Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse

Hagazussa (Old High German for witch) is a 2017 horror film—the directorial debut of Lukas Feigelfeld and co-produced between Germany and Austria. I'm not going to provide any additional informations about the furniture (actors) or other members of the crew, but feel free to check IMDB.

It's always somewhat difficult to know where to begin when discussing a film with such minimal plotting and a story so slimly skeletal as to be stripped of all its marrow—the nutrients of the individual bones long since boiled into the atmosphere. 

Sometimes the substance of a film or other work of art could be said to be found in its style—as could be shown with the colorful pulp of a Seijun Suzuki film.

 A Collage of stills from Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter (1966).

Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to Hagazussa. There's nothing compelling about the narrative, the characters, most of the imagery, or much of any real style to speak of. It's just a bland, uninventive retread on the persecuted and alienated medieval witch fiction piece. 

It's often mentioned alongside Robert Eggers The VVitch from 2015, which it bears some similarity to, but Hagazussa is much vaguer and features less character development/characterization or dialogue. 

Lukas Feigelfeld spoke of the comparisons between The VVitch and Hagazussa:
I am not sure that The Witch and Hagazussa aim in the same direction, when it comes to the depiction of a so-called witch. I also must add, that I had not seen Robert Eggers’s film until after Hagazussa was finished. In Hagazussa, it was important that the balance between reality and magic was very blurred and that in the end it is the story of a woman struggling with a mental disorder. Eggers’s film did the opposite, in portraying the “emancipated woman” again as a mystical and magical creature, which is a very male point of view. So-called witches in those times were, of course, just human; women who did not fit into the moral codex of those times. It was the church that twisted the perception and found ways of hunting down and mass murdering them as “enemies.”Nowadays, with a growing number of young women finding their empowerment within the witch metaphor, this can and should be used to emancipate yourself from these old values, ultimately from the prevailing patriarchy in the world. 
To begin with, this does a great deal to reveal the prosaic nature of the film. The balance between magic and reality are blurred, but ultimately it's obvious magic does not exist and this is meant to be a sad tale of a woman suffering from mental deterioration in a harsh and judgmental world. While this has the potential to be interesting if well-written or conceived in an artistic fashion, there's honestly nothing intriguing about a mental breakdown on its own. A mental breakdown is only worthwhile if the character has depth, and this one doesn't. There's also nothing truly fantastical to be found, as it's all explained away by the vagaries of the mind.

Also, what exactly is empowering about the witch metaphor as expressed in Feigelfeld's film? What, being a single mom and estranged from the rest of society, and exploring your sexuality on your own terms with your goat? Yeah, real empowering. The "prevailing patriarchy" in the world is what led to the technological advancements and the height of civilization. Patriarchy is a stabilizing force. Without patriarchy we'll quickly become (as if we haven't already) decadent, crumbling neoliberal societies, parasitized by greedy elites giving the country away and siphoning off all the wealth, while they live in their pristine gated communities. Frankly, I'd like to emancipate myself from the prevailing matriarchy in the world.

Hagazussa was described as a "medieval, feminized Eraserhead" by Sight and Sound—given that the latter film was conceived by director David Lynch as a response to his fear of becoming a father, and the former concerns an estranged woman who is shunned for being a witch, a heathen, and is also beset with the arduous task of single motherhood in a harsh hinterland—with a macabre climax not too dissimilar from the Lynch film in its content—it's a fairly apt description at a superficial level. 

Both films have "arty" pretensions, but only Lynch's film truly resembles an art film or has anything resembling the old magic craftsmanship of cinema—Hagazussa is what passes as an "art film" nowadays. It's slow, vague, foreign, and uses a language other than english, so it must be artful, profound, good, etc., or that seems to be the reasoning behind the internet fame of many of these soulless offerings. 

Yes, it's slow, reliant on atmosphere (though it fails even here at many points), and was probably constructed based on European art house films of yore, but this is laughable compared to the likes of giants of the "genre," like Andrei Tarkovsky or Michelangelo Antonioni. This is the same kind of film where criticism is likely to be met by diehard fans with such rejoinders as "Go watch your Michael Bay film with explosions" or "You just don't understand the seminal masterwork of auteur Lukas Feigelfeld."

