Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse. 2019. Directed & Written by Lukas Feigelfeld.
Starring Aleksandra Cwen, Celina Peter, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, & Haymon Maria Buttinger.
Retina Fabrik / Distribution (U.S.) by Doppelganger Releasing & Bloody Disgusting
Not Rated. 102 minutes.
The following article contains significant spoilers
Before getting into this article, Father Gore wants to take the time to address something. If you’re here and have never been before, this site focuses on critical theory in relation to horror films. While there’s a ★-rating, this article won’t focus on a qualitative ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgement. It’ll focus solely on the themes present and how they operate to tell a story about the 15th century’s treatment of women in an increasingly Christian-dominated religious landscape.
Hagazussa is fantastic enough as an eerie tale filled with witchy horror and superstitions in the 1400s. It’s doubly effective as an examination of how the dominant culture of the time destroyed women more than it ever claimed to have helped them.
Lukas Feigelfeld’s witchy film is an accomplished piece of cinema from a relatively new director. His attention to detail, as well as the overall atmosphere of the film, pulls the viewer directly from the 21st century right back to the 15th. His choice of locations alone thrust the narrative into a medieval space of isolation, where folklore and tradition— no matter how barbaric or misguided— informed the daily lives of rural people and, to a larger extent, structured whole societies.
Feigelfeld puts the viewer directly in the headspace of Albrun (played magnificently by Aleksandra Cwen), a woman ostracised since she was a girl because she and her mother were branded as witches by their community. Albrun struggles to overcome the traumatic moments of her past while unable to escape present traumas, too.
Hagazussa— Old High German for ‘witch’— is a haunting experience, and, at times, wildly disturbing. The core of the story remains crucial in fiction. Today, we recognise sexism and misogyny at least a little better than previously in history, as women have fought hard to force society into looking long and hard at how it treats them. Fiegelfeld’s film looks back at a time when folklore and the supernatural held a stranglehold on people’s minds, and how such a punishing religious climate affected women.
For those unfamiliar with Austria’s social and cultural landscape, a bit of history’s necessary before diving full-on into the film’s thematic concerns. One scene is a beacon for the historical context. A woman from the village where Albrun lives— Swinda (Tanja Petrovskij)— mentions the Jews, and also heathens (a.k.a pagans), in a highly negative light. Although only a brief reference, and despite there being no other mention of the Jews, it’s important to understand the antisemitism which existed in Austria long before the 20th century and Nazi Germany’s rise.
In 1420, a Jewish man in Upper Austria was rumoured to have desecrated the sacramental bread used during the Christian rite of the Eucharist. Albert the Magnanimous, also known as Albert V, Archduke of Austria (1404), used this as a catalyst for his brutal treatment of the Jewish community. Not only were Jews deported in huge numbers and many were imprisoned then forcibly converted to Christianity, over 200 Jews were mercilessly burned alive in public.
Point being? Jews, heathens, and anyone outside of Christianity were seen as Other. And when people are Othered, they’re de-humanised, leaving them susceptible to all manner of horrifying treatment by the dominant culture. Albrun and her mother are pagans, and while neither of them experience quite what the Jews of Austria did in the 15th century, Albrun’s paganism, her womanhood, and her sexuality are the source of her tragic descent into a paranoid world of existential terror.
A major, implicit aspect in the film involves the pressures of Christian faith. The priest, who gives Albrun her mother’s skull (a practice linked to individualism in the Middle Ages), is naturally a symbol of the church. He came to the community to convert the pagan mountain folk to Christianity. Most of the community converted, obvious in the way Albrun and her mother Martha are treated as outcasts by everyone else. The spectre of Christianity hovers over everything, and, as opposed to a positive force, its power is overwhelmingly negative. Religion’s part in scapegoating gender is represented by Albrun’s self-destruction due to medieval misogyny.
An early indication of Christianity attempting to wipe out paganism, crossed with misguided fears of gender, is depicted in a scene when Albrun is still young. Martha sees men outside their cabin dressed like Perchta, which is highly significant. Perchta was a goddess in Alpine paganism. But here, in the 15th century, Perchta— by way of three men dressed in ugly masks, representing her entourage, Perchten— was becoming associated with the Christian Twelve Days of Christmas, indicated by the old man warning Martha to get home because it’s “twelfth night.” People dressed as Perchten and went around to homes to drive away bad spirits. In this scene, the men taunt Martha and Albrun as if the mother and daughter are evil. The women are ostracised from the community as heathens in a world becoming rapidly more Christian all the time. Martha, being a woman with no husband and a child out of wedlock, is seen as a witch. Alongside Jews and pagans, women were being condemned by the church in their own ways.
“It requires all sacrilege be cleansed”
The plague’s appearance in Hagazussa is another element involving religious superstition. Many saw the Black Death as a punishment from God, meaning anybody who took ill must have strayed from God. Martha becomes sick with the plague and that acts as confirmation for the villagers she was, indeed, a practitioner of witchcraft. The illness drives her completely mad, so much so she appears witch-like to her own daughter, who, at a young age, was susceptible to superstition, and this goes on to convince Albrun she’s also a witch.
