2019, NR, 102 min. Directed by Lukas Feigelfeld. Starring Aleksandra Cwen, Celina Peter, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Haymon Maria Buttinger.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 19, 2019
A chilling period supernatural horror, Hagazussa takes its name from the old High German word: literally fence sitter, or more metaphorically someone who lives between two worlds. That's the dismal fate of Albrun, a woman trapped in the repressive horrors of Fifteenth century rural Austria, who may or may not be touched by the claw of the devil. As a child (played in youth by Celina Peter), she lives in poverty with her mother in the snowiest corners of the Alps, and ultimately must watch her sole family member die of an unnamed disease - something vile, something pustulent, something that takes her mind and raises the specter and suspicion of witchcraft. As an adult (played with a frail, distant sense of isolation by Aleksandra Cwen), she's more of an outcast than ever. Somehow she has a child, although no one is clear about how, since her only companions seem to be her goats. Of course specters of the supernatural rise, since these rural folks fear the Devil and witchcraft as much as they do Perchta, the old pagan goddess of the mountains and a sinful kin to the baby-stealing ways of Krampus - but then, these local bigots also tell themselves hateful stories of Jews and heathens, anyone not exactly like them.
Under its original title, Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse was a festival favorite in 2017, and it's easy to see why: As a graduation thesis film (Geigelfeld, a photographer by training, was at Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin), it's extraordinary, pulling from Nosferatu the Vampyr-era Herzog without ever feeling derivative. It gets under the skin, in no small part due to Mariel Baqueiro's cinematography layering shadows on shadow, and a wall-shaking score from Greek drone trip Mmmd. It's less overt than it's American colonial cousins, The Witch, and in its depiction of female isolation on the frontier hems closer to it Great Plains sibling, The Wind, and even more dependent on mood.
Across four chapters - shadows, horn, blood and fire - Geigelfeld subjects Alburn to every imaginable nightmare. It's a slow-burn suffering and quiet descent into madness, made most intriguing and empathy-invoking by Cwen's near-silent, wide-eyed mental decay. But that's when Geigelfeld overplays his hand. There's so much, too much that happens to her: her mother's death, the church's callous reaction, her manipulative neighbors, and while it would be simplistic to reduce what happens to her, and her response, to a single act of trauma, it becomes grueling and unengaging. His effort to cram in every aspect of the history of late Medieval witch fever, from repression of women to fear of the outsider to mushroom trips, becomes a chore, and a grisly twist in the final chapter, fire, just feels shocking for shock's sake. A historical psychological study like this doesn't deserve a stomach-churning moment like that, especially when all it does is push Albrun even further away.