Hagazussa, which showed at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival this past weekend, aspires to be a sort of German version of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, a film that has marked a brilliant point in female-centric horror narratives. Hagazussa tells the story of Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), a woman living at the fringes of a 15th century village in the Alps, where she ekes out a difficult living farming goats. Years before, Albrun’s mother, a suspected witch, died a terrible death of the plague, leaving her young daughter to make her way on her own. Now Albrun has to face the superstition and paranoia of the villagers, who mock her and her baby daughter as heathens.
Hagazussa bears more than a passing resemblance to The Witch, and not just in terms of its subject matter. The film takes its time setting up its horrific paradigms, digging into the culture of the time period, the weird fears and superstitions surrounding Albrun and her mother, and later Albrun and her daughter. It moves slowly – almost glacially – in establishing these connections and belief systems, yet simultaneously manages to avoid any in-depth elucidation of the culture. It is alien, and it remains alien, a superficial image of a people mired in paranoia with zero clarity about where that paranoia originates or what it means.
Albrun’s connection to and association with nature is, I suppose, meant to contrast with the bleakness of the local priest’s church, and the local people’s distrust. But we never really see what it is that Albrun has been cast out from, with the only connections to the village a few tangential characters with few (if any) lines. And because there is no contrast, it’s difficult to comprehend just what Albrun is up to, and why. There is an overlong scene in which she milks a goat that mines a weird eroticism from the act, yet this is never really followed through on. For much of the film there’s no one for her to actually talk to or have conflict with, and even when conflict arises, it’s never quite clear what is happening or why. And this is before the film truly indulges in horror during its final act, which depict a series of increasingly bizarre set pieces inspired (I think) by Albrun’s consumption of a hallucinogenic toadstool and apparent obsession with her mother.
Hagazussa does have a terrible beauty to it, capturing the richness of the Alpine scenery with a sense of isolation and bleakness that rivals The Witch’s New England wilderness. The scenery should become a near character, informing Albrun’s experience and contributing to her eventual indulgence in her mother’s legacy. But it never quite reaches the heights that it needs to. It produces images that are momentarily sublime, but dwells on them for so long that they begin to lose their power and lead the viewer to wonder when something is going to happen. And it’s not clear what does happen, as Albrun drifts from one weird and horrific experience to another without much deeper characterization to link the viewer in sympathy. A lack of clarity need not condemn a film – and this is certainly an arthouse horror, or at least aspires to be one – but there is a paucity of thematic meaning here that feels more obfuscating than tantalizing. Because writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld fails to really immerse his viewer in the culture he depicts, Albrun’s tragedy (or is it?) lacks underlying power. This is not a deeply embedded depiction of paranoia and persecution, but one which seems to mistake slowness for depth, and superficiality for fascinating obscurity.
I keep comparing Hagazussa to The Witch, mostly because there’s really no way around it. A woman cast out and isolated because of contemporary superstition, dwelling with goats and cavorting (kind of) with the supernatural? Yes, that sounds like The Witch all right. And Hagazussa need not have suffered from the comparison, if only it was able to stand on its own as a work of horrific art.But I couldn’t quite get what the whole point was, or what I was supposed to take away from the film, especially as it speeds to its vicious and pretty disgusting finale.