Tag Archives: Hagazussa

Hagazussa and The Historical Horrorshow of Being Branded a Witch

Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse follows Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), a reclusive 15th century single mother whose eccentricities invite mean-spirited glances and outright violence from the hate-filled townsfolk. Lukas Feigelfeld’s  2017 debut offers a frightfully atmospheric glimpse into the realities of misogyny-tinged superstition and scapegoating in the Austrian alps, pitting a village against one targeted woman. 

In Hagazussa’s opening chapter, we’re shown that Albrun’s predicament is hereditary. Her mother, Martha (Claudia Martini), lives deep in the woods, husbandless and on the fringes of their rural village. The two women have the misfortune of being isolated at a time when isolation hints at deep-rooted strangeness; easy targets for a community in desperate need of someone, something, to blame. For what, exactly? For all that ails the 15th Century peasant: plague, poverty, and the failure of the incumbent church to do anything about the latter. 

On a frigid night in December, Martha and Albrun are visited by a trio of torch-bearing figures dressed as Schiachperchten, the monstrous entourage of Perchta—a cross between a fertility goddess and Krampus. Split off from the Twelfth Night procession, the masked trio has come to drive off demons and evil spirits. “You should be burned down, you witches,” calls out one of the men through the jangle of bells. The irony that the trio are themselves outfitted in pagan garb—adhering to an ancient ritual out of fear of a hampered harvest—is beside the point. Albrun and Martha are strange women living alone and they are to be feared—and perhaps more fervently, to be hated.

The next day, Albrun’s mother collapses in the snow. Her kind face twisting into a skeletal maw and dark, blood-filled buboes blistering across her back. She soon expires feverish and raving in a puddle of phlegm and vomit. Whether the Schiachperchten inadvertently brought the plague or invoked the purgative power of Perchta is unclear. Either way, Martha’s bloated corpse lies rotting in a bog under the gnarled roots of an overturned tree. And so, Albrun is all alone, like her mother before her, the sole beneficiary of a garish and violence-courting inheritance.

When we reconnect with Albrun, she is wantonly bizarre: unsocialized, nonverbal, and in a constant state of sensory overload. Albrun’s world radiates with the menace, meaning, and metaphor of a lonely mind attuned to natural frequencies. She hyper-fixates on swaying tree canopies, spongy moss, and the soft give of supple skin. When snakes encircle her mother’s pallid body, it reeks of something portentous and sinister. There are resonances between the heaving belly of a goat and her dying mother’s shuttering fur bedspread. Auditory particularities feel overwhelming: the creak of floorboards, the wheeze of pained breath, the distinct snap of mushroom caps. Albrun’s experience of the world is a magical one. But the root cause of her sensitivity—if there is one root cause—is never clear.

Indeed, the specificities of Albrun’s oddity are muddy. Is there some dark truth behind her witchy ways? Or is her strangeness the culmination of a self-fulfilling prophecy? In the end, Hagazussa makes space for both supernatural and pathological explanations; squatting firmly in a swampy soup of insinuation and ambiguity. The film is patently uninterested in delineating the boundary between the real and the hallucinogenic. Is the throbbing malicious presence Albrun senses in the woods a primeval power or the anxious imaginings of a woman living alone in the woods? Does her mother’s painted skull truly whisper from beyond the pale? And what to make of the darkest moments of Albrun’s self-destruction, where her actions carry the unmistakable stench of ritual? By granting its occultist rumblings some air of legitimacy, Hagasussa is able to create a powerful configuration of folklore and all-too-real historical nightmares. The film is not interested in definitively diagnosing Albrun. Instead, Hagazussa’s keen eye is focused squarely on a far more terrifying thesis: a harrowing portrait of the kind of woman that history would paint into a corner and brand a witch.

Hagazussa is a horror film about being on the receiving end of superstition and accusations of witchcraft. Here, it is a generational curse; an affliction passed down from mother to daughter until Albrun decides, in a drug-induced haze, that enough is enough. She is a lightning rod for cruelty, denied friendship, and condemned by her community’s elders as a representative of all the people the church has failed to save. “Your secluded way of life,” sighs the craggy parish priest, “a way of life that already tempted many believers to touch the darkness [is] a touch that sprung from sacrilege.” The irony here is thick: that those who claim to carry “God’s light” in their hearts should treat a fellow human being this way. It is heavily implied that both Albrun and her infant daughter are the products of sexual assault. And when Albrun is raped again at the film’s climax, her assailants see justice in their actions because their victim is a heathen. It is not solitude that threatens Albrun, but her peers who see her solitude and independence as both a threat and an invitation. 

A scant handful of horror films have tapped into the true terror of historical witches, identifying inquisitions, witchfinder generals, and accusing mobs as the real horrorshow. In truth, Hagazussa’s cinematic lineage goes back about a century to Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 masterpiece Häxan, a proto-video essay that dramatizes the West’s superstitions surrounding witchcraft with alarming empathy. In almost all of its vignettes, Häxan explores the hypothesis that many historical “witches” most likely suffered from what modern society would now recognize as mental illness. But where Häxan condemns ignorance and cruelty with unhinged expressionism and a gleeful grin—addressing everything from elder abuse to sexual repression—Hagazussa is deadly serious.

