We don’t have to be afraid here.
What creates a witch? An evil that takes hold of willing vessels yearning to do his/her demonic master’s bidding or a populace’s mass fear that turns mankind’s own evil against those who are different than them and therefore a threat to the status quo? If you’re a believer in the occult, some version of the former is probably at the forefront of your philosophies on supernatural powers in the real world. And if you aren’t, the latter’s perspective provides clarity as to the type of persecution performed by those in control (religious- and/or patriarchal-based) that has permeated our civilization for millennia. While giving practitioners physical form is the more prevalent and colorful way to artistically depict witchcraft, writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld‘s debut feature Hagazussa chooses the road less traveled.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t also willing to blur the line between objective and subjective truth, though. The topic is too complex to ignore the fact that the aforementioned differences to status quo go beyond superficiality. Clergymen did rile up congregations against headstrong women daring to fight against the conservative template of life set before them—thinly veiled means of suppression and injustice to keep the rabble in check. Where those instances of excommunication and church-sanctioned murder were steeped in political, socio-economic, and bigoted values (fear of losing authority), however, other incidents were born from a fear of the unknown (mental illness). Because those cases only grow worse with an increase in volatility and abuse, they often become “evidence” of a power outside the realm of human possibility.
So while strange old men in the 15th century alpine village where Feigelfeld’s story is set may warn a woman (Claudia Martini‘s Martha) and her young daughter (Celina Peter‘s Albrun) not to stay out too late with the pagan goddess Perchta roaming the woods, other townsfolk might believe they have already been taken by her—bellies slit to be replaced by demons under her command. What then must go through a little girl’s mind when men in animal masks threaten her with death? And how could she combat their vehemence when her mother takes violently ill only to be found in the snow covered by snakes and maggots? Gradually the vitriol spat her way leaves a mark, her exclusion from the group becoming her fault rather than theirs.
Fast-forward a few years and Albrun’s (Aleksandra Cwen) identity becomes irrevocably tethered to what these neighbors say. Her voice is stolen, pride extinguished, and survival left hanging by a thread. Does it therefore matter who her baby’s father is when everyone calls her a witch who was taken into the forest and impregnated by Satan’s spawn? No. Truth becomes as much a story as those lies because there’s but one woman who knows it while everybody else spins their devilish yarns of occultish nightmare. So when Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky) unusually lends Albrun a hand by introducing the potential for friendship, it serves as a godsend that cannot help putting a smile on her goatherd pariah’s face. If revealed false, however, the resulting descent towards madness would prove catastrophic.
It’s this devolution of sanity that Feigelfeld focuses upon because that’s where the internal strife of his lead character can be confused with external treachery. He splits Hagazussa into four chapters to do this. “Shadows” is where the young Albrun is confronted by the demons of society warping reality until she cannot escape the darkness cast upon her. “Horn” is her experience with deceit and vengeance, a cruel authenticity standing at the back of those who harm her and the ways in which she attacks them back. “Blood” is a wordless transformation of sorts wherein the chaos surrounding her all but vanquishes the thin hold she still had on the real world. And “Fire” showcases the blindingly distraught rage of PTSD and the quiet destruction wrought from it.
The front half can thus feel a bit laborious when compared against the faster-paced hellscape of its back. This is where the dialogue resides—sparse as it is—and where exposition is plentiful to intentionally mirror Martha and Albrun’s lives with augmentation courtesy of the former’s skull calling to her in the night. Mariel Baqueiro‘s gorgeous cinematography gets you through the lulls alongside Mmmd‘s moody score, but there are vastly fewer moments of truly unforgettable visual experimentation than what still awaits. “Blood” is conversely magnificent enough to render the whole worth checking out alone. Albrun’s journey through the trees to a dark swamp of jumping frogs before her submergence fades into abstract colors bursting within a translucent haze of water is as beautiful as it is unsettling.
Cwen’s performance matches the production value to earn our undivided attention. Her little grin when Swinda drops by unannounced sticks as much as her scream towards the end. But while she and the aesthetics would usually be enough for effusive praise, I can’t shake the thought that Feigelfeld needed to tighten things up more. A second viewing might actually alleviate this reaction since I’d better know what’s coming. Dropping us into this archaic era without sufficient context for Albrun and the town’s strained dynamic makes it tough to gain the necessary traction to understand we’re building to something rather than approaching a clean break. Knowing she isn’t a witch beyond the psychological toll of being called one goes a long way towards appreciating the arduous lead-up to impending hallucinatory horror.
[1 & 2] Aleksandra Cwen as Albrun in HAGAZUSSA. Courtesy of Doppelgänger Releasing.
 Aleksandra Cwen and Tanja Petrovsky as Albrun and Swinda in HAGAZUSSA. Courtesy of Doppelgänger Releasing.