Hagazussa has been billed as a “pagan death trip”, folkloric horror, and even in some circles feminist horror. I challenge all of that.
I was sitting in my favorite bar in Chicago’s North side on two separate occasions, enjoying a manhattan, when I was told by two different men (who do not know each other, so far as I am aware) that I “should really go see” Hagazussa. The German horror film had come up for me before in various film circles. Folks who knew I liked “witch shit” thought its fresh take on the subject matter would be up my alley. Plus it’s in German!
I was suspicious. I am exhausted of men directing films about witches (with the exception of the beautifully handled Brujos, which employs queer theory into a story of gay male witches and was shot in Chicago). While there are some exemptions, I’m also tired of them trying to tackle coming of age as a woman.
I pointed out to both dates that women did not write or direct Hagazussa, just as they had not been involved in the writing or direction of cult hit The VVitch. They admitted they had not realized that, and therein lies the largest problem. The only folks checking whether films were directed by people who may have experienced what they’re depicting are people who have experienced what is being depicted. Witch stories are about people who have been classified as “other” and often inherently about the worst part of femme experience, but they’re continuously tackled by populations who have not been othered as a woman.
Currently at 95% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that notoriously hates horror, I thought it would be a safe bet. If only experience had taught me better. Only 32% of professional reviews are written by women. We don’t have stats on folks outside the binary, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than 2%. Men are and have always been loudest in this industry, and a quick overview of the “film” section of Medium will confirm that. I should have trusted my feminine instinct, but these woke guys I met on a dating app said it was good, so I logged into Shudder to check it out.
Trigger Warning for Rape + Spoilers Follow
Hagazussa as a film has a somewhat interesting origin. Director Lukas Feigelfeld credits stories he grew up with as the origin and says he wanted to capture “a woman who was called a witch… what was happening in her mind.” His mother is in fact from the region depicted. All of which makes the story that came to the screen even more puzzling.
Up front, I will say that Hagazussa is a thrillingly beautiful film. Set in 15th century Europe in a stunning Alpine valley, cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro makes full use of the environment without the typical landscape shots that would stereotypically break up a film about loneliness. This is also a credit to its editing, but with historical settings come challenging interior shots that only a skilled cinematographer can arrange.
The intimate shots focus on a two-room cottage where protagonist Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) lives with her mother (Claudia Martini). The beginning of the film sets up a story of hardship, loneliness, and mundane challenges. Honestly, it’s reminiscent of Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s Turin Horse down to some of the exterior shots of Albrun’s mother. It’s always exciting to me when a horror film embraces the terror of the mundane and I was sure when this film began it would be a movie I was going to love. That excitement would not continue.
Things speed up after a threatening visit from some locals accusing the girl and woman living in their hut out in the woods of being witches. This same night an event would take place that changes every girl’s life. In movies, at least.
The following morning, Albrun is horrified to see a single, brightly colored spot on her white blanket. There is no other blood that we can see and she doesn’t deal with it. She shoves that blanket in a chest. Let me tell you the real horror in my house would have started the minute my mother discovered I’d shoved something stained in period blood anywhere without soaking it first.
In this case, the horror becomes less bleak and more directly applied when Albrun’s mother discovers she has begun her period. Her response is to sexually assault her, smearing period blood on her daughter’s forehead. Fleeing her mother’s attacks and striking her drives Albrun’s ill mother out into the woods and to her death.
The menstruation scene (or lack thereof) brings me to a question I would have through out this film and so many films like it. A question that was actually best worded by cartoonist and comics editor Steenz earlier today:
Something filmmaker Feigelfeld gets absolutely right are the pillars of the feminine experience: rape, menstruation, and motherhood. It is the entirety of our experience, and it’s all in this film. How Feigelfeld succeeded in crafting a film that effectively employs all three without giving prominence to one over the others is a credit to his film making.
I’m of course being sarcastic, but like so many other films, we have no idea what women do all day. This film is no exception. When we return to Albrun, she’s living a simple life with her goat girlfriend. The villagers don’t like her. Also she’s a single mother with no father in the picture. According to this movie, the daily agenda is breast feeding, getting picked on by boys, masturbating while doing your daily chores, masturbating while sleeping, and maybe, possibly sleeping with demons? The forward motion of the film is the flat emotional journey of Albrun’s lonely existence, but we see nothing of what that existence is like unless she’s masturbating or her breasts are out.
What does Albrun eat? We see her make cheese, but she only has three goats, and two are just billies. How does she defend herself and her animals from wolves? How does she care for her child all on her own?
This last point is a sticking one in the plot. While we see some harrowing scenes of Albrun traveling with her child, overall she leaves her alone in an unlocked shack in the woods for hours at a time. It’s possible she’s not the greatest of mothers, but that baby would not have survived as long as it did with how often she’s being left alone.
Albrun unexpectedly makes friends with a village woman who also doesn’t do anything all day. In fact, the kids who pick on Albrun are hanging out in the woods in what would have been a huge group for a community that size not doing anything. Don’t they have goats to milk, turnips to plant, mushrooms to hunt?
But back to her new friend: Swinda (Tanya Petrovsky) slowly befriends Albrun and then has her husband (or a friend) rape her.
I will say this second rape scene Feigelfeld employs is well depicted. It’s scary, it’s affecting, it’s not needlessly exploitative about the act. As a Survivor who is also a horror fan, let me tell you that’s an extremely hard to pull off feat and it was well appreciated.
And then the real freaky horror shit begins. We’re talking tripping in the woods, infanticide, possible freaky witch shit. And it’s all very drawn out with very little logic. After it becomes clear we would not get in depth with these characters Hagazussa becomes a very difficult film to watch… and it’s not because of the often over the top melodramatic horror reactions to Albrun’s extreme trauma.
The really scary thing about Hagazussa for me- the slowly creeping eldritch fingers of horror that crawled from my stomach while watching the film- is that so many people think this movie is a masterpiece because this is how they imagine women’s experience. We have been so long without the female gaze that we assume any movie from a woman’s point of view is accurate. We know women’s lives are difficult, but exactly how they are difficult has not been outsourced to the people who know.
This film is a strangely slow on the draw rape/revenge piece dressed up in cinema finery. It’s the same tropes, unexamined, with the tits and sexuality we expect from classic horror, but maybe a little twisted. It’s a film that badly needed a different perspective and suffered from lack of it.