Saturday, November 04, 2017

Cinepocalypse 2017: Hagazussa—A Heathen’s Curse

Alas, poor Albrun is the original lonely goatherd. You would think superstitious villagers would try not to antagonize a suspected witch. However, this is the 15th Century Austrian Alps, so in addition to their paranoia, they also have a slightly volky intolerant thing going on. They will harass and ostracize Albrun and her mother, but matters will end badly for everyone in Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of Cinepocalypse 2017 in Chicago.

If Albrun’s mother really had evil powers, presumably she wouldn’t let the villagers get away with their loutish behavior. Instead of casting spells, she seems to suffer from them. Unfortunately, she will soon be leaving Albrun behind in the cold hard world. Ten or so years later, Albrun is similarly raising an infant daughter on her own. We could assume it is the product of an assault, but Hagazussa is not a talky film, making backstory difficult to glean.

Albrun’s life briefly brightens when one of the village women appears to befriend her, but her motives are actually quite sinister. That makes Albrun angry and quite possibly tears the last fibers holding her sanity in place. This is the sort of film that garners a lot of attention for its technical artistry, but Aleksandra Cwen is quite remarkable as grown Albrun. Watching her psyche splinter into pieces is a ferocious viewing experience.

Shot in arresting Gustave Doré-like black-and-white by cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro, Hagazussa is a hushed spectacle of mud, rain, and rotting carcasses. You can practically smell the decay and corruption wafting off the screen. However, Feigelfeld’s pacing is slow even by the standards of slow-burners. Narrative is a low priority for this film. It is more about immersing viewers in this world of dread. Towards that end, the eerie sound work of foley artist Peter Roigk and the almost subliminal score of Greek chamber trio Mohammad really get under viewers’ skin, possibly unnerving us more than the macabre imagery.

Everyone and their black goats are comparing Hagazussa to Robert Eggers’ The Witch, for obvious reasons, but it also arguably shares a kinship with Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Feigelfeld is not merely inviting the audience to witness a case of isolated madness. He is giving us a peak into Teutonic original sin. This is a demanding film that really ought to go further over the top during the climax, but you have to give credit to Feigelfeld for realizing such a singular vision. Recommended for fully fortified fans of avant-garde horror in the Häxan tradition, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse screens tonight (11/4), as part of this year’s Cinepocalypse.