According to Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, the first feature-length film from director Lukas Feigelfeld, Austria’s hinterlands are streaked with clouds like too much milk poured into coffee, carpeted by an emerald canvas of grass and moss. If horror movies weren’t their business, then Feigelfeld and cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro could make a decent living shooting video diaries supporting Austria’s outdoor tourism industry. But horror is very much their gig, so the country’s natural beauty becomes a framework supporting a tale twice as disgusting.
Content warning for people with misgivings about cannibalism, vomit, organ splatter, maggoty mushrooms, sexual assault and infinitely worse: Hagazussa provides a minefield of triggers. It’s gross. It’s also stunning, a hypnotic recreation of its time and its place: 15th century Europe, a land cast into the dark ages long before the advent of the age of reason. In between unsettling and barefaced displays of noxious human ills and pseudo hallucinatory insanity, rests still frames so gorgeous they belong in their own art gallery tableau. Snapshots of Austria’s countryside megacosm center on Albrun (Alexsandra Cwen), a woman orphaned as a girl and still alone as an adult, who spends a majority of her time trudging through and taking respite in the forests of her homeland.
But Hagazussa’s idyllic appeal belies evil lurking in its frames, stalking Albrun like a basilisk, turning the woods she inhabits to stone. Albrun is marked from birth, doomed to alienation from and othering by her fellow man: As a child, depicted in the film’s opening chapter by Celina Peter, she and her mother, Martha (Claudia Martini), are harassed in dead of night by men disguised in fearsome horn-headed costumes, as concealing as they are intimidating. They’re infernally convinced Martha’s a witch. An hour and change later, the audience is given reason to wonder if they were right. To young Albrun, their incursions qualify as nightmares worse than those chronicled in fables.
In the present day narrative, the prejudice of her youth follows her. She’s harassed by snotty village boys, then spared their taunts by a seemingly benevolent woman, Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), then manipulated into serving Swinda’s own perverse ends. If Albrun isn’t a witch, society does a bang-up job giving her incentive to reconsider the calling. Society, after all, has a gift for birthing its own worst enemies; it’d be impressive if it wasn’t so exasperating.
Viewers and critics whose self-proclaimed horror expertise dates back as far as 2015 will trace Hagazussa’s ancestry to Robert Eggers’ The Witch, though the comparison isn’t exactly unfair. (Of The Witch, Drew McWeeny described the film as “so suffocating at times that it feels like we’re watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.” He may wish he’d saved that line for Hagazussa, to which it’s even better suited.) The two films share DNA, made obvious through their “folk horror” genre crossover. But that family resemblance highlights only Eggers’ and Feigelfeld’s shared influences: F.W. Murnau, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and, perhaps, dashes of Mario Bava sprinkled on top for a bit of additional spiciness.
Feigelfeld couches Austrian history in escalating madness, set against the serenity of its backdrop and Cwen’s two-sided performance. Scene to scene, she plays either shy and guileless or wide-eyed and maniacal, alternating from alluring to alien sometimes in the exact same shot. Her work is deceptively straightforward as Feigelfeld’s and Baqueiro’s imagery: They both veil hidden terror beneath placid surfaces.
Hagazussa is further distinguished through a patina derived from David Lynch and Panos Cosmatos—slow, deliberate, perpetually unsettling. The film takes its time, but it drags the viewer along the way toward a mind-shattering oblivion. Are Albrun’s visions real, or figments of her imagination? Is witchery truly afoot, or is she just losing her marbles at the business end of ignorant mob persecution? The last of these is the only question with an emphatic “yes” answer, though the idea that the real monster here is Woman is pedantic bordering on boorish. Movies like this function because the monster exists, not simply because people historically treat outsiders like stray dogs at best, vermin at worst.
Director: Lukas Feigelfeld
Writer: Lukas Feigelfeld
Starring: Aleksandra Cwen, Celina Peter, Claudia Martini, Tanja Petrovsky, Haymon Maria Buttinger
Release Date: April 19, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.