In a wider sense, superstitions involving the plague throughout Austria took on misogynistic forms via the folklore of the Pest Jungfrau a.k.a Pest Maiden. People believed a female spirit flew across Germany, spreading the Black Death, taking the form of a deathly pale maiden when seeking its next victim— this made many people refuse to help young women who came knocking at their doors, leaving them to die outside for fear it was the Pest Maiden coming to infect them.
In light of the Pest Maiden, as well as the medieval view of non-traditional women, Hagazussa explores the many ways in which a woman like Albrun would’ve been pushed to the brink of sanity by a society determined to believe the worst about women who don’t fit the rigid moulds of a patriarchal Christian society. Superstition takes on a noticeably gendered tone here.
There are a number of things left up to our assumptions about Albrun and her mother. Perhaps the biggest of the ambiguities is the question of who fathered their children. While the identity of the fathers are not so important, HOW the children were fathered is, in that it’s possible these women were raped and made to bear children— one scene features Albrun being assaulted by a man, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Either way, Albrun and Martha have children out of wedlock, and in a medieval Christian society this is fodder for sexist superstition.
Christianity has always attempted to subjugate women’s bodies for male purpose. The story of Eve alone in Christian tradition is inherently misogynistic. The Virgin Mary narrative is aimed at galvanising purity as something all women must embody. Sexual repression in the church, imposed upon pagan culture, is mostly aimed at women because they’re seen as these pure, angelic forms rather than human beings. Any sexual behaviour seen as deviant or outside what religion deems appropriate is labelled unnatural. The Christian view of sex as shameful and filthy represses people. In an isolated mountain village, someone like Albrun— twice isolated by being psychologically divided from the community— is starved for physical pleasure. At one point, her milking of a goat devolves into a sensual act. She touches herself and runs the goat’s milk between her fingers. On the surface it’s a queasy moment. Beneath the bestiality is the warped influence of Christianity’s repressive forces on sexuality.
What’s important here is what all this does to Albrun in the end.
As a little girl, Albrun fell prey to the paranoid superstition of the Middle Ages. A lack of science on a societal level allowed her to believe in the stories of her mother as a witch because the plague had destroyed Martha’s mind— the early scene of them in bed together is a sad glimpse of illness viewed through superstitious eyes. It’s likewise a tender moment of youth (Albrun gets her period) subverted into an ugly, terrifying scene that eventually warps Albrun sexually. The sexual repression of Christianity driving her to feel sexually aroused by a goat further convinces her she’s a witch. After she’s assaulted, she throws a rat in the local water spring, pissing on it, only to see more people die of plague. She believes this is another confirmation she’s a witch, when it’s much more plausible the rat was a plague carrier. Everything she experiences is explainable, from the rat, to her mushroom trip, to the behaviour of her sick mother, but the social landscape of medieval Austria, dominated by religious thought, warp her into believing the supernatural’s to blame. And it all culminates in a horrible act of infanticide, not unlike women who suffer from post-partum depression or other mental illnesses following the birth of a child.
One seemingly inexplicable supernatural event is the final scene. Albrun goes to the top of the mountain and dies, bursting into flames. Following the allegory of women persecuted by religion, this fiery image is the self-imposed execution of a witch, the self-fulfilled prophecy of a patriarchal culture. The viewer experiences Hagazussa directly through the POV of Albrun and this last image is no different. Her self-immolation is a symbol of the internalised misogyny she’s directed at herself in belief she’s a witch.
“… to sink the light of faith in our holy church
deep into the hearts of the people.”
Comparisons to the likes of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Robert Eggers’s The Witch are as inevitable as they are warranted. But Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa does things of its own entirely. It’s darker than either of those two grim masterpieces, and a purely European vision— there’s a sense of immediate proximity to the Old World and its traditions here that lends itself to the fairy tale feeling of Albrun’s story.
Again, you can easily just watch this gorgeous, disturbing film as a dark fantasy only seeking to terrify the senses. You don’t need to read this deep into its themes. In spite of that, the film remains a compelling watch while straddling the lines of ambiguity. Is Albrun really a witch? Or, did medieval society turn women into ‘witches’ by way of religious repression, misogynistic thought and violence, and backward superstition?
Hagazussa‘s greatest feat is it works on multiple levels, each of them interesting. Father Gore’s interest lies in its depiction of paranoid superstition as a negative force on the lives of women in the Middle Ages. So many fictional stories, no matter the medium, use witchcraft as an admittedly fun vehicle for horror. Not enough of them have taken a harder look at the real casualties of witchcraft: the women who’ve been destroyed because regular aspects of female existence are cast in the light of sin by religious faith. Times change. In many ways, they sadly stay the same. Witches are no longer being burned at the stake or drowned in rivers. Women’s lives do continue to be controlled by patriarchal societies driven by men who attempt to use religion to justify their actions, and it continues taking its toll in a variety of awful ways.
So, have the times really changed enough?