I had the opportunity to speak with Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld about his highly anticipated feature film debut, his transition into filmmaking, his visual style, Pagan folklore, comparisons to The Witch, “elevated” horror, and his sympathy for female witches. (You can read my review for Hagazussa here.)
The film’s synopsis, according to its Doppelgänger Releasing site page:
In a remote Alpine village in the 15th century, the orphan Albrun grows up to become a marked woman. The scapegoat of ancient superstitions and monstrous misogyny, this self-styled witch begins to assert her otherworldly birthright. The plague she conjures makes human cruelty look pathetic and small by comparison. This atmospheric debut feature from Lukas Feigelfeld is a haunting Pagan death trip and a startling vision of psychedelic horror.
Bloody Disgusting and Doppelgänger Releasing presents Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse, opening in limited theaters on April 19, and will be available on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray on April 23.
Read on for our conversation. (Special thanks to Bloody Disgusting and Margarita Cortes.)
Q: After its world premiere way back at Fantastic Fest 2017, and touring the festival circuits since, Hagazussa will finally be available to audiences this month. What has this process been like for you? Are you excited? Relieved? Nervous?
It has really been a very exciting experience. Honestly, we did not expect for the film– being a low-budget graduation film– to get this kind of spread and recognition. Traveling the world, talking with different audiences about the smallest details, and even collecting some prices for the work was very creatively stimulating and exciting. And now the release in the U.S. will open the film up to a huge and very different audience, which I am very grateful for.
Q: How long did you have the story for the film in mind? Have you always had interest in Pagan folklore?
I had been thinking about this topic for a very long time. Part of my family comes from this particular place in the Austrian Alps, around Salzburg, where there are
still quite alive traditions that are mostly rooted in Pagan folklore. The classic witch character, that we know from fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm for example, is something that formed around this area. I was greatly influenced by this as a kid, being scared by the folk stories and the overwhelming power of the nature in the mountains and the woods. I did a lot of research on this field and the story grew into something much bigger in the writing process, exceeding the classic horror witch character and dealing more with the perception of “different” women in those times and their struggle with society and sanity.
Q: You had a background in photography before filmmaking. How/why did you make the transition to motion picture storytelling?
I studied photography in Vienna very early on, but I quickly developed the urge to tell more of a story. Being able to play with time and rhythm to actually create an atmosphere and storyline really gave me more freedom in my creative output. I finished my photography studies with a 30-minute short, shot on 16mm film, which then naturally made me pursue further in this direction, and led me to studying directing at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin.
Q: What sources did you draw your influences from, in regards to the overall visual aesthetic of the film?
My approach to developing a film is in the first-hand often already very visual. I am inspired by paintings, photography, and other films that form some kind of visual or atmospheric similarity within the mood that I want to create. Then, I work very closely with my camera-woman, Mariel Baqueiro, to create a detailed storyboard and shot list. It is very important for me to be coherent with the visual style, as I think it is a very crucial aspect of cinematic storytelling.
Q: With its minimalist dialogue, Hagazussa relies heavily on atmosphere. Is that a style you prefer, over films that are more plot-driven and dialogue-heavy? Do you find atmosphere to be the most important aspect of a film?
I like to be able to stimulate all the senses of the audience, to create an overall cinematic experience. Even if some things may not be logically understood, I am sure there can be an underlining subconscious understanding. I have absolutely no problem with dialogue, but, as with every other part of the film, it should only be used if necessary. Especially Hagazussa deals a lot with the solitude of the main character, her being apart from human society. With this in mind, it was pretty clear that dialogue was something secondary, to her, as well as to the film. As said before, I find atmosphere very important, but I would like to say that it should not stand in contrast to dialogue. In my next project there is a lot more dialogue, for example. In the end, it is all about a coherent tone that underlines the mood of the characters and the film.
Q: Lead character Albrun is a woman who suffers from past trauma. How do you, as a male filmmaker, delicately handle storytelling about a woman with trauma?
