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Hagazussa : A Heathen’s Curse-Explained: Of Babies and Witches

A witch’s brew of, abuse, perversion, and psychosis push one woman to unimaginable lengths.

Described as the next The Witch, Hagazussa has many things in common with A24’s moody chiller.  It tells the story of an abused girl who turns to the darkside when all else fails.  They are both picturesque films set in a bygone era in pastoral settings.  Like Witch, Hagazussa is moody and dark. This German film by first time director Lukas Fiegelfeld is told in three gorgeous and ever more grisly acts. 

Heavy Spoilers ahead.

Forget all the madness and sheer level of insanity and just look at the sweeping patient shots of the wild mountains.  Every tightly focused and well-framed shot in Hagazussa is designed to increase dread and personalize the story.  The viewer is meant to feel as if they are one of many townsfolk voyeuristically looking on without doing anything to help this tragic girl.  It is the kind of self-disgust that creeps around in the shadows and invades your bones.  The entire film from top to bottom has a dreamy quality if your dreams were of technicolor rape, child molestation, and possible bestiality.  Every scene feels slightly askew and wrong but also entirely right.  It’s this cognitive dissonance that allows for the disgusting to be both beautiful and horrific.  Cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro allows the camera to linger on the macabre and the majestic alike.  Lengthy shots of trees swaying in the breeze juxtaposed with an oddly sensual goat milking scene drive the outre sexuality forward.  The conclusion to this freakish event is a masturbation scene that is all the more effective by the use of said goat’s milk and the presence of our character’s dirty fingernails.

Sound design works flawlessly with the camera work to create memorable scenes so disturbing they require several viewings to fully digest.  Albrun’s mother in the throes of death smelled her hair(and other things) with the zest of a pig rutting in the mud or a dog smelling especially stinky trash all while a low hum builds in the background.  It is as if the world itself was moaning for the abuse the young girl was enduring.  Wind and animal sounds co-mingle in a potent mix of wildness.  The use of woodpeckers and human chewing becomes the soundtrack for this shocking story.  Greek duo MMMD wraps the film in a blanket of meditative horror that sounds like an evil monastery hooked up with a techno band.  The effect is jarring as complete silence, and ominous belted notes strain for dominance.
The cast makes the most of extremely sparse dialogue.  Aleksandra Cwen(Albrun) weaves an entire world with scarcely more than ten lines in the whole film.  The utter abandon with which she portrays Albrun is the glue by which everything else is held.  Think a more understated female Nic Cage in Mandy, another psychedelic dreamscape.

Hagazussa Explained.

As much beauty and mystery surround this movie, let’s dive a little deeper into the mysteries.

What does hagazussa mean?

In High German, the term derives from the word “haxa” which is a commonly used term for a witch in the early 1900s.  It still persists today; however, now the meaning has a much looser connotation and could mean almost any form or practitioner of spirituality that is nontraditional.

What exactly did Albrun eat?

For many reasons, this is a difficult one to answer.  Depending on if you are a literalist or a figurativist the baby-eating scene can go many directions.  If you take everything you saw on camera literally, she likely ate her baby after stewing it.  She believed her mother to have been a witch and had been told she was a witch her whole life.  Perhaps, she simply snapped and after seeing she had drowned her baby she decided waste not want not.  She’s cursed anyway so why not eat the evidence?  Another possible explanation is she ate a beloved goat.  There is no reference for what she is eating, and without precise bone size and shape, it could be a small goat.  She had eaten wacky mushrooms sometime before and might still be under the influence.  

Did Albrun kill her baby in Hagazussa?

Here’s where things get real wild, so bear with me.  The entire green swamp scene could be interpreted in many ways.  Again it becomes an issue of allegory versus fact.  Director and writer Lukas Feigelfeld proved he had no problem playing with perception with the first hour of slow-burning madness.  Whether it be the town’s perception of Albrun, her perception of herself, or her perception of her mother’s death, all things are in flux.  She could have been raising the baby for months in isolation and in a drug-fueled haze drowned her baby and returned home.  There are several clues that this scene is not what it seems.  First, the addition of so much blood may be an indication that this scene is actually a memory of the baby’s birth.  Here’s where things get seriously trippy so hold on. 