The fanbase of Hagazussa.

In fact, let me quote some reviews from IMDB:

I would probably rate this film a 9, but gave it ten to help balance out the one star review by someone with no attention span or conception of how rating something works
To those people who gave this film low scores for whatever reasons, I can understand your frustration but then again I can not agree with your absolute lack of maturity.
Cinema will never amount to anything again if know-nothings put this on a pedestal as an example of an artistic or even good film. Hollywood's domestic influence (along with the bulk of television) has numbed the masses to such an extent that they can't even appreciate art of any kind in many cases, and the industry's global influence has slowly drained the life out of the once flourishing art cinema of the world.

As for the film itself, it's billed first and foremost as a horror film, largely because of its dark subject matter and gruesomeness, but I often forgot it was a horror film while watching (like many films of this nature, Feigelfeld doesn't necessarily see it as a horror film, nor was that his intent when making it). It's a dark psychological character study of a rather dull, lonely, and estranged woman—perhaps more accurately described as a study of how the pampered modern woman would view 15th century Germany (or any similar pre-liberalized western society) through the lens of feminism, along with the hysterical fear of patriarchy, religion, and motherhood that such perspectives denounce.

Sorry, but I always liked stories about witches for weird and fantastical imagery and maybe even some spookiness—not boring feminist dishwasher cinema about how bleak life was several centuries ago. The only reason witches preoccupy the minds of people these days is to wax endlessly about how oppressed women were and still are (aside from taking extra jabs at religion). Indeed, they're still oppressed in the most destructively liberal societies, even the ones with female presidents/PMs and 50/50 representation in the highest political offices. And given how embarrassingly liberal society has become with women sharing the pants, it begs the question as to whether more "oppression" isn't a good thing.

Still from Russian film Viy (1967)—a good film about witches.

Hagazussa is divided into four sections: Shadow, Horn, Blood, and Fire.

An example of the landscape shots often used. This one is more pleasing than most of them, though it's better balanced in the trailer because of the inclusion of text in the upper right third of the image.

Shadow marks the beginning of the film, with the young girl, Albrun, who wanders through the wintry forest with her mother. The only explicit folklore to be featured in the film is delivered in one of only a few dozen lines by an old peasant who sounds like he's gargling gravel—he warns them, saying they should get home because it's almost dark, it's the twelfth night, and to be careful not to let Perchta (a goddess in Alpine paganism who appears on the twelfth day of Christmas) get them. The geezer seems to be the only truly benign male character to interact with Albrun and her mother, but he's never seen again. 

They're visited in the night by three peculiarly dressed men, their identities concealed behind masks and bulky pelts. The masks seem to be meant to represent Perchta.

A Perchta mask.

"You should be burned down, you witches. We'll get you," one man says, while mother and daughter huddle together in fear inside their shack. Incase you didn't get the message, the visual metaphor of the black cat is included. 

Perhaps it's just my copy, but this is a good example of how murky many of the shots are, though this is compositionally one of the most tolerable interior shots in the film.

The mother soon becomes ill and local Christians pay a visit. The sight of black boils on her body suggests the black plague (perhaps something else), and the mother's condition deteriorates further from that point on. 

This is a film partially concerning the interactions between Christianity and paganism or other outsiders or heathens (although these accounts tend to be quite romantic in fiction, featuring many reactionary pagans who go against the grain or worship another religion in secret, pagan beliefs and practices often continued on independent of religious worship and didn't necessarily constitute a separate religion in this sense—there doesn't seem to be any indication that those who clung to pagan superstitions were anything like the cunning Jewish conversos). Christians are, as usual, unequivocally presented as villains, though their role is largely a minor one, relegated to being a persecutory force looming in the background.

