The Devil’s Bath

In 18th century Austria, when the pious Agnes (Anja Plaschg) marries her sweetheart Wolf (David Scheid), she finds her life turned into a relentless repetition of chores and constant criticism from his Mother Gänglin (Maria Hofstätter, "Paradise: Faith").  While she contemplates a horrific way out of her torment, Wolf believes she has fallen into what depression was thought of almost 400 years ago, “The Devil’s Bath.”