Changes in seasons indicated by clothing and plant life seem to point to a passage of time not shown in the baby’s growth.  A seemingly insignificant moment with the infant and an exhausted Albrun may hold the key.  The baby refuses to breastfeed.  The infant may have died from disease or failure to thrive, and in Albrun’s mental state she was incapable of realizing it.  Instead of drowning her baby she died of natural causes.  It would allow for Swinda to have seen and heard the baby in the cabin.  The use of maggots as a symbol for death lend credence to the theory that the baby has been dead a while, or never lived at all.  In the final second before putting the infant into the swamp, Albrun looks down at her baby in horror.  She has been caring for something dead and finally knows it.

Did Albrun actually have a stillborn baby?

With all the blood in the swamp water and the condition of the baby as she picked her up at the end that baby might never have lived.  The baby certainly was smaller and more decomposed than would be possible considering the death took place earlier that day.  Even if Albrun had remained in her fugue state for days after the event the baby was significantly smaller than the infant we saw her hold throughout the film.  Every moment we saw with the baby and Albrun in Hagazussa was a fantasy concocted by a lonely, deranged mind.

Why did Albrun leave her baby in the cabin alone all the time?

The movie is not told linearly, but rather the final 2/3 are told in segments that jump back and forth through time.  This is the simplest answer to her nontraditional parenting style.  Depending on if you are buying the miscarried baby plot point there was no baby at all, and thus there was nothing to neglect.  In the scene where Albrun first meets Swinda, she is wearing the white scarf used to carry the baby in other scenes, but no baby is actually ever heard or seen.  She could use the scarf as a carrying device for berries or vegetables.  It could be one of many times the viewer is tricked.  Swinda tells her, on the way to see the priest that she could not live all alone with a child, but no one questions leaving the infant for hours all alone in the cabin.  The entire first act is the only portion of the film told in logical time.  Young Albrun lived a solitary life with her mother who everyone considered a witch.  Who knows what the trauma of her isolation and her mother’s death did to her mind.  We did see her take the baby on several occasions when she was herding her goats so it stands to reason she would not leave a baby at home for hours while going to town.

Was Albrun raped twice?

One of the most pivotal sections of Hagazussa hinged on a betrayal by Swinda and a terrifying rape scene.  Swinda seems to hint that Albrun’s baby Martha is a child born from rape.  Heathens roam the countryside and attack vulnerable women.  The brutal attack by Swinda’s male friend could be yet another memory.  There is no history given on Albrun’s pregnancy and from the isolated way of life she leads it would be tough to imagine she had a romantic companion.  Perhaps the reason she seems immobilized is the entire attack is nothing but a memory from a mind suffering from the abuse.  When Swinda told her she had a rotten stench, it may have triggered the memory of her earlier rape and no second rape took place.  With this theory, Swinda is not guilty of inciting a rape, but rather just being mean.

Is this movie really about the Plague?

Boils, mice contaminating the water, and burning dead bodies sure seem to point towards Plague as the real killer in this film.  In this era, Plague was becoming a serious epidemic.  For those uneducated, or like Albrun and tainted by the lens of childhood trauma, Plague could look like demonic possession.  The suffering brought on by the Plague would be profound and could easily look like the work of something supernatural. 

What was the hair washing all about in Hagazussa?

An intense, visually stunning scene takes place shortly after finding her goat dead that features a perversion of baptism.  A ritual reversed from the traditional ceremony performed on babies who have holy water ladled on their forehead by a man of God is twisted as only the back of Albrun’s hair is wetted by her and she stands naked with her hair pulled down over her face.  It is irrelevant if witchcraft exists, at this point Albrun believes, and has picked aside.

Is her dead mother haunting her, possessing her, or is she mentally ill?

This one matters the least as the results are the same.  There are three dead females.  Albrun bursting into flames on top of the mountain where heathens can’t go hints strongly at an element of the supernatural.  Additionally, if you watch closely when Albrun is holding her dead infant in front of the fire strange shadows are cast on her face that makes her look as if she is transitioning from mother to daughter and back again.
To call this movie odd would do it a disservice as it is more than just a trippy arthouse movie.  It is also more than just another ambiguous weird movie with more questions than style.  It is all those things and more.  It is a strange movie that is as beautiful to behold as it is horrendous to watch. 

This indy gem is exactly how a young filmmaker should start their career.  The confidence of material and reliance on his cast and crew to bring his vision to life is seldom seen in someone so new to the industry.  Sure Hagazussa is slightly too dark at times, and there are only so many slow-motion shots of the sky I need, but as a whole, this is a great film with an enormous amount to say.  Watch this film anywhere you stream movies now.  For other movies that could be more than meets the eye check out my recent review of I Trapped the Devil.  It’s another good one.