Jewish and liberal propaganda always conspires to make the European especially ashamed of his heritage, and given one of the later lines concerning the Jews, the director, Lukas Feigelfeld left me wondering how much of this negative portrayal might be a product of Feigelfeld being a Jew himself, lashing out against Christianity and Europe's once robust ethnocentrism. Though his name sounds Jewish to me, Alfred Rosenberg, a gentile, also has what one would expect to be a Jewish surname, so it's best to be careful when making these assumptions. Feigel seems to be exclusively an Ashkenazi/Yiddish name, and Feigelfeld yields no results from Ancestry, while -feld is commonly found at the end of Jewish surnames. However, with Feigelfeld's professed SJWisms, as represented by his staunch feminism and his denouncement of "white supremacy" in his upcoming work, and his name, I think it's safe to say that he is a Jew, and Jewishness or non-Jewishness should always be taken into account when evaluating artwork. 

Albrun's mother is driven mad by the disease, grunting like an animal and behaving in a bizarre manner. At one point she beckons her daughter into the bed and gathers Albrun's menstrual blood onto her fingers, smearing it onto the young girl's face, that is, when the loony isn't sniffing and licking it off her fingers. Albrun's menarche is revealed earlier in the film, but she hides any evidence of the stain and clearly is alarmed or ashamed by the discovery, not understanding it. 

This scene alludes to some of the other perverse "sensualism" that will appear later in the film. 

The segment ends with Albrun tracking her mother, now deceased, to a swamp. Perhaps notable are the two snakes undulating across the body—the same imagery occurs later with an older Albrun, and it could relate to either the story in Genesis, given the inclusion of christianity; generalized phallic imagery—not a surprise with how much sexuality, or a lack of it, plays in the film; or maybe even in relation to some folkloric aspect. Other similar imagery is an apple offered by Swinda to Albrun, and later an apple the former bites into during the rape scene.

Horn starts with a mature Albrun sulkily looking around, milling about with her goats, performing chores, and attending to her crying baby girl. The goats and baby are her only company, and she's a single mother, much like her dead mother was, only her child is much younger. It's spring, and the cyclical nature of the film is quite pronounced.

The villagers keep their distance from her, and their unkindness is portrayed through the cruel comments of a few youths, who call her an ugly witch. Her only contact with the village seems to be the occasional trading of items, such as goat milk and cheese for supplies. Just as with her mother, the father of her child is unclear. The ambiguity seems partly to imply a demonic source seeded her womb in a few parts of the film, leading to many questions about her own birth and that of her mother and other ancestors.

She meets Swinda in this segment, who becomes her female companion, visiting her several times. Very awkward conversations.

Also important is a scene taking place in an ominous church decorated with skulls and vertebrae, and easily the most wondrous location—with the same priest who visited her ill mother. His appearance doesn't last long, but it further develops the role of the in-group of the villagers/christians and the out-group of... well, Albrun and her daughter, and people who are similarly heathens or non-Christians or suspected to be witches. The priest is meant to spread the faith to people like Albrun in the far reaches of the countryside, but she seems at odds with Christianity and the community, is unwilling to assimilate, and remains mute the entire time. He reflects that her path is one of "suffering and pain," and her secluded way of life has already led many believers (Christians) to touch the darkness. To strengthen the faith of a community requires the cleansing of all sacrilege, and as he makes this clear, he hands Albrun the skull of her mother—the temples adorned with floral paintings.

What exactly Albrun is meant to do with the skull is unclear to me, and I don't know the meaning of the floral painting on her mother's skull. The most I can surmise is that it is a way to distinguish her skull from others who were perhaps not immersed in sacrilege or defined as a heathen. Therefore, her skull has no place in the ossuary (the ornate designs, such as what you can find here, seem to have been a result of a lack of room in the cemetery in most cases). 

Icky sensuality returns in full force when Albrun caresses the fur of her goat as she milks it, squirting it all over her dirty hands, and like the scene with the mother, those nasty fingers explore her mouth. The sound design consists of heavy, slow breathing—rather meditative sounding and distorted. I'm convinced that if the main character were a male than this would have gone in an even creepier direction, and it already looks like her other hand is going under her clothes and to the nether regions. 

Just pretend this is a goat you're dating instead of an alpaca. Sexy!

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), Swinda interrupts Albrun before things can get too raunchy, and this seems to be the point that Swinda comes to resent Albrun, when she sees the skull, her stare lingering upon it for a very long take. 

