What if ‘The VVitch’, but German and unwatchable?
Initial release: 2017
Director: Lukas Feigelfeld
I love slow-burn films. A lot of people don’t, which is valid, though the arguments they often make against such films often make them sound thoroughly vapid and pathologically in need of instant gratification, which does both them and the films they do like a disservice.
But the point of slow-burn films is that you’re supposed to have some kind of payoff. The film hooks you early on and drip-feeds you throughout, slowly building up to a crescendo as the slow burn grows into a firestorm. Hagazussa ends in fire, but in terms of crescendo, it’s little more than a sad, wet fart.
The film opens with a young girl, Albrun, in no specified time or place (promotional materials set it in the 15th century Alps) whose mother raises her alone, isolated from the nearby village. One night, people in animal masks attack the house, calling them witches, before leaving. Not long after, Albrun’s mother takes sick with the plague; her body and mind deteriorate to a sickening degree, culminating in a sexual assault and then running out into the night; Albrun finds her dead the next day, covered in snakes.
We skip ahead about 15–20 years; Albrun is an adult now, and a single mother of a baby girl, who she tries to take care of while also running the goat farm. Her isolation and loneliness have done a number on her head, making her strange; the villagers mistreat her, the local priest is calmly cruel to her while handing her the painted skull of her mother, and even Swinda, seemingly the only person nice to her, is revealed to be little more than a bully, deliberately taking advantage of Albrun’s naïveté to lure her into another sexual assault. Albrun gets her revenge in ambiguously witchy ways, but as the film descents into a psychedelic, meaningless mess, she discovers that the price is heavy, more heavy than she can bear.
Ultimately I don’t think there’s much to redeem this film. While it follows similar themes to The VVitch, that cult hit set in 1630s colonial America, it lacks a lot of the same character, or indeed characters. Dialogue is sparse; Albrun barely says ten words the whole film, the film relying on Aleksandra Cwen (who plays adult Albrun) to deliver a largely non-verbal performance that’s as intense as it is routine. The story here isn’t much of one, but it’s very old: that women had it rough in the middle ages, especially if they lived alone in isolated mountain villages. Shocker.
And that’s kind of the problem. Despite some deceptively snappy editing, the film is a glacial 100 minutes and change where nothing happens except a mentally ill woman’s life gets worse and then she mysteriously bursts into flame for no reason.
It’s one thing to be unpleasant — many of the best horror films of recent years are that. It’s quite another to be boring. And if your film is both, I think you’ve gotten lost somewhere.