Updated: Mar 10, 2020
Review by Jess
Synopsis: In the 15th century Alps, a young female goatherder Albrun, who lives alone with her infant daughter, begins to feel a dark presence in the woods
This dark and moody supernatural tale is told by first-time German director Lukas Fiegelfeld. It premiered at Fantastic Fest in September 2017, received a wide release in Germany in May of 2018, and then a limited release in the US in April 2019. It holds an approval rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been accredited by critics to being Germany's version of The VVitch. Feigelfeld wrote, directed, and co-produced Hagazussa as his film school graduation project and what he has said about it is that he wanted to explore the image of the women branded as witches in folk tales and
dig deeper into her psyche and see her as the traumatized,
mistreated and finally delusional person that society constructed.
As well as to understand what utterly evil things people were lead
surrounded by superstition and religious persecution. The film tries
to depict a very personal and empathetic mental image of a nightmarish
and a sick mind.
The term hagazussa or hagzissa is an Old High German word for a witch and where the word “hag” comes from. Witches have had a long history in German folklore as older women who live secluded lives in the woods away from the rest of the village. They were said to have knowledge of herbs, spellcraft, and commune with natural elements and animals. Parent’s would use the folklore to scare their misbehaving children by telling them that the local witch would fetch and eat them. In many cases, these women were either independent, poor, or mentally ill individuals who were outcasted from society. Due to folklore and religious superstition thousands of women were branded and executed as witches throughout Germany from 1580-1630. This film Hagazussa is an example of how a way of living one’s life separate from others can be misinterpreted and eventually lead to mistreatment, violence and eventually a psychotic break.
Hagazussa is truly an experience to watch and I would recommend going into it with no perceived notions in mind. I know when I was told it was likened very much to my favourite film of 2016, The VVitch, I knew I had to see it. And I will be honest, within the first 20 minutes of the film, I was not sure I was going to continue. But the story of Albrun and her life in the mountain’s drew me in. The cinematography of this film is gorgeous and paired with the dark ambient music of Greek duo MMMD, it was truly an audio/visual treat. With the lack of dialogue in this film, it relies heavily upon the scenery and background music to help build the story of Albrun’s descent into witchcraft or madness. Which in combination with the incredible talent of Polish actress Aleksandra Cwen (Albrun), who largely is on her own throughout the film’s duration, really enhances the beautiful and yet disturbing elements of the film.
While some critics have stated Hagazussa to be “gorgeously unsettling” (Variety), and a“spellbinding audiovisual symphony” (The Hollywood Reporter), others have not given it favourable reviews, citing that the film is “atmospheric and muted… a frustrating genre pic that’s just too dreary to be scary” (RogerEbert). I would say if you are looking for a straightforward plot and clear ending, sadly you’re not going to find that here. But that is what I love about this film. I found that in my research, elements of Hagazussa could be interpreted in a variety of different ways based upon your own knowledge of witchcraft, German folklore, women’s roles in Germanic society and mental illness. There were times when I really felt that the things happening to Albrun were supernatural, like her sitting amongst the trees in the woods almost communing with nature, and other times I thought some moments were the signs of mental illness, like masturbating while milking the goat. The climatic ending, while vague and open-ended, left me to interpret my own end of Albrun’s journey. And while reading other reviews about Hagazussa, I was fascinated to read other viewer’s interpretation of how the film ends. I love this about films of this variety because it allows for people to have an open discussion about how they see what a film’s ending is trying to say. So if you have seen Hagazussa, DM me on Twitter, because I would love to share my own thoughts on the ending and would love to hear yours!
What I can say with confidence about Hagazussa is that if you view it from the perspective that she is a woman who is a descendant of a witch and thus becomes one herself, the narrative plays out beautifully in an artistic sort of style. Or if you watch this film with the narrative that Albrun asa mentally ill woman, who as a child watched her mother die horribly, was left on her own to survive in an isolated wilderness to then later in life to be betrayed, raped, and then be shunned as a witch, this film also plays out this tragic story. However, both narratives can be blended together to tell a story of a woman believed to be a witch by her village and due to her mental illness, she gives herself up to the Germanic stereotype of a witch to cope with her trauma and isolation.
So if you are like me and enjoy an extremely well-done atmospheric film that leaves elements of it open to interpretation, then I would highly recommend Hagazussa. But be warned, while it is similar to The VVitch in regards to the atmosphere of supernatural dread and witchy symbolism, it is a very different type of film talking about women and witchcraft.