Goats are associated with witchcraft—Baphomet, for example, so it's no surprise she is a goat herder; the sexual imagery associated with the goat perhaps reinforces the suggestion of her coupling with a demonic entity, and when she masturbates in bed at night, there is a cutaway to the skull of a goat.

Swinda's lines, delivered with a smug expression upon her horsey face, in one scene are meant to trigger the right-think of the carefully honed modern sensibilities (most of the more florid reviewers make sure to affirm their virtuous right-think)—those repulsed by any form of discrimination, racism, and, most of all, the dreaded, EVIL of anti-semitism, when she says, "We really do have a nice spot here in our mountains," and "We don't have to be afraid here." 

What would they have to be afraid of? "Of those who don't carry the light of God in their hearts," echoing a line of the priest from before. People such as "the Jews and the heathens." "They come at night and like animals they take you." "And a few months later you bear a child like that." Meaning Albrun's child, or even Albrun herself. So another potential source of her child, other than a supernatural source, is a sacrilegious non-Christian, worst of all, a subversive Jew!

This xenophobia or persecutory outlook is no doubt the main thrust of the film as can be emphasized in Feigelfeld's words:
As I started to work on the subject of witches, it became quickly clear that it is the story of women, throughout the ages, being tormented by men, religion, and society.
The prosecution of people, especially women, who think or believe differently, is still even a very important topic in today’s society. I worked a lot on finding a delicate understanding for this kind of suffering, working very closely with the main actress (Aleksandra Cwen) on creating a strong picture of what kind of woman Albrun was, as well as with the cinematographer (Mariel Baqueiro.) Of course the fact that I am a male director is something that can never be forgotten in this process. It was a big aim for me to try to break away from the classic male (outlook) on the witch topic, like the “evil woman,” but instead, to depict a woman, whom is struggling with her own place in society, but ultimately finding it with herself and nature.
Although Albrun never says no or has much of a reaction during the rape scene (other than the actress trying to make her eyes bulge out of their sockets), this is probably meant to depict her powerlessness. Whatever. As is usual, Albrun just sits there and takes it and never reflects.

Her betrayal by Swinda, the rape, and the gory massacre of the goats (her one source of income and sexy time ^_~), leads to her descent into madness, like her mother—except not quite. The mother seemed normal enough until the disease progressed, and there isn't the same kind of causal factor for Albrun.

Most interestingly of all is her killing of a rat in her home. Rats were notorious plague spreaders. She drops it in the river (presumably the water supply for the village), then she squats down and urinates on it (???). Albrun ultimately either becomes a plague spreader or engages in actions that could contribute to a plague being spread. But that's okay, she was pushed to the brink by the villagers. If it's ever found that Jews actually did poison wells and other such nefarious activities, I'm sure we can excuse it without question because of how many countries they were kicked out of and the holocaust.

Blood begins with a cart rolling into frame with several bodies. One is a woman, possibly Swinda, and it's implied, though not confirmed, that the rat Albrun dropped in the river was a possible cause of their death. Since they are dumped in a circle of torches and are clearly meant to be burned, this is a sign that they died of the plague or some other infectious disease.

The next 30-40 minutes continues with Albrun wandering around the fairly atmospheric mossy greenery of the forest, without any dialogue, and a few inexplicable, hallucinatory events occurring, which apparently are meant to be supplemented by her eating a squirming mushroom, devoured with a hint of the erstwhile sensuality that's nearly dried up—and a nice skull embedded in moss and fungi that brings to mind the goat skull in the cabin.

Just as she found her mother in the swamp for the pivotal scene of Shadow, so too occurs the most harrowing and impactful scene in Blood, wading into the murk of the swamp with her child, committing infanticide. Why she does it isn't explained, because only the Christians have clear reasoning or openly express themselves. She is simply mad, one must suppose. 

The scenes shot in the water are vibrant with abstract color and texture, and the fluid becomes saturated with a bloody red, what looks like veins, and some amorphous thing begins to throb, it evokes the birthing of an organism or even the mixing of varied ingredients in a witch's cauldron, as is employed in the final segment.

