Berlinale 2024 review: The Devil’s Bath (Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

“To the filmmakers’ credit, the film’s patient rhythms and naturalistic mise en scène do their best at approximating a vision of tormented interiority.”

The elemental world, with all its earthy textures and stygian beauty, espouses in practice a cool indifference towards human suffering. Yet human suffering, at least before developing the wherewithal to situate itself in conceptual schemata, found its clearest articulations in the elemental; specifically, through its juxtaposition with the divine. Religious grace and worldly cruelty hence exist in strict concord, each reflecting and redeeming the other. Such were the circumstances that informed much of Western, pre-Enlightenment history, even as religious dogma and broad superstition both exerted themselves over much of rural Europe, neither quite able to consolidate a firm hierarchy of belief and therefore submission.

This dynamic between sublime and sublunary underpins The Devil’s Bath, the third narrative feature from directorial duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, resulting in a work both boldly austere and psychologically hermetic. Unlike Franz and Fiala’s previous features (2014’s Goodnight Mummy and 2019’s The Lodge), The Devil’s Bath is not a horror film in the traditional sense. It eschews external, supernatural terror for a more primal and metaphysical one, tethered to a context and geography uncaring about the lives of their inhabitants and unforgiving of the latter’s transgressions. For, as the film quickly establishes, all there is to the world we know are the village communities, their sacred and secular practices, and the maleficent woods around them.

Within the limits of this world — Austria, 1750s — the lives of women are meagre, harsh, and unknowable. The last of these traits is what lends such staying power, if also a kind of tortuous penitence, to the film. Sidelined from discourse and kept as homemakers, these women were to warm the hearth, bear children, and fulfil their roles in the natural order of things, even as lived reality frequently imposed countervailing exceptions to such an order: infertility, recalcitrance, isolation, madness, death. The Devil’s Bath documents the reality of one such woman, Agnes (Anja Plaschg), who is married off to Wolf (David Scheid) and subsequently relocated from her own community to his fishing village some distance away. She is free-spirited, but unaccustomed to the practicalities of fishing and married life; not out of laziness, but from want of experience. And so she must learn.

Her education, we see, both overbears and undermines her psychological whole. Bidding farewell to her mother and brother, she settles in with Wolf, who seems less inclined to consummate their marriage than to masturbate on his own. He does not beat her or even raise his voice much, contrary to the stereotyped images of patriarchal violence; he merely chides her on occasion, with no little dejection in his voice, leaving his mother (Maria Hofstätter) to pick up the pieces and discipline her daughter-in-law. Communal life, likewise, is spartan and solitary, and the only hours womenfolk spend together are by the river washing their clothes — a silent affair devoid of sisterhood or solidarity. So Agnes turns to both her belief in godly salvation and the woods which seem to cloister this belief under their damp, mysterious canopy. She goes for long walks in the day, to the chagrin of her new family who come back to an empty hearth and a meal uncooked. She neglects the goats they own, leaving them to fester with maggots. She prays for a baby at the local convent, wishing with all her heart to be a good wife and mother; all she receives is silence.

Franz and Fiala prove remarkably adept in displaying her fractured interiority over the course of The Devil’s Bath, engineering a slow-burn descent into depressive madness that steadily peels away the layers of spiritual doubt to arrive at its gaping logical conclusion. Without recourse to either divine or earthly solace, suicide appears the best course of action; but with suicide condemned as a sin worse than murder, and its sinners banished in no uncertain terms to hell, a loophole arises and, as the film’s closing credits note, did manifest itself in several hundred documented cases across Austria in the 18th century. Suicidal women — seen to be in the throes of ‘the devil’s bath’, a euphemism for melancholia — would abduct and murder children, confess their crime, receive absolution, and be executed; their souls would therefore be saved from eternal damnation. The Devil’s Bath opens precisely with one such case, foreshadowing (though without too much context) the fate that will befall Agnes. At the latter’s wedding, she is gifted one of the dead woman’s fingers as a token of fertility.

It is grotesque, but largely so only by modern standards, and to Agnes there lies in this gift a sincerity that troubles her because she cannot reciprocate it. The flagrant moral turpitude she evokes with her crime later on, however, is both an act of resistance and a rejection of further sacrilege. In dramatizing the festering of her unhappy marriage and the agony of her final days, The Devil’s Bath recalls the title of László Krasznahorkai’s spellbinding novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, insofar as Agnes’ one last attempt at grace is a victory both radical and Pyrrhic. But where Krasznahorkai charts, over two centuries later, the state of ideological frenzy that grips a community plagued by stasis, the resistance produced through melancholy in The Devil’s Bath finds its impetus ultimately within individual will.

The trouble with such an approach, cinematically speaking, is that the will is hard to externalise: many a scene in The Devil’s Bath risks either inscrutability or cliché. Nonetheless, to the filmmakers’ credit, the film’s patient rhythms and naturalistic mise en scène do their best at approximating a vision of tormented interiority. Its documentarian leaning, save for the reverberating echoes of Plaschg’s very own score, divorces Catholicism from the safety of medieval records and reattaches it to the painful materiality of everyday life. In the film’s penultimate sequence, a teary Agnes kneels before a priest, hysterically pleading for his recognition; he grants it, and saves not her body but her soul. She screams, cries, laughs, weeps, a mournful ecstasy welded into the scene as she gazes upward, pallid light shining over her face. This is grace attained, spirit elevated; but wrought from a time and place with little else.