Hagazussa, a 2017 German-language film just now getting a general look-see after festival exposure, is creepy in the extreme. The second feature release for Austrian writer-director Lukas Feigelfeld — its full American title is Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse — has a built-in, older-than-time authenticity to it that awakens our deepest fears, the ones that usually go unspoken, in its tale of the persecution of a suspected witch in the 15th century Austrian Alps.
Albrun, the woman in question (played as an adult by Aleksandra Cwen, as a child by Celina Peter), seems born into torment. Her mother (Claudia Martini) is introduced dragging the young Albrun through the dark snowy forest on Twelfth Night, evidently on a supernatural errand for Perchta, the pagan goddess known to Christian worshippers as “guardian of the beasts.”
Back in their cabin, Albrun can’t help but notice that her mother’s back and armpits are broken out in boils, and that the old woman cannot swallow food. These frightening signs and symbols appear almost as eerie dreamscapes to young Albrun, on a par with walking on the damp forest floor in wooden shoes, or experiencing sexual arousal while milking one of the family’s ubiquitous goats. Running through both women’s awareness is the struggle between the old, animistic religion and the new one.
Accompanied by the ominous hum of “chamber doom” music group MMMD, the fully grown Albrun has to deal with the same hallucinatory horrors, and the perennial suspicion by mountain villagers, as her mother. The younger woman’s solitary existence attracts the attention of not only the parish priest, but a crafty neighbor named Swinda (Tanja Petrovskij), who seems eager to entrap Albrun into incriminating situations. The priest and the townsfolk disapprove of Albrun’s solitary life, as well as her mother’s reputation.
As it unspools in hushed scenes in the semi-darkness — gloomy natural lighting, and slow, deliberate silent-movie pacing — Albrun’s life seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, a psychological tapestry of superstition, ignorance, and intolerance focused on the figure of a woman who generally keeps to herself and minds her own business. But what exactly is her business, besides leading the hard life of a woman who lives alone on a mountainside?
Questions arise when Albrun gives birth to a baby girl with no apparent partner in her life. Busybody Swinda warns of “Jews and heathens who come in the night … and like animals take you,” and suggests that baby Martha is the product of such nighttime unholiness. The issues are unmistakably, chillingly medieval. Albrun thrashes and moans in the night, as if under the influence of dark thoughts. The priest gives her the decorated skull of her mother as a bizarre gift. And yet we never see Albrun herself doing anything overtly witchlike. At least up to a point.
Hagazussa is the kind of film that may not make audiences scream in the theater (or in front of the TV screen at home — it’s being released on VOD as well as in home video), but may well enter into the viewer’s thoughts with its carefully inserted tableaus, reeking of the shadowy unknown. Filled with disturbing, half-glimpsed imagery and vaguely somnambulent characters, Albrun’s life has all the contours of a terrifying nightmare.
As such, it’s hard to critique the performances. TV actor Cwen, a native of Poland now working in Austria, portrays Albrun with minimal histrionics. Her ordeal takes shape from the setting and production values rather than by any histrionic display of “horror” clichés. No alarming musical cues or loud noises of any kind. And yet filmmaker Feigelfeld’s unsettling visions put to shame most of the current crop of Euro-primitive shock scenarios. Hagazussa is utterly strange, and also harder to find than most. It opens at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater in San Francisco on April 19, then goes to VOD and home cinema on April 23.