Finally, we have Fire. The moon is full and studded with clouds. A snake weaves its way across Albrun's bed as she sleeps, coiling itself around her neck. Herbs are suspended in darkness and moss and lichen encrust the walls and water drips through the cracks. Candles provide an eerie warmth as the empty sockets of her mother's skull stare back at her. 

The dead baby is in her arms, and she looks down at the boiling cauldron, just as she did the pond in the swamp that previous day.

For some reason she boils and devours her baby, then upchucks pancake batter (This movie has a decent amount of emesis; it's not particularly pleasant to look at).

The only elements of the film that could be interpreted as explicitly supernatural would be the reappearance of her cackling mother and the ending, but this is probably chalked up to, again, mental illness—especially given the occasionally shaky camera, the discordant sound design, and the weird color shifts.

The movie ends with Albrun collapsed over onto a hill for quite a while, then in the long shot, you can see her body spontaneously combust into flames for some reason.

It doesn't get much bigger than that. Kind of humdrum after The Wickerman and Midsommar. Meh.


What does the ending mean? My first thought was "Who cares?"

To reinforce many of the points I've made throughout, and to offer an explanation for the ending, I will provide a quote from an interview with the director Lukas Feigelfeld:
Repressed sexuality was a key element in the prosecution of women (and still is). There is a book, released by the Catholic Church, called Der Hexenhammer (also known as Malleus Maleficarum). It explains in detail what makes a woman a witch and was widely used to trial women and kill them. There are some key points, one of them being the act of sex with the devil. This was often described as a woman having sex with some sort of invisible demon. Ultimately, this can be interpreted as a woman masturbating by herself and being burned alive for it. So sexuality was something very dangerous for women back then. As Albrun does not fit in this picture, it was important to show her as a sexual person. She has her own sexuality, without a man, by herself, surrounded by nature, that is absolutely sexual already. Later on in the film, this sexuality is, again, taken from her by the disgusting act of Swinda and the farmer.
Since there is no man around to explain her baby, superstitious thought might lead some to believe her child was the spawn of a demon. Though the more obvious explanation is probably one of the villagers, which is perhaps partly the purpose of the rape scene with the farmer (an inversion of the idea Swinda expresses, that a Jew or heathen will take a woman in the night). And all of this explains the holocaust (Oy vey) at the end.

She has her own sexuality and don't need no man! She can use her fingers and also her goat! Let's not also forget the phallic trees and the mushroom she pops into her mouth! I'm not exactly sure how Swinda and the farmer took her sexuality away. Does he mean when they deprived her of the goat? Because the rape doesn't really take her sexuality away, and it's implied this wasn't the first time, anyway (I'll bet in Feigelfeld's mind the baby was originally conceived through rape by another villager). I'd hate to have a gander at Feigelfeld's hard drive.

In another interview, Feifelfeld comments on the use of title cards (Blood, Horn, etc.):
...The titles roughly refer to an underline understanding, from a more Pagan origin, on what is happening in the story. There is no particular back story, but these elements are a very present part of the nature-focused folklore of the region.It was important to me to display them in the Latin alphabet, as well as in Pagan runes. It is used to underline the balance between the old nature focused believes of Albrun, compared to the christianisation by the catholic church and their moral dogmas, which they put on Albrun, like they did with the prosecution of witches back in those times. I like to see the chapter-titles as elements, like the ingredients of a witches broth, that will ultimately safe Albrun from her torment.
His comment here makes the cauldron scene even more questionable. The titles represent elements—the ingredients of a witch's broth that will absolve her from sorrow? So is that represented by her dead baby brew that she ate? Was having a baby so tormenting for her poor soul? Are we supposed to reflect on how much of a shame it was that they didn't have Planned Parenthood back then, so she could abort it and have more autonomy and be sexually liberated? In the end, I don't know or care—I'm just spitballing here.

To begin with, I don't mind not understanding every detail of a film. It can be ambiguous. But it at least needs to evoke emotion or interesting ideas, so the piecing together of the meaning, which may never come to fruition, will at least be rewarding and worthwhile.