Hagazussa goes one step further: eschewing documentary distance to put us in the shoes of one specific woman’s experience of being her community’s pariah. In the end, you cannot forgive the actions Albrun takes when she finally snaps. But here, context is everything. Hagazussa is a horror story about what it is like to be treated like the thing that goes bump in the night. Albrun’s heathen ways are a curse only in that they invite the ire of a community willing to push an unwell mind to its breaking point. That her story was a real one, shared by countless women across history, makes Hagazussa one of the most unsettling and horrifying cinematic explorations of witchcraft ever made.

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‘Hagazussa’ Melds Heathens and Rape-Revenge

Lukas Feigelfeld’s feature film debut Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is a haunting tale about a woman named Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) and her mother. These two women are exiled from their small 15th-century German town after being accused of witchcraft. The film revolves around their experience with isolation and the rituals they prepare to cope with that loneliness. While Hagazussa is a moody story of witches and dark magic, it is also a rape-revenge film—one that achieves vengeance not through acts of violence but through a cathartic rejection of societal norms.

The Central Trauma of Hagazussa

At its core, Hagazussa is a story about how the trauma of sexual assault is used to tame women in the name of patriarchal control. Both Albrun and her mother are shown to be routinely sexually assaulted as punishment for causing catastrophes in town. They have become the scapegoats for the men in charge who refuse to claim responsibility for their failures.

It’s also insinuated that Albrun and her daughter are also products of these rapes, becoming human markers of trauma destined to suffer the same fate. This family of women is trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of abuse that has pushed them into quiet submission, living a hermit-like existence in the mountains.

Then, Albrun is raped again. But this time, it’s different. She and her mother suffered at the hands of the townsfolk for decades, which included routine rape as a way to humiliate and exert power over those they deemed evil. Yet, this specific rape is a total violation of trust as it’s birthed from the trickery of a supposed friend. Albrun meets Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky) as Albrun is being harassed by a group of young boys. Swinda comes to her rescue, shooing the boys away and offering to walk with Albrun to protect her.

There is no doubt that Swinda knows of Albrun’s supposed witchcraft, yet she still offers Albrun compassion. They form a tentative friendship—for once, Albrun is finally interacting positively with another person and doesn’t feel so alone. However, that kindness is a facade that is ultimately used to lure Albrun into a false sense of security. 

Albrun is walking through the hills with Swinda when a man from the town ambushes her. Her alleged friend orchestrates Albrun’s rape, reinforcing modes of patriarchal power that have steeped even into the minds of women. Never before has Albrun trusted anyone. While her previous experiences with sexual assault are traumatic, there was no emotional connection with these men; she has come to expect such treatment. Here, she has finally begun to have a seemingly positive relationship with another person, but that is quickly shattered.

The Self-Destruction of Albrun

With this experience of betrayal, Albrun seeks revenge, not through a violent rampage but through self-destruction. After she poisons the village’s water source with a dead rat and her own urine, Albrun consumes psychedelic mushrooms to escape her reality. This grants her access to the wilder, more animalistic side of herself that she once feared.

Her perception of the world is warped as colors change; the energies of nature seem to come alive and meld together into one trippy nightmare. Not once did Albrun ever unleash violence on anyone, merely conforming to this fantasy world where she is the villain. But now, paradoxically, she can rise to meet such expectations and find demented freedom in the sudden rejection of those expectations.

Albrun’s final catharsis and animalistic transformation explicitly reject societal norms as dictated by the men in charge. She commits an inhuman act by drowning her baby and then eating her, leaning into the horror already projected upon her body. But Albrun sees infanticide as the only solution to saving her daughter from the world. Now she fully understands the treacherous cruelty that can be inflicted by both men and women of all ages.

Then, the film ends with Albrun’s death as she combusts with the sunrise. Even in her final moments, Albrun is refusing to obey anymore. Now, she breaks the cycle of abuse against her mother, herself, and perhaps even her daughter. No longer can these men violate their bodies or continue generations of abused women born out of trauma.

This perspective is tinged in tragedy—it symbolizes that the only way to escape the abuse is through the death and destruction of the female body. Feigelfeld creates a harrowing representation of how the act of escaping abuse is exhausting and may not always be successful, particularly when the survivor is isolated.

Conclusion

Hagazussa is an unconventional rape-revenge tale that doesn’t look at violent rage against rapists but instead a more personal embrace of expected monstrosity to reject patriarchal control. The tragedy of Albrun’s ultimate revenge portrays an honesty behind the reality of sexual assault and the exhausting journey of trying to grow after such a gross violation.

Sadly, this experience is unfortunately still relevant today. Even though Hagazussa takes place in the 15th century, its themes are on par with films such as Violation and Rose Plays Julie.  These films are more interested in the consequences of revenge and the hollowness of such an act. Through broken friendships, violent mushroom trips, and a dread-filled atmosphere, Feigelfeld’s tale of witchcraft portrays a more profound truth about the nature of trauma.

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