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.
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