But is there anything particularly moving about this bumpkin's decline or anything that happened? There's no love between her and her daughter—she's just an obligation. When she drowns the child, it's probably about what everyone expected, and it's not at all shocking. And yet we're supposed to sympathize with the weird-looking main character (we are given some of Feigelfeld's comments) because of CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION? The bullying she received from the townspeople is, of course, not fair. But in the end, she deserved to be persecuted and proved the priest right, whatever the circumstances. Her burning by the end is justice. Usually they at least try to make the character who is persecuted not so vile. The idea, of course, is that society corrupted her to become so vile. 

After researching about old pagan beliefs and folklore about witches, that were supposed to roam the mountain woods in those times, my interest was to develop a character that these folk tales would have branded as a witch, but to 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 to do while suffering from psychosis in the Middle Ages and being surrounded by superstition and religious prosecution. The film tries to depict a very personal and empathetic mental image of a nightmarish and sick mind.
Yes, yes, people of that time period didn't understand mental illness and many problems arose from this. Basically bad things happened to her and, WHOOPS, there's psychosis (which magically explains everything), and she's drowning her child. I'm sure that was the leading cause of infanticide back in the day... the development of her supposed psychosis is unclear because she's such a simplistic character who you can only understand from facial expressions. There's no insight into her state of mind at all. With all the feminist claptrap he spouts and their love of abortion, I'm more inclined to think devouring the baby was meant to be a liberating and justified act, and she would have gotten away with it if not for those pesky Christians and their hankering for barbecue!

As for other features of the film, the acting is not compelling and barely deserves a mention. You could have got any lot of weird looking people and told them to stare bleakly into the camera.

The sound design and score are generally fine and fit the movie well enough. The drone music just sounds like the same note on a cello played over and over, and a bit more range might be nice, but it works better than many other elements.

The OST cover—songs performed by MMMD.

While a few images are relatively striking, the cinematography is bland as a whole, despite receiving frequent applause from reviews. Since when is shooting pretty landscapes equivalent to good cinematography? Lighting, framing, etc., is also very important. While some of the interior scenes look alright, lit by firelight, many of the scenes are flatly lit and lack depth, good chiaroscuro, or are just visually uninteresting or under lit. The opening winter shots probably hold up the best because of the stark white of the surroundings provide a lot more contrast with the dark clothing, the trees, and the shadows. Characters are routinely shot in closeups and medium shots that linger, but these are very plain shots without any imagination. One would expect a medieval film to look grimier, with motes regularly circulating, fog-drenched forests (the climax of the rape scene has fog and some of the long shots of landscapes have fog rolling in, but the fog is rarely used to shape the light), more dramatic light, etc. Many shots are poorly balanced and foreground imagery is rarely made use of. There's also very minimal camera movement or even anything moving in the frame in many cases, increasing the appearance of a flat image.

I understand this is a student film, but even the lowest budget of shorts can shape the light in a more interesting manner or frame the scenes more creatively. Just look at photographers who wait for the perfect lighting in their image—that kind of attention to detail is often lacking in modern filmmaking.

For better examples of medieval imagery, look no further than Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels, the films of Frantisek Vlacil, such as Marketa Lazarova and Valley of the Bees, Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, Bergman's Seventh Seal and Virgin Spring, or the superb production design of Alexei German's Hard to Be a God. All of these capture a tremendous medieval atmosphere that put Hagazussa to shame—all are exceptionally shot, better crafted, and conceptually more ambitious and meaningful. Of course, it's unfair to compare these films made by professionals to what essentially is just a student film, but the bar has already been set, and this travesty isn't even close.

That's about it for Hagazussa (More like Gagazussa—seriously, this movie is gross). Feigelfeld also has another film in the works:
I am currently finishing a new script that will probably be realized in the next year or so. It deals with the overwhelming atmosphere of violence and uncertainty of current times, with the rise of white supremacy and the polarization of society. It will be quite a disturbing experience to watch.
I bet it will, you nose ring-wearing sissy. What are you, a bull, waiting to be led around by the nose?

What even is "white supremacy?" Whether the white race is inferior, equal, or superior to other groups is irrelevant to whether or not they decide or desire to have homogenous white communities (or even countries) or not. This homogeneity was the norm in the past, and is preferable to anyone with sanity.