It has been a long while since a decent psychological horror has come my way, tapped into my senses and left me deeply disturbed. So I was thrilled when I was sent a link to Hagazussa, the first feature length film of Berlin based director Lukas Feigelfeld. After watching the trailer, I knew in my heart of hearts that this was to be a film that would unsettle me greatly. Set in the Middle Ages, deep in the Austrian mountain woods, where country folk hold their fear of witches close, Hagazussa tells the shadowy, sinister tale of a woman’s struggle with her sanity.
There has to be something special, something different about a horror movie if I am to get excited about it…and I have to say that Hagazussa is one of the few films in recent years that has made me sit up and really pay attention. From what I have seen so far, it ticks all the boxes of what I hope to find in a film, and I am ridiculously excited about its debut. I am eager to learn about what prompted you to take this direction with your film-making, and produce a horror film inspired by magic, psychosis and one of the darkest times in history?
To be honest, my motivation for Hagazussa must go back to early memories of nightmares I had when I was a child. Often I found myself awakening at night with a dreadful fear of some witch like character, that has either entered my room, taken away my mother or was luring me into the woods. I spent part of my childhood in the Austrian countryside in the Alps. In those rural areas, that still have a strong believe in traditions, I would come across old tales about witches that are supposed to be living in the mountain woods. I guess it must have fed my attraction to this particular manifestation of fear.
As I was researching a lot about medieval myths and origins of witch characters in the middle European setting, I got more and more interested in Paganism. It was a time were Christianity was slowly taking over as the common belief in Europe, but still you were able to find people like the main character Albrun, who have an older belief in paganism, nature and their ancient entities and superstition. It is more about the exploration of the witch as an old entity of death, that lives in the mountains, than to deal with the topic of “wise women”, that were hunted by Christians at that time.
I wanted to place the story in the middle ages, because it was a time where people were still strongly connected to nature and their surroundings, especially in the mountains. Albrun has an extremely secluded life in her mountain hut, which provided a very good and interesting setting for developing a paranoid psychosis (as she does in the story).
At this point it was very important to me to try and tell the story of a mistreated and misunderstood young woman, who is struggling with her life and society until she is pushed in confronting her own fear and memory of her abusive mother.
What role has the horror genre played in your life to date? Have you always felt an attraction to that which deeply disturbs the viewer? Which films and directors would you say have inspired you to take this direction and can you see yourself moving forward with the horror genre once Hagazussa has been unleashed?
All my life I had a strong fascination for horror. It was a mix between confronting your own fears and being excited by the fear itself. As I grew older I started to refine my taste and got more interested in disturbing cinema. But I don’t like Zombie films for example. For me, the violence, the shock or the blood was not the big attraction. It was the evil that was lurking in the darkness, the slow and unbearable coldness that would take hold of you, the feeling of helplessness after a nightmare, etc.
I was greatly inspired by “shocking” directors like Gaspar Noe, David Lynch, Lars von Trier or Takashi Miike. Still I find my deepest love for cinema in directors like Andrey Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke, Werner Herzog and Ingmar Bergman. To name a few.
I am definitely willing on going further in exploring what scares me in my films. I am not sure if it will be defined as horror, but I assume it will be terrifying.
Hagazussa is your first feature length film. What kind of pressures have you encountered thus far, and has the experiences been like you envisaged it would be? What has been the most challenging moment to date?
The most challenging moments are mostly to be found in the last weeks before shooting. With Hagazussa I started to write a script that was actually way beyond what I thought was doable with the budget we are working with. But I realised that with time and sweat a lot is possible. I am working with an excellent team that understands how to work on a tight budget without making compromises in the quality of the film.
Although I must say that it is a very hard task to get funding for genre-oriented cinema in Europe. Especially if you want to create something as disturbing as Hagazussa, that doesn’t necessary conform with a “normal” horror setting.
How did the writing of the film take place? Was it a long and drawn out process, or did you find that you were able to get the story set down in a short space of time? How have you found the writing experience as a whole, and was there ever a moment when you doubted yourself?
It took me a while to write the script. But I love the process. It basically stretched over a cold and dark winter. I would wait until the sun had set and then prepare a certain ritual. I realised that it would be very effective to put myself in a very particular mindset, so that it became easier to quickly go back and grasp the core mood that I wanted to deliver. Music was a very big part, as well as darkness. Most of the process is sitting in the dark with headphones, eyes closed and explore what actually defines my fear of the witch. Then translating this to Albrun and piece by piece trying to form it to a whole.
Self-doubt is always a factor for people who work in any creative field. And I think it is extremely important, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm and block you.
I am really interested to learn about the casting process. Would you say that it was an easy job selecting who you wanted to embody your characters?
Part of the cast was already in my mind as I was writing, part wasn’t. When I worked on my last middle length film Interferenz, I came across the polish actress Aleksandra Cwen. I casted her for a smaller part and as she performed on set I was fascinated by her talent. She brought a very sensitive and delicate performance, still I knew she had a part in her with lots of energy. Exactly this was very important for the role of Albrun, as she is fragile, but the performance demands physical and mental extremes.
