On a superficial level, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is doomed to forever be reductively understood as the German answer to The Witch. In a lot of ways, the comparisons are unavoidable. Hagazussa may be set centuries earlier than its American counterpart and in an entirely different region of the world, but both films share an academic pride in being thoroughly researched recreations of antique lore & superstitions surrounding witchcraft – so that they both separately function as 2010s updates to the silent horror classic Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. Both films also center on fringe families who live ostracized in the isolating wilderness outside their nearby community. Both films focus on the coming-of-age struggles of the daughter in particular, and what tragedies superstitions dictate that transformation brings upon her family. If Hagazussa was looking to avoid these Witch comparisons entirely, it did itself no favors by making this exiled family goatherders by trade, so that dozens of goat closeups recall the VVitchy presence of Black Phillip. Also, not for nothing, the title Hagazussa supposedly translates to “Witch” in Old High German.
I’m not sure this 1:1 comparison could ever be favorable to Hagazussa, which is somehow much, much more difficulty quiet, brutal, and inscrutable than its American predecessor. I remember hearing a lot of grumbling in my opening-weekend screening of The Witch, where an unprepared audience registered vocal dissent against what they had assumed was going to be a more conventional horror film than the slow-burn familial drama that was delivered. I imagine that same crowd would have hurled literal rotten tomatoes at the screen during Hagazussa, which makes The Witch look like a bombastic Michael Bay action comedy by comparison. This is a mostly dialogue-free descent into misery as one lonely young woman gradually loses everything & everyone she has because she’s understood to be a witch. Hagazussa often borders on the avant-garde subgenre of Slow Cinema in which long, silent takes hold on a single image for relative eternities in an effort to break through to something more artistically substantial than traditional entertainment. As someone who doesn’t have the patience for Slow Cinema even in the best of circumstances, watching Hagazussa alone in my living room was an effective window into what it feels like for mainstream audiences who suffer through Elevated Horror™ slowburns when expecting a more traditional slasher or creature feature. It comes across as tedious instead of properly atmospheric.
Still, although the film tested my patience (which often failed), I admired so much of its witchy, metal-as-fuck imagery. Black cats, cauldrons, thrones of skulls, plague carts, and mushroom trips into the darkness of the human soul decorated the screen in a continually compelling way, even despite my personal issues with the pacing. As soon as I hit the drone metal title card, I knew I was in for a quietly spooky visual feast, one that recalled similar history-minded arthouse Euro horrors like Häxan, November, and The Juniper Tree. It’s not like nothing happens plot-wise either. There are plenty of heartbreaking betrayals, psychedelic freak-outs, shocking sexual transgressions, and tragic downfalls throughout to keep you mind occupied, even if they’re doled out at a glacial pace. I wonder if I would have been more on-board with the film in a proper theater, with no opportunities to be distracted from the black-magic tragedy on the screen. At least, I can see it going over well among a film fest crowd with the right temperament. As is, though, I mostly appreciated Hagazussa as a folk-metal mood board, not necessarily a feature film. It was most useful to me as a taste of my own medicine for rolling my eyes at the strangers around me who were audibly bored by The Witch.