QFF & MIFF 2018 Hagazussa: More than a feeling

'Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse’.
'Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse’. | © Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse

Like much that unsettles, ‘Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse’ commences with a distinctive sensation. As the camera looks down on a snowy expanse, and at the woman and child slowly making their way across it, the vastness of the image — the all-encompassing nature of the icy ground, and the possibility that its sheet of menacing cold could stretch on forever — strikes a noticeably disquieting chord.

Then, to match cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro’s pristine composition, the moaning, droning score by chamber doom band MMMD kicks into gear. Building towards a jolt-inducing crescendo, the soundtrack also fosters a substantially unnerving tone that writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld doesn’t let subside for the subsequent 102 minutes.
A German-Austrian production, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is the tale of Albrun (Celina Peter), who is first seen in the film’s opening chapter as a pre-teen girl. Deemed an outcast alongside her mother (Claudia Martini) by their alpine community, the two live in isolation on the farm on the town’s outskirts. Their remote locale can’t save them from taunts and threats in the middle of the night, accompanying whispers about witches and demons, or from the plague that’s sweeping across the area. Later, as a young woman (Aleksandra Cwen), the long-ago orphaned Albrun has her own newborn to take care of — and her own woes to weather, including the barbs and accusations of witchcraft now flung her way. In a village where even the resident priest can’t spare her a drop of kindness, she submits to a tentative friendship with a fellow local, Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky) that leads an ominous ritual.

Medieval malevolence

Set in the Dark Ages, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is more than the sum of its narrative parts, of course — a narrative which Feigelfeld splits into four chapters, each as commanding as the last. Steeped in medieval malevolence, the feature proves both an expression and an embodiment of disharmony, of malice, of something sinister that can’t quite be explained. Such a feeling is evident in the wind that rushes through the trees outside of Albrun’s log cabin, in the stillness that lingers whenever she interacts with someone else, and in the murky surface of a muddy swamp she’ll slowly sink into. It radiates through the parched skulls and horned items — living and dead — that are a common presence throughout the film’s frames, the mist that lurks over the forest, the shadows that cloak even the act of bathing in mystery, and in the voices that call Albrun’s name when she is alone.

With control well beyond that of a typical first feature, let alone a standard student effort, that worrying sensation manifests and spreads like a pit of despair gnawing at one’s stomach. Berlin-based Austrian filmmaker Feigelfeld’s command of his aesthetics — of every reverberating sound and crystal clear yet dream-like image — is as much about mood as story, often leaning more on the poetic than the tangible. That said, sometimes the narrative’s ills and tone doesn’t defy explanation. Insular, highly religious communities treating outsiders badly is as rooted in human behaviour as it is superstition and something more. And, whether the fate that befalls Albrun is literal or the imaginings of a mind all-too-accustomed to being thwarted, abandoned and victimised to the point of breaking, her treatment speaks to a familiar female plight.

Societal ills

As The Witch did before it and a wealth of similarly themed films before that, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse finds its basis in more than a feeling, twisting history and established attitudes into its own rich folklore-esque tale. It never escapes attention that Albrun’s mother is shunned for being a single mother as well as a woman who dares to navigate her life alone, or that the adult Albrun shares her fate and perhaps even curse. The projected misdeeds of women who defy societal expectation echo throughout the film, its constant dread stemming from the bleak reality that Feigelfeld draws upon as well as the strikingly creepy manner in which he brings his slow-building story to the screen. Here, a mother’s embrace both calms and haunts; a splash of red symbolises life-giving maternal power as well as life’s end; a mouth both kisses and devours.

Set in the Dark Ages, 'Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse' is more than the sum of its narrative parts. Set in the Dark Ages, 'Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse' is more than the sum of its narrative parts. | © Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse And, as Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse amplifies its feeling of foreboding — progressing from instant trepidation to unbridled anxiety and beyond — an actress bears the movie’s pain and suffering in her stunning performance. Feigelfeld may craft a gripping manifestation of deep-seeded unease infecting and shaping a woman’s life, but the talented Cwen gives that atmospheric sensation flesh and blood. Boasting an expressive face perfectly suited to the feature’s lack of dialogue, hers is portrayal that wears the weight of female oppression in every pained look. Crucially, she’s also Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse’s beating heart beneath its tantalisingly bleak exterior, conveying a fiery spark of subversive rebellion amidst the overwhelming darkness as well.

'Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse' screened at Queensland Film Festival 2018 and will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on the 4th and 17th of August.