REVIEW: Hagazussa – A Heathen’s Curse (2017)

dir. Lukas Feigelfeld.

Martha (Claudia Martini) and her pre-teen daughter Albrun (Celina Peter) carve out an austere existence amidst the snow and ice of their 15th century Alpine village. But when Martha becomes sick it falls to her child to look after her, and the layers of their relationship – and perceived beliefs – start to unravel. Years later Albrun, now an adult (Aleksandra Cwen) with her own baby, lives alone: but the trauma of her childhood – and her mother’s dark shadow – continue to fall over her and the townsfolk.

A companion to Robert Egger’s The VVitch (2015), Feigelfeld weaponizes the dark ages as fertile ground to explore occultism, superstition, madness and female lives, and the permeable membranes between. So porous are these connections that the actual presence of witchcraft seems arguable, for whilst evil is demonstrably present the sources of this may instead be rooted in the secular soil of corrupt human hearts. That Albrun experiences supernatural terror is clear, though whether this is genuine demonic oppression or the imaginings of a damaged brain that invokes imagery she has been conditioned to fear is not.

For Albrun is afraid, but also an object of fear. Children torment her for her mother’s legacy, and one moment of violence feels simultaneously shocking, inevitable and sadly current. Her tormentors profess their purity, but this only serves to underscore the instability of the binaries that surround her.

Even the title infers this tension: “Hagazussa” is a high German word originally linked to witchcraft but more recently used to denote a practitioner of any spirituality. This blurring of boundaries between the occult and hegemonic Christianity is perhaps nothing new: the opening of Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), where Barbara Steele’s witch is ritualistically murdered by religious zealots is coded as an occult ceremony (masks, blood, nocturnal setting). So too here in the opening moments Albrun and her mother are threatened by a group wearing goat masks wanting to burn them as witches. And when Albrun is later summoned by the local parson to his church it is revealed to be a ossuary, where one might more readily expect a warlock than a priest.

However Feigelfeld strikes an ambivalent tone towards the occult. For whilst Eggers saw Anya Taylor Joy turn to satanism as an emancipatory form of self-liberation from the twin oppressions of patriarchy and puritanism, here the terrain is uneven: Albrun suffers harm from multiple aggressors but the threat may also be from devils who offer no seductive invitations to live life deliciously.

It is these nuances which keep the ground queasily loose beneath the audience’s feet: there is no resolute certainty, no means of escape, only trauma-compounding-trauma and a woman slowly drowning in the dark water of her own psychic pain. This is perhaps hinted at in the second part of that title: she is marked with a “heathen’s curse”, not as a witch or believer, but caught between a false light that extends no grace and a genuine darkness that offers only horror. There she is forced to suffer, a woman between, alone.

Tim Coleman

HAGAZUSSA: A HEATHEN’S CURSE is now available on blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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