As I started to work on the subject of witches, it became quickly clear that it is the story of women, throughout the ages, being tormented by men, religion, and society.
The prosecution of people, especially women, who think or believe differently, is still even a very important topic in today’s society. I worked a lot on finding a delicate understanding for this kind of suffering, working very closely with the main actress (Aleksandra Cwen) on creating a strong picture of what kind of woman Albrun was, as well as with the cinematographer (Mariel Baqueiro.) Of course the fact that I am a male director is something that can never be forgotten in this process. It was a big aim for me to try to break away from the classic male (outlook) on the witch topic, like the “evil woman,” but instead, to depict a woman, whom is struggling with her own place in society, but ultimately finding it with herself and nature.
Q: Inevitable comparisons for Hagazussa have been made to Robert Eggers’s 2016 film The Witch, since both are period pieces about women being ostracized for being considered “witches.” What, in your opinion, is the reason we continue to use the “witch” metaphor for female characters?
I am not sure that The Witch and Hagazussa aim in the same direction, when it comes to the depiction of a so-called witch. I also must add, that I had not seen Robert Eggers’s film until after Hagazussa was finished. In Hagazussa, it was important that the balance between reality and magic was very blurred and that in the end it is the story of a woman struggling with a mental disorder. Eggers’s film did the opposite, in portraying the “emancipated woman” again as a mystical and magical creature, which is a very male point of view. So-called witches in those times were, of course, just human; women who did not fit into the moral codex of those times. It was the church that twisted the perception and found ways of hunting down and mass murdering them as “enemies.”
Nowadays, with a growing number of young women finding their empowerment within the witch metaphor, this can and should be used to emancipate yourself from these old values, ultimately from the prevailing patriarchy in the world.
Q: Albrun showcases moments of repressed sexuality throughout the film. What was your reasoning for including that?
Repressed sexuality was a key element in the prosecution of women (and still is). There is a book, released by the Catholic Church, called Der Hexenhammer (also known as Malleus Maleficarum). It explains in detail what makes a woman a witch and was widely used to trial women and kill them. There are some key points, one of them being the act of sex with the devil. This was often described as a woman having sex with some sort of invisible demon. Ultimately, this can be interpreted as a woman masturbating by herself and being burned alive for it. So sexuality was something very dangerous for women back then. As Albrun does not fit in this picture, it was important to show her as a sexual person. She has her own sexuality, without a man, by herself, surrounded by nature, that is absolutely sexual already. Later on in the film, this sexuality is, again, taken from her by the disgusting act of Swinda and the farmer.
Q: Some critics would describe Hagazussa as an “elevated” (or prestige) horror film. How do you feel about that? Is having your film described as “elevated” a compliment to you, or do you find that term to be condescending to the rest of the horror genre?
I don’t know if it is a compliment. I am sure that Hagazussa has its very own way of telling the story and should of course not be condescending to the horror genre.
Starting to work on the film, I was also not always on top of (wanting) to make a “genre film.” The approach was more open and focused on the topic and the character.
Of course, talking about witches and folklore, it became a sort of horror (film.) Still, working with a more unusual, or let’s say arthouse approach, when it came to the visualization, pace or soundtrack, Hagazussa is not always easy to accept for the classic horror audience. Although, from the experience of last year, a lot of people were eagerly waiting for an approach like this.
I am not sure. And I am not sure about the label. One thing I know, is that my films are surely no comedies. I take a lot of inspiration from darkness and disturbance, so I think they will be something for the horror audience. My next project will be much more based in “real” fears of violence and chaos. It is important to me though, to have a sometimes surreal approach to these things. I like my films to work more like nightmares; you are not sure what you just dreamt, but it follows you around and in some sort of way it makes sense, even if it is mainly emotional.
I am currently finishing a new script that will probably be realized in the next year or so. It deals with the overwhelming atmosphere of violence and uncertainty of current times, with the rise of white supremacy and the polarization of society. It will be quite a disturbing experience to watch.