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by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

grade: 8

While watching The Devil’s Bath, we immediately get the impression that something terrible is about to happen. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have made a sophisticated and disturbing feature film that is extremely topical and rich in strong symbolism. In competition at the Berlinale 2024.

The longed-for absolution

Among the most awaited Austrian feature films at the Berlinale 2024 is undoubtedly The Devil’s Bath, the newest work by acclaimed filmmaker duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, produced by Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion and in the running for the coveted Golden Bear. World-renowned for several years now for their extraordinary ability to delve into the human soul and psyche through highly disturbing and controversial stories, the two filmmakers this time drew heavily on historical documents dating back to the 18th century in order to stage a story that, although set in the past, turned out to be much more topical than it might initially seem.

Agnes (played by Anja Plaschg, here also the author of the music together with her group Soap&Skin), then, is a young woman who, in 1750, lives in a small mountain village in Upper Austria and is about to marry Wolf (David Scheid). Everything seems to be going well at first until, due to her husband’s lack of interest in her, the constant presence of her mother-in-law (the always excellent Maria Hofstätter), the strong (but consequently impossible) desire to have children and the numerous pressures on her, the woman feels that such a life no longer belongs to her and only wishes to die. Suicide, however, is considered by society and religion to be on a par with murder. What to do, then, to obtain the much-desired absolution?

At the beginning of The Devil’s Bath, a woman mysteriously kills her baby by throwing it off a cliff, and then immediately turns herself in. After a short time, she is sentenced and beheaded and her body displayed on a hillside. What could such a story have in common with that of our protagonist? With this important feature film of theirs, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have not only told us an important chapter of European history of the past centuries that is still unknown to most people today, but have also created a highly topical work that, by retracing certain events of the past, finds important parallels with our present.

The condition of women, what society expects from us, but also, and above all, religion, which has always exerted a strong influence on our daily lives, are themes that are analysed in The Devil’s Bath in a totally captivating and personal way, with a style and mise-en-scene that is so reminiscent (especially in terms of the settings) of their short film The sinful Women of Höllfall (2017). And so, also The Devil’s Bath is first and foremost full of a strong symbolism that well represents beliefs and superstitions of the time.

Butterflies, symbols of death and resurrection, have always been observed by the protagonist with particular interest. The forest, with its many trees so that very little light can filter through, well represents the unconscious and the oneiric. Details of mutilated bodies, fingers being cut off, rotting animals and bleeding mouths make the whole thing strongly and deliberately repulsive. While watching The Devil’s Bath we immediately get the impression that something terrible is about to happen. Even when we see the characters celebrating the wedding between Agnes and Wolf. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, for their part, have managed all these elements masterfully, creating a sophisticated and disturbing feature film, further confirmation of their great talent. Can there ever be a chance of redemption for our protagonist? A liberating laugh and a longed-for absolution can often turn out to be only cold comfort.

Original title: Des Teufels Bad
Directed by: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 2024
Running time: 121’
Genre: drama, historical, thriller
Cast: Anja Plaschg, Maria Hofstätter, David Scheid, Claudia Martini, Natalya Baranova, Tim Valerian Alberti, Elias Schützenhofer, Camilla Schielin, Agnes Lampl, Lorenz Tröbinger, Lukas Walcher, Reinhold Felsinger
Screenplay: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht
Produced by: Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion

Info: the page of The Devil’s Bath on iMDb; the page of The Devil’s Bath on the website of the Berlinale; the page of The Devil’s Bath on the website of the Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion