The Devil's Bath

The Devil’s Bath (Des Teufels Bad) (2024)

The Devil’s Bath (Des Teufels Bad) had its international première at Tribeca, 8 June 2024

“I have committed a crime,” declares Ewa Schickin (Natalya Baranova), near the beginning of The Devil’s Bath (Des Teufels Bad). For shortly after taking a crying baby and dropping it over the edge of a waterfall, Ewa has surrendered herself to the authorities, confessing in full her unspeakable act. Not long afterwards, her decapitated corpse will be sat on display as a warning to passers-by, with her severed head housed in an adjacent cage. 

The Devil's Bath

It is Upper Austria in 1750, and as the life of Ewa comes to its abrupt and distressing end, conversely the life of the younger Agnes (Anja Plaschg) is just beginning. For this sweet-natured, sensitive virgin is about to leave her loving childhood home and to enter married life with the fisherman Wolf Lizlfellner (David Scheid) in a nearby village. At first her path crosses Ewa’s in only superficial ways: at the wedding, Agnes’ brother Lukas (Lukas Walcher) secretly gifts her a finger cut from Ewa’s corpse as a fertility charm; and on Agnes’ walks from the bare cottage that she shares with Wolf to the nearby pond that he fishes with the other villagers, she passes Ewa’s body, still exposed to the elements and slowly rotting, with a poster on a nearby tree illustrating her crime. 

Yet while Ewa’s cadaver might serve as an object of mockery and deterrence to others, for Agnes it represents a kind of repeating destiny that she, and indeed many other women before and since, would come to share amid the superstitions and oppressions of the 18th century (indeed, this is “based on historical records”, as text at the beginning reveals). Agnes marries Wolf willingly, and understands well her sacred marital duty to procreate with him – but when Wolf, despite his genuine kindness and consideration, proves more interested in men like his neighbour Lenz (Lorenz Trobinger) than in sexual relations with his wife, Agnes’ growing sense of frustration and alienation is only compounded by the constant intrusion of Wolf’s domineering mother Gänglin (Maria Hofstätter). For the puritanical, shrewish battle-axe is relentless in undermining her daughter-in-law, and determined to strip away every last vestige of Agnes’ happiness, leaving only a joyless void. 

As she finds herself with little prospect of becoming a mother, and being steadily driven apart from her old family and any new friends (including a pregnant woman played by Camilla Schielin), the increasingly isolated Agnes sinks into depression much as she had earlier become mired in the pond’s mud. Longing for a child of her own, and soon with only the putrescent Ewa for company, Agnes is overwhelmed by feelings of despair, and wants a way out of her predicament. Yet in a god-fearing society where female freedoms fall within harsh limits, where medical treatments are largely torturous quackery, and where suicide is a guarantee of eternal damnation to be avoided at any price, Agnes will, in her desire to enter Heaven, learn from Ewa’s example to take advantage of a moral loophole involving the very worst kind of collateral damage.

Deploying the same chilly approach to their material as in their previous features Goodnight Mommy (2014) and The Lodge (2019), and looking back to the social history of their native Austria much as they did with The Sinful Women of Höllfall, their medieval segment in Ant Timpson and Tim League’s folk horror anthology The Field Guide to Evil (2018), writer/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have crafted “on glorious 35mm” a bleak, austere portrait of a nation bogged down in its own superstitious beliefs and backward traditions. 

The Devil's Bath

Here the same paths are travelled multiple times. Wolf is twice seen with the unconscious Agnes bundled over his shoulder – like a child, or livestock – as he carries her back to the marital home she longs to leave behind her. Agnes herself is seen walking off with someone else’s baby much as Ewa had done earlier. In the end Agnes will retrace Ewa’s full trajectory, even repeating verbatim Ewa’s opening line – and the film’s final, awful sequence will be shown through the eyes of a little girl (Agnes Kern) who might just be witnessing her own future legacy, bequeathed from woman to woman as a grotesque get-around for patriarchal rules.   

Agnes attracts, loves and collects butterflies, which become a recurring motif in the The Devil’s Bath – but the only hope of transformational change appears to be in the hereafter, whether heaven or just a later time. Yet as we sit and watch from the present what is formally framed and distanced as ancient history (even the original title Des Teufels Bad is an archaic German formulation), we are also being confronted with our own long, invisible, sometimes insidious heritage, and challenged, as spectators of horror (like that little girl in the closing scene who is herself from a subsequent generation) to take in what we see and to do better. 

strap: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s harrowing historical horror highlights a diabolical loophole in female repression

© Anton Bitel