse dialogue, entirely in Old High German, is somewhat alien even to modern German speakers. All of these elements combine into a grim stew.   

Whereas many Folk Horror films have you following multiple characters, Hagazussa’s focus is entirely on Albrun. This focus is profoundly intimate, which is perhaps the single meanest trick that Fiegelfeld plays on his audience. For every moment of cruelty visited upon Albrun, you are suffering with her. You are isolated in her cabin during every moment of mental confusion, and you are with her when she begins to exact revenge. Even at its most grotesque, Hagazussa stares, unblinkingly, into a world untethered from the grounding of a caring society. Albrun’s life is yours for the entire 102 minutes of the film’s run time.  

 

“At least we have a lovely view!”

And where to begin describing the brutal details of Albrun’s life?  The late Medieval period is not  the filth-covered Hell-scape that popular media often portrays. Instead Hagazussa focuses on the realities of that time period. Compared to the sterility of the modern era, life in the 15th Century would be lived much closer to the Earth. Human life depended on good harvests and favorable weather conditions. Humans were much more likely to fall victim to the dangers of the woods and fields than today. The brutal toll of The Black Death looms like a shadow from the beginning of the film. 

And this says nothing of the intellectual climate of the times. Religion, specifically Catholicism, held a near virtual milieu control on the lives of most of Central Europe.  This, combined with the prevalence of folk belief and prejudices (witchcraft and Antisemitism, for instance,) led to a worldview that could easily displace and destroy the lives of those not in line with that of regional authorities and social norms. Early in the film, we see a young Albrun and her mother being menaced on Twelfth Night (a traditional Christian holiday falling in early January, near the end of the Christmas holiday.) The individuals terrorizing Albrun are dressed as Perchten, a holdover from Germanic paganism said to enforce social norms and rules. (For more information on this tradition, the work of Al Ridenour is utterly invaluable. His podcast, Bone and Sickle will absolutely delight fans of Folk Horror in media.)  For a person of this time period, it stands to reason that the horrid, horned Perchten costumes would serve a horrifying message even without their overt threats. 

Further into the film, Auburn is reminded of marginalized position within their community. Local children bully her, only to be somewhat dissuaded by the presence of a local woman, Swinda.  Appearing at first as a potentially friendly face, Swinda makes an effort to be closer to Albrun, but not all is what it seems.  She does, however, inform Albrun that the priest of their community would like to speak to her. The meeting does not go kindly, however.  The village priest seems to take a small thrill in chastising Albrun for not being a part of the community.  

The morbid case of your mother, and your secluded way of life.  A way of life that already tempted many believers to touch the darkness. A touch…that sprung from sacrilege.”

It’s worth noting that this line of dialogue is delivered while Albrun and the priest are standing in what appears to be a chapel inside an ossuary. The priest gives Albrun what is presumed to be the skull of her long-deceased mother, which is inexplicably been painted with an ivy and rose pattern around the circumference of it’s crown. The priest seems to have decided that the skull of a woman accused of witchcraft is far too horrid to be kept with the remains of a presumably faithful congregation. While ossuaries might have been common practice in Central Europe during the Medieval era, it’s not difficult to imagine the effect that such a location would have on a person who already appears to be struggling with social issues or their mental health.  Not to mention, how many people have been forced to take the vital remains of their deceased family members out of their resting place? Indignity and trauma follow Albrun like a dark cloud, and this incident is not the ugliest thing we see her endure. 

 

But What Is Hagazussa Trying To Tell Us?

 

Hagazussa is a film about the experience of the outsider. Using the language of Folk Horror, it illustrates the brutal realities faced by people living on the fringes of “polite” society. Albrun represents everything that a woman in 15th Century Central Europe should not be; a single mother, a non-Catholic, uninvolved in the life and rules of her surrounding community. She is the daughter of a woman branded with heresy and witchcraft, and by the rules of that community, guilty of those sins as well. She may or may not be mentally ill at the beginning of the film. By the third and fourth acts, Albrun is clearly sliding down into some sort of darkness, either psychological or metaphysical.  

In most communities, the fears confronted in this film are positively universal.  Single parenting, ostracism, being forced to live outside a social safety net, all of these have been death sentences in days past. And in our modern era, we are forced to confront that these material and interpersonal conditions have disastrous consequences. People the world over have warned of the dangers of not caring for others, or as a supposedly ancient proverb warns,  The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”  This exchange between Albrun and Swinda perfectly summarizes the sort of worldview our protagonist faces from the opening scene:

Swinda: We really do have a nice spot here in our mountains. We don’t have to be afraid here.

Albrun: Afraid? Of what?

Swinda: Of those who don’t carry God’s light in their hearts. By the Jews…and by the heathens. They come at night, and like animals they take you. And…a few months later, you bear a child like that.

In any context Albrun’s life is utterly tragic. The film uses the language of Horror to express her tragedy and make the audience feel her pain and alienation. Hagazussa is, for all it’s mist, snow, and shadow, a surprisingly moral tale. It’s about the sadness of an alienated existence. It shows us why people should be included in the greater world, even if they are different from the status quo.

 

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

IN GENRE-VISION! Witchfinder General

IN GENRE-VISION!

 

Witchfinder General

Dir. Michael Reeves

 

Widely considered to be the first of the Folk Horror genre, Witchfinder General is an underrated watershed for modern Horror films. It serves as a brutal high-water mark for all of the films that follow in its footsteps.  It’s immediate successors, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man cannot hold a candle to the sheer unflinching heaviness of this movie. Witchfinder General unflinchingly shows the reality of one of the ugliest trends in English history.

But Witchfinder General (henceforth abbreviated as WG) pulls it’s grim tricks through manipulation of the historical narrative. Set with historical characters, historical events, and historical locales, WG can also serve as something of a warning. On display are all of the building blocks for Horror as a study in human character and the violence inherent in systems. WG is devoid of supernatural elements, instead relying upon reality for it’s palette.

Before the credits roll you are thrust into the world of the British countryside in 1645. England is in the middle of a civil war between Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary movement, and the Royalists, who serve King Charles I. During this period of upheaval, another movement is spreading across Europe: Witch Hunts. Goaded on in the previous century by books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches,” an early guide to the identification and punishment of witchcraft) paranoia about the presence of supernatural evil seems to be everywhere. By the mid 1600s, Witchfinders became a new fixture in society. Perhaps the best known of the time period in England is Matthew Hopkins, and his assistant, John Stearne. WG uses Hopkins and Stearne as it’s antagonists to brutal aplomb. Their historic personages offer perfect cinematic fodder.  Much of their lives is frankly unknown, and historical accounts of their actions are at least somewhat conjectural.  (A gifted screenwriter could just as easily take Hopkins and Stearne and turn them into heroes in a different script.) 

Everything needed for a grim 90 minute film is set in action within minutes of it’s run; a suspected witch is hanged, Parliamentarian soldiers engage in a skirmish with Royalist snipers, and a Witchfinder is set upon a small town to purge a suspected witch.  A collision course has been charted, and all the viewer can do is stand back in dread.  

Richard Marshall is a soldier loyal to Cromwell, and after the fight with Royalist snipers, heads to the East Anglian village of Brandeston. There he meets with John Lowes, a village priest, who gives him permission to marry Sara, his niece. Little does Marshall know, The Witchfinder Matthew Hokins and John Stearne have been dispatched to round up those suspected by their neighbors of Witchcraft. Here the plot unfolds, and our characters are set upon each other, though unwittingly at first. None of them can predict the brutal outcome, and like our audience, seem helpless to stop the falling dominoes it sets up.

None of the story, however, could have been properly told without it’s cast. They give an absolutely tight performance. The most obvious is Vincent Price’s portrayal of Matthew Hopkins. It’s done with the sort of deft wizardry that only Price was capable of, blending foppish propriety with sneering menace. Despite his polished veneer, Price portrays Hopkins as a corrupt opportunist, cynical and cold-blooded. Price is profoundly intimidating in this film. He is as happy to shoot a person at close range as he is to sentence them to hang or drown, all while looking one with seeming dispassion.  His assistant, John Stearne, is played by Robert Russell.  Russell is positively disgusting in his role, an uncouth Yang to Price’s debonair Yin. Hilary Dwyer and Ian Ogilvy portray Sara Lowes and Richard Marshall.  They serve as audience stand-ins in the most perverse way possible. Starting out as essentially innocents in the unfolding plot, they find their decency (not to mention health and safety) stretched to nearly unimaginable extremes.  Their sincere performances are the stakes the hold this film to the ground. And in a  prophetic cameo, Patrick Wymark plays Oliver Cromwell. Wymark would later go on to play The Judge in The Blood on Satan’s Claw.

 

Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.

 

Like the rest of the Folk Horror genre, WG explores paranoia and violence. In this case it seems to be implied less than shown.  None of the individuals accused of witchcraft are shown to be engaged in anything overtly evil or supernatural. A single line of dialogue from a passing character is often all that is needed to set a brutal killing in motion. As modern people it can be incredibly difficult to imagine how the paranoia or hatred of one’s neighbors might lead to such horrific events. It’s important to remember that witch hunts are not confined to the past. American history, for instance, is rife with events that essentially fit the bill.  The McCarthy hearings of 1954 was, ostensibly, to root out “communists” in the United States. Anyone found even mentioned in these hearings saw their careers or lives damaged, if not destroyed. When it was revealed tha

“Cash Rules Everything Around Me” – Matthew Hopkins, probably

t Sen. Joseph McCarthy had little to no evidence of any actual wrong-doing, he himself suffered public backlash, but it did little to repair the reputations and livelihoods of his victims.  Flash forward to the 1980s, and we see the McMartin preschool trial, in which a Californian preschool and its employees were accused of child abuse and, notably, Satanic worship.  In the end, employees of the preschool faced 115 charges of child abuse, one of whom served five years in jail, before all accusations were dropped. While the owners of the McMartin school may have been found innocent, they suffered financially and personally. Often not taken into account in this incident is the damage done to the children who attended McMartin. They were coerced by forceful investigators (and in the initial accusations, by a mentally unstable parent) into concocting some the most horrid and absurd accusations made against innocent people seen in American legal history. 

But What Is Witchfinder General Trying To Tell Us?

The witch-hunts of European history have come to be the template by which an entire phenomena has been defined. While modern people might not literally hang or burn at the stake outsiders or others at the social margins, it’s easy to see the similarity.  Human behavior does not seem to change much, century to century. Insular communities can easily demonize anyone not fitting into their established norms. There is always someone willing to wear the garb of authority to tell us the difference between Good and Evil. Worse still, that individual will always come along if there is money or power to be gained in that endeavor.  

Even though the film does play loosely with historical events, it’s grounding in reality does afford a place to explore witch hunts as a metaphor for mob mentality and the people who become involved in it. Furthermore it shows the dangerous effects that unfettered power can have on an individual. Matthew Hopkins is paid to perform his duty, and is more than pleased to use any method his imagination can cook up to punish those he judges to be witches. Here the director shows us the abuse of power. The camera simply lingers on the punishments of the accused, letting us see what these deaths mean, both physically and emotionally. WG is a bleak film in this regard. While it is several orders of magnitude less bloody than films made only a few decades later, WG is still shocking, if not nearly revolting.  

After filming, the British Board of Film Censors called for several cuts to be made to WG, regarding the film as being simply too brutal for most audiences.  Released in 1968, this predates the so-called “Video nasties” list, made a decade-plus later in the U.K.  Film censorship (and art censorship in general) might seem almost quaint at the time of this writing, but at the time there was a sincere public concern about whether or not depictions of violence and sexuality might have a negative effect on the public. These moral panics still continue to this day, much like and often accompanying, a proverbial witch hunt. It’s worth noting that WG still has a dedicated cult following despite its age and early attempts to cut down on it’s brutality.  

Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man form sort of an “Unholy Trinity” of early Folk Horror films.  The choices made by the film’s directors and crews helped to create a cinematic language and style that is coming to fruition in the modern era.  Without these early contributions, many of the films that will be discussed in this column could not have been made. Fear of “The Other,” of communities in isolation, or of a Past refusing to submit to the Present are on display.  Humans today still have ancient, primordial fears.  The distance experienced by modern urban living from an agrarian life is growing increasingly massive.  But it is still ready being explored now, as the next entries in this series will illustrate.  

 

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show