For the role of the mother I casted the Austrian actress Claudia Martini. She brought a lot of experience to the set, as she already worked with directors like Ulrich Seidl or Michael Haneke. She did an amazing and scary job representing Albrun’s Mother.
You ran a crowdfunding project to try and amass funds and support for the creation of the film. What was your experience of this alternative way of asking for help like? Is crowdfunding something that you would recommend to other filmmakers? Looking back, is there anything that you wish that you had done differently?
Crowdfunding is difficult. Of course it is a great way of supporting independent productions that work with a low budget, and I am extremely happy about all the supporters who made it possible to finance part of Hagazussa.
Still I think that it won’t be and it should not be the future of financing films. Europe has to develop a bigger understanding in the importance of cultural funding and should develop a more refined selection process that allows more alternative projects to be understood and funded. European cinema is mostly repeating its own cliché and it seems like the funding policy is supporting this.
Hagazussa is due out in 2017. How far along is the production and when you first set out to make the film did you envisage a 2017 release?
I have been working with the idea of Hagazussa for a long while. It took me some time in 2014 to write the story. As the story includes winter time, summer time, a studio shoot and some special shots scattered over the year, it became necessary to split up the production in to smaller parts. We finished most of our shooting, but we will go back to the mountains next spring to finish the last part and be able to go into post-production with our tale.
The soundtrack to the film will be provided by an acclaimed Greek chamber doom trio called Mohammad, who create their music by using custom made instruments. What is it about their sound that made you think ‘I want these people to create the sound for my film?’
When I discovered Mohammad’s music, I was deeply fascinated by their sound. In their slow abstract drone, that they create with custom cellos, you find yourself lost in a warm darkness. Once you are lost, there is lots to find.
It was also important for me to work with music that is not necessarily digitally produced, like I did in Interferenz with the musician Roly Porter, who created an impressive industrial soundscape for it. I think that the middle ages and the overwhelming nature in Hagazussa were calling for a more classical approach.
I listened to Mohammad’s music a lot while writing the script, so it became very natural to me to combine them and I am very happy about the collaboration.
Would you say that your musical tastes have, in some ways, influenced you to create Hagazussa?
Very much so. I listen to a lot of music. It can vary a lot, but has mostly to with some kind of darkness behind it. I could not imagine developing an idea or a project without the inspiration of music. Other interprets that were inspirational for Hagazussa were people like Lustmord, Kreng, Hildur Gudnadóttir or even Sunn O))), for example.
Did you need to engage in heavy research before and during writing the film?
I normally do a lot of research for my projects. As I mentioned before, I researched a lot about Paganism, beliefs in witches, the European plague, psychosis, etc. It is important to me to base my story on facts and not to try to come up with new ways, but to understand those times and to create a realistic setting.
From what I have seen thus far of the Hagazussa sets and props, they are impeccable. Have the sets been specially constructed for the film or have you used pre-existing structures? And the props…from where did you source these?
All the sets for Hagazussa were built by the great set designer Dana Dumann. We built the mountain hut, where most of the story takes place, in Berlin in a basement film studio at the film academy, because it would have been way too complicated trying to shoot everything in the mountains. We also had more freedom in designing the place as we wanted it and to have control about light situations etc. She did an amazing job!
I had the good fortune of landing upon your highly originally and flawlessly produced short film Unpaved, which explores the possibility of Pan being a conflicted vagabond. What inspired this film and how would you describe the creation of it?
Unpaved was produced as a short film music video in collaboration with the musician Robot Koch. The idea was to create one short film that includes all five tracks of his EP Unpaved. The music was inspired by the story, the story by the music. It was a very interesting project to work on. The idea of some kind of pan or faun like creature, that is confronted with modern society, but can only find security in nature, was the core inspiration.
How does your current home city of Berlin facilitate your creativity? Would you say that it is a good place to live if you are a self-employed creative?
Haha. I don’t know. I personally love Berlin. I found my home here eight years ago, as I moved to Berlin to study at the German Film- and Television Academy Berlin. Berlin has a lot to offer. But as you can see with Hagazussa, I am apparently drawn back to the Austrian mountains. But I am pretty sure that my next project will be taking place in Berlin.
Do you think that living in the city and going out into an urban sprawl on a daily basis may have encouraged you to take your film-making out into the wilds?
Not really. Berlin is very urban, still I don’t see it as a very stressful concrete city. It is very green and I feel like I have access to a lot of nature. It was more the mountains that I missed.
2010 saw the foundation of your production office Retina Fabrik along with cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro. Was the establishment a plan that was long in the making?
Mariel and me met at the film academy in 2007. We started working as a director cinematographer team from the beginning. My stories are very visual, and I found a great partner in understanding my vision with Mariel Baqueiro. We founded Retina Fabrik to give our productions a name, as we were in the preparation of our film Interferenz and Beton.
If the viewers of you film were to walk away from it with one thing, what would you like that to be?
On one hand I want the viewer to have empathy for Albrun and understand her delusional suffering, on the other hand I would feel very satisfied if somebody told me that my film got into their subconscious and created nightmares that haunt them over and over again….