Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is a dark and moody supernatural tale told by first-time German director Lukas Fiegelfeld. The term hagazussa or hagzissa is an Old High German word for a witch and the origin of the word “hag”. Witches have had a long history in German folklore as older women who live secluded in the woods away from the rest of the village. Parents would use this folklore to scare their misbehaving children by telling them that the local witch would eat them. In many cases, these women were either unconventional, poor, or mentally ill individuals who were outcasted from society.
Hagazussa presents a negative image of the witch alongside hysteria, but not without a purpose; this portrayal allows the viewer to understand the strong prejudices against mentally ill women accused of being “witches”. Due to folklore and religious superstition, between 17,000 to 26,000 women were branded and executed as witches throughout Germany from 1580 to 1630. To be accused of being a witch was a death sentence for a woman whether in or outside the confines of the law.
The Image of the Witch
As a young child Albrun and her mother, Martha, live isolated from the nearby village that sees them as “witches”. The opening scene with Martha taking Albrun tobogganing is representative of how Martha works to try to give her daughter a normalized life despite the prejudice against them. As Martha dredges through the snow and darkness descends upon them, she is warned by a neighbor to return home swiftly as it is the 12th Night and if found outside Perchta will get them.
Perchta is a goddess in Germanic paganism known locally in the Alps. It was told that she would roam the countryside during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. She had an entourage called Perchten, who would dress in animal masks and visit the homes of villagers to either bring them luck or misfortune. The schiachperchten were a group that wore ugly masks of animals that had fangs, tusks, and horsetails and they would visit homes to drive out demons and ghosts. We see a group of these grotesque Perchten visit Martha and Albrun during the night with the purpose to drive out demons. However, they brand both Martha and Albrun as witches and threaten that they will burn.
Soon after, Martha becomes very ill and due to the family’s isolation, she is left to slowly deteriorate until she has a mental break. One night upon discovering that Albrun has started to menstruate, Martha attacks her and then runs into the winter night. Later, a shaken Albrun finds her dead in the swamp. On the edge of womanhood, Albrun experiences this extremely traumatic event and is left to survive on her own in a secluded home.
As an older woman, Albrun is shy and living in her mother’s cabin with her goats and baby daughter, Martha. Albrun is a single mother and with no signs of a male figure in her life, she is marked as an outsider, a pagan believer, and a witch by the villagers. When she goes into the village to sell goats milk, young boys throw stones at her, calling her a witch, and say that her milk is rotten and unwelcomed. Albrun does nothing to defend herself and takes the cruelty that is visited upon her. Because she knows to do so would only incite more hatred and prejudice against her.
Albrun is then summoned to the village’s local church where the Priest tells her that her way of life and her mother’s strange death will continue to lead her toward a path of darkness. He returns her mother’s skull while alluding that she must be exiled and kept away from others lest she tempts them down a path of corruption. This young woman, who experienced the tragic death of her mother and is most likely suffering from PTSD, is sent away from the safety and help of a community.
Pathos of the Mind
Albrun keeps her mother’s skull on an altar which upsets her child and it looks to trigger Albrun’s own fragile mind as she begins to hear her mother’s laboured breathing in the home. She then befriends the villager, Swinda, who shows an unusual interest in Albrun. We learn that Swinda is disgusted by Albrun and believes that she is a heathen. Swinda arranges for Albrun to be raped, all while she watches, telling Albrun she “hates her stench”. Swinda takes advantage of Albrun’s isolation and vulnerable state to enact a crime of hate and violence against her. When Albrun returns home, she is in a state of disorientation and comes across the bodies of her goats, murdered. With her only means of survival taken from her, she falls deeper into depression and madness.
In an act of vengeance, she poisons the local drinking water with a dead rat and her urine. In performing what is considered “dark magic”, she seeks to harm others, and Albrun gives into the village’s image of her as a witch. It has been documented that many women who confessed to being witches only did so out of desperation after having been tortured for weeks or months. These women would have a mental break and would confess to being witches as a means to achieve (the release of) death.
In a new state of delirium, Albrun drowns her baby before boiling and eating her. This represents/embraces the negative image that witches ate babies as part of their dark rituals. However, this is when we realize that Albrun’s fragile hold on her sanity has broken beyond repair. She has committed infanticide and cannibalism. Only someone who is truly mentally unstable could commit such a terrible and inhumane act. She is now the witch of German folklore, the image that parents would use to scare their misbehaving children with.
For Albrun, there is no turning back; she is haunted by the images of her dead mother and has fallen victim to the sickness of her mind. In a final act of devastation, Albrun screams in misery at the acts she has committed and her loss of self. Albrun’s fate has been sealed and in a state of hysteria, she flees her home to die outside, cold and alone, just as her mother did.
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is an example of how living one’s life separate from others can be misinterpreted leading to mistreatment, violence, and eventually hysteria. This film ties together two narratives: one that sees Albrun as a woman who is the descendant of a witch and thus becomes one herself and one that sees Albrun as a mentally ill woman whose mother died horribly was left to survive in an isolated wilderness to then later be betrayed, raped, and shunned by her community. However, both narratives blend together wonderfully to tell a story of a woman believed to be a witch by her village and due to her mental illness, she gives herself up to the Germanic stereotype of an evil witch to unsuccessfully cope with her trauma.