Studio: Doppelganger Releasing
Director: Lukas Feigelfeld
Writer: Lukas Feigelfeld
Producer: Simon Lubinski, Lukas Feigelfeld
Stars: Celina Peter, Aleksandra Cwen, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky
In 15th-century Austria, a woman living in seclusion seeks occult intervention after local villagers target her as a heathen.
Lukas Feigelfeld’s “Hagazussa” invites frequent comparisons to Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (review here) for a number of reasons. Superficially, both films are costume period pieces where pagan practices glacially encroach on God-fearing farming communities. Structurally, both movies build drearily dreamlike worlds through suggestive sights and sounds while story sits in a secondary chair.
It’s therefore very safe to say “Hagazussa’s” auteur aesthetic presents greater appeal to those with the patience to fall under “The Witch’s” similar spell. Conversely, if “The Witch” didn’t tickle your fancy, “Hagazussa” stands an even slimmer chance of doing so. This is because “Hagazussa” slows its burn to a state so frustratingly dedicated to atmospheric ambiguity, only extreme arthouse aficionados can fully engage with its style.
An IMDb synopsis simply summarizes “Hagazussa” as “paranoia and superstition in 15th-century Europe.” A press release hazily describes it as “a haunting pagan death trip and a startling vision of psychedelic horror.” “Hagazussa” demands such vague references due to the fact that it possesses as little narrative substance as any movie can possibly have.
The cursory plot centers on Albrun. In the first of the film’s four chapters, Albrun lives as a young girl with her mother Martha in a remote woodland hut. Nearby villagers ostracize both women as witches, although whether they truly are or not isn’t definitively spelled out.
Albrun advances to adulthood at the onset of Chapter Two. Following Martha’s death, Albrun still lives in isolation, but cares for a newborn daughter fathered by an unknown man.
Villagers continue shunning Albrun until a woman named Swinda takes an unexpected interest in her. Albrun’s friendship ends up rewarded by cruel exploitation. Haunted by her dead mother’s whispers as well, Albrun takes a turn into darkness intent on transforming mind, body, and soul. If she wasn’t a witch before, she may become one now.
Positive praise first. “Hagazussa” looks exceptionally cinematic. Impressive attention to detail cascades from the top of Dana Dumann’s incredibly designed production pieces down to each stitch on Katrin Wolferman’s costumes. On only her second feature, director of photography Mariel Baquerio captures the coldness of snowy winter, the lushness of Alpine mountainsides, and the bleakness of a late-medieval lifestyle with award-worthy camerawork. Across the board, top-notch technical achievements completely commit to breathing both reality and fantasy into writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld’s creative vision.
One might be able to become lost in the movie’s immersive artistry if “Hagazussa” wasn’t so uneventfully dull. An inordinate portion of the movie’s tiring slog through 102 long minutes features Albrun scrubbing clothes on a washboard, making cheese, or carrying milk in yoked buckets. It’s probably a painstakingly accurate portrait of a plain pilgrim’s quiet country solitude. Except installing excessively mundane moments into a viewer drains compulsions to become captivated.
You might be jolted back by the sight of Albrun masturbating while sensually milking a goat. (Yes, this really happens.) Alternatively, you may add such an alarming action to the list of scenes with peculiar tastes that are far from suitable for non-niche consumption.
“Hagazussa” happens to have had its start as Lukas Feigelfeld’s grad school project. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching the film unfold, as it is infinitely more mature, sumptuous, and confident than an average student film. Yet once you know its origin, an explanation immediately forms as to why the movie dismisses convention and embraces experimentation like only a fledgling filmmaker would dare to do.
Previously subtitled “A Heathen’s Curse,” “Hagazussa” bears an additional accessibility deterrent by being in German, even though a great deal of the movie excludes dialogue altogether. If you’re familiar with “The Field Guide to Evil” (review here), imagine that anthology’s first segment “The Sinful Woman of Hollfall,” which coincidentally or not so coincidentally hails from nearby Austria, fleshed to feature length. That’s a close approximation of what the film aims for in terms of tone, setting, and storytelling.
“Hagazussa” exemplifies a movie made almost exclusively out of mood instead of a stable script. And that mood is more taxingly melancholy than unsettlingly macabre.
However, one person’s slow-burn snoozefest may be another person’s entrancingly mesmeric treasure. Dripping with distinctly European eeriness, “Hagazussa” can be a hauntingly beautiful experience, even though it is unfulfilling as fiction. Should you have a predilection for droning scores and overcast environments inspiring impressions of hollow horror, “Hagazussa” might be your movie. Personally, I would prefer to see Lukas Feigelfeld apply his unique eye to a fully realized screenplay rather than watch another interpretive audiovisual artwork.
Review Score: 45