Synopsis: As a young girl, Albrun (Celina Peter) lived with her mother (Claudia Martini) in the woods and watched her consumed by disease. They were a wise family in the remote Austrian/German mountain region in an unspecified era. Medicine was not available, death was imminent and this may have had to do with an encounter that occurred on twelfth night. Years later, an older and perhaps wiser Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) is still living in the same house, now has a daughter of her own, and endures local prejudices while trying to live her life. When Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky) befriends her, Albrun sees her life improving. However, not all is what it seems. Tragedy and horror lurk in the shadows of writer/director Lukas Fiegelfeld’s premier feature Hagazussa (2017).
Hagazussa is a surreal film, a piece modeled on the sorts of folk tales that gave birth to 2016’s The VVitch. In fact, it shares some tonal and structural similarities to that film. Its look, its sound, even its fascination with goats makes the movie seem like a distant cousin to that picture. A bookend, perhaps.
Albrun is the protagonist here, and her journey is steeped with moods. A few glimpses of light—sledding down a snowy hill while under the careful gaze of her mother or sitting with a new friend, sharing an apple (that most sinister of Biblical fruit!)—are almost all precursors to darkness of some sort. The picture is not one intending to allow its audience to become too settled. It is a quiet, almost dreamlike journey (or, as is the case in one extended sequence, a drug trip) through disease, religious persecution, death, betrayal and horror. One has the sense that this film came about when the writer/director wondered what might happen if David Lynch and Werner Herzog had collaborated on The VVItch. This film certainly showcases the horrors that women have historically endured (and continue to endure, in fact). Single mothers abound, here. Even the character who is married does not have a man who is around much in the picture, and when he does show up (I think that was her husband) he is an instrument of abuse and evil.
Needless to say, Hagazussa is not light watching. It is a demanding movie. In all likelihood, it is too demanding for me.
I am all for films that have things to say, visuals that convey a sense of gravity, and a musical score that on the surface seems perhaps simple but has subtle variations, which build upon the mood of a given scene. I am not even averse to subtitled films—I cannot understand the people who say they do not go to movies to read and treat foreign/subtitled films as a negative. Hagazussa falls under both of these umbrellas. It is a German co-production, and the languages people speak here is a unique Austrian-inflected German. Also, it is a moody feature with visuals that seem pregnant with meaning. Overdue, even.
And yet . . . There is something about Hagazussa that just does not invite me to be an active participant. It is a film that harbors its secrets, hides its meanings, and encrypts its intentions. There are some lovely visuals—a godly priest with cadaverous visage standing before a wall of skulls in some medieval ossuary, a woman walking into a swampy looking lake with a pale, scum-covered surface, a cart carrying the naked dead. There are gorgeous settings here, too: mountain vistas in springtime and snowy winter woodland scenes that made me feel chilled like I have not been since leaving New England. These moments are exquisite gems, carefully constructed to draw a viewer in, a siren song, a lure.
Some of the symbolism is pretty straightforward. Snakes show up, and it’s never a good sign. The long, shimmering shapes crawl across women’s corpses and slither into beds, ready to sink their fangs into some smooth, sweet flesh. Snakes are not the only phallic creatures either—there are leeches, as well. Goat milk might be symbolic of semen, while the goats themselves are sex symbols on their own—horny buggers, no? Flesh-colored mushrooms certainly look like little dicks thrusting up from the earth. Each of these masculine symbols is also associated with deception, rot or decay. Larvae wriggle amongst the ‘shrooms(which are themselves decomposers, existing on the remains of death vegetation). Maggots and grubs brazenly roam across naked feet or infest foodstuffs. The milk is accused of being spoiled. Albrun’s life experience seems to revolve around escaping the boys who throw rocks at her, the men who want to sexually assault her, and escaping the masculine symbolism. Her closest allies are women, and she might have an unreciprocated lesbian attraction to her neighbor (and perhaps a reciprocated infatuation with her goat). Ultimately, however, this is a movie where sex is alluded to instead of shown.
Much of the symbolism and motivation remains mysterious to me. I scratched my head, I wondered what drove Albrun to some of the ends she went to, and when the final credits rolled I was not sure what to make of what I had just seen. It’s a modest budgeted movie, that’s for sure. It does a lot with its mes-a-scene, and yet I can’t tell you what the final act of the film is really saying.
The movie is divided into four acts, each given a title card associating it with a ritual item. Horn, Blood, Fire. I forget what the first act was—stone, maybe? I suppose this is a clue as to the intention of that sequence, though the film might be accused (and not wrongly) of enjoying its enigmatic material a little too much. It teases, it suggests, it leaves its audience guessing.
Critics had access to materials setting the age and scene during their screening of it (thus my comment about the 15th century). However, none of this information is communicated in the picture itself. Audiences without this information will find themselves tossed into an unknown historic time period and set adrift. This is kind of how classic folk tales and fairy stories worked. The film takes place “Once upon a time and long ago . . .” in a similar manner to The VVitch or the dark fantasy parts of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984).
Art house films—particularly art house horror—is here to say something more than BOO! It wants to grapple with images or ideas, it wants to evoke something you might never have seen before. Midsommar (2019) attempted this and ended up on the successful side of the spectrum. 2018’s Hereditary did a good job of evoking something new. Likewise, Us (2019) and Get Out (2017), The Wicker Man (1973), The Wailing (2016), Audition (1999), and a host of other flicks over the decades. Hagazussa has its pet themes, of course, and it grapples with them the way both Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria remake grappled with dancing, artistic expression, secrecy, revelation and witchcraft. Sometimes straight ahead, sometimes attacking from a slant or on the sly, and always giving us something fascinating to look. If it makes sense, all the better, but this does not seem to be a requirement.
Does the film work? In a way, it does. As a pure mood piece, the film does a graceful job of evoking tension and teasing its audience with dark visuals and thoughtful extrapolations on the pains and horror women experienced in the dark days of the 15th century. I will not soon forget the revulsion I felt at a couple of key moments in this picture. If you are interested in surrendering to a film, savoring the visuals or the audio landscape it evokes, then Hagazussa may well be the movie for you. If you want a chance to see an actress perform the hell out of a mostly silent role, then Cwen’s Albrun is a winner. However, if you want a cohesive plot that culminates in more answers than questions, then Hagazussa might not be your cup of tea. This is art house horror at both its best and worst, a shining example of how innovative imagery and artistic ideas can be presented in a narrative that demands much and gives very little.
And then it ends.
And so does my consideration.
Next, we check in with an overlooked slice of classic horror-comedy from Wes Craven. The People Under the Stairs is available in DVD, Blu-ray and streaming editions. There’s even a triple feature DVD, putting this one together with that odd slasher flick Shocker and the wonderful Bill Pullman in a Haiti hell flick, The Serpent and the Rainbow.
“SHOCKtober Movies: Hagazussa” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.