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SITGES 2017

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Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse: The witch of the late medieval Alps

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- The psychologically tense, visually-arresting and mind-blowingly creepy folk horror film is a strong feature debut by Lukas Feigelfeld

Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse: The witch of the late medieval Alps

In recent years horror has proven to be not just a trivial genre, but also a legitimately artistic one. Guillermo del Toro won the Golden Lion in Venice for The Shape of Water, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! has driven a huge wedge between film critics, Lars von Trier’s new film The House That Jack Built, set to premiere next year, is also a horror, so it’s reasonable to expect that the trend of artistically ambitious horror films is going to continue. The whole thing arguably started with Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch, which Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse – with its European premiere simultaneously at CPH, London Film Festival and Sitges’ Night Visions One section – feels closely related to in terms of narrative and style.

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The film is set in a remote wooded area in the Austrian Alps in the 15th century. A young girl named Auburn (Celina Peter) lives with her ill mother (Claudia Martini) in a log cabin outside the village. The villagers are hostile to them, calling them witches (the title is an archaic term for witch or female demon), the mother is dying of plague right in front of her daughter’s eyes, leaving her traumatised for good. 

Jump forward twenty years, Auburn (now played by Aleksandra Cwen, a force of nature) still lives in the same cabin, with an infant daughter of her own, herding goats and producing milk and cheese. She is still being bullied by the nearby villagers, the priest included. The only woman nice enough to her (the perfectly cast Tanya Petrovsky) turns out to have some sinister intentions, which push Auburn over the edge of sanity, causing her to do the unimaginable.

A comparison with The Witch might seem superficial, but the two films share a deliberately slow pace, eerie atmosphere and undertones of female empowerment created via the humanisation of the subjects. But while Eggers’ film is all about the paradigm of time and place, which also plays a certain role in Hagazussa (the villagers firmly believe that witches exist and that Jews are the plague-bringers), the German-Austrian film focuses on the psychological side of things, dealing with delusions, sexual and other tensions and mental illness when faced with solitude. 

With scarce dialogue, Aleksandra Cwen is left with the difficult task of portraying Auburn realistically, which she manages with just her facial expressions and a strong screen presence. Hagazussa relies on its setting, The Alps are filmed by cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro in a limited colour palette of natural browns and greens, highlighting their natural beauty, but also the hardships of life up there. Some of the striking images, like the underwater sequence, erotically charged goat-milking scene and others will be carved into the viewer’s memory. The droning score by the Greek music group MMD also contributes to the general atmosphere.

It is hard to believe that Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is the work of a student. It’s actually the partially crowd-funded graduate work of Austrian-born Berlin-based up-and-coming filmmaker Lukas Feigelfeld. Hagazussa is not just an assured feature debut, but also an auteur film with a clear vision. It could prove to be a milestone of arthouse folk horror. 

Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse was produced by Retina Fabrik and DFFB.

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