Last year’s The VVitch took baby steps towards a humanistic vision of the titular villain, as the witch seems at first a clear antagonist, bu, by the end of the film, the persecuted demon is re-framed as an empowered woman, while regular people are seen as petty, violent monsters. Hagazussa doesn’t adopt the strain the heroic empowerment that The VVitch kicked off, but it picks up the baton of humanization and runs with it.
In 15th Century Austria, a woman cares for her young daughter, Albrun, in a cabin in the Alps. The two suffer regular harassment from nearby villagers, but generally seem to have a safe and happy life together. One winter day, the mother collapses in the snow and some doctors are called. They discover that she has the plague and quickly disperse, leaving Albrun to care for her mother alone until the inevitable horrible death. Years later, Albrun has her own cabin alone in the woods, and cares for a newborn. She again suffers harassment from some nearby villagers, but one kind woman and the local priest (gloriously spooky) reach out to her. To reveal more wouldn’t be fair to Hagazussa as a narrative or concept; the plot only matters insomuch as it drives gorgeous and methodical exploration of character.
The VVitch is a superficial antecedent to Hagazussa, but they are otherwise very different films. While VVitch played out as claustrophobic and nervy horror, Hagazussa is an atmospheric tone poem. Though horrifying in its own way, director Lukas Feigelfeld aims first to craft a portrait of a woman. Filmed with loving artistry and sadistic commitment, it’s a vivid fable with clear disinterest in popular acceptance. It touches explicitly on every dark implication of Witchery in Medieval Europe, yet as the subtitle suggests, remains steadfastly sympathetic to its titular heathen. The amount of gumption required to turn this thing in as a graduation film is unfathomable, but that’s what Feigelfeld did.
Sound is vital to this picture, and though dialogue is limited, Feigelfeld uses meticulous sound mixing to pull the audience into his characters’ sensory world. Sometimes the wind whistles quietly through the canopy, and sometimes a touch booms as loud as a thunderclap. Because this is such a spare and slow film, it also employs negative space to great success. A curious tension holds Hagazussa together, and it is the sign of a masterful filmmaker when quiet, wordless interaction is more revealing than pages of dialogue.
Albrun is envisioned as a person in sensual, intuitive relation with nature — receptive, feminine qualities — and posits this relation as a possible cause of her alienation, before suggesting that her alienation pushes her to antisocial deviance, which helps fit the mold of witchery. The film does an exceptional job of explicating Albrun’s eventually astonishing behavior, and though its final chapter may push some viewers too far, it never betrays its character. As a narrative, Hagazussa defies straightforward analysis, but there is nothing ambiguous about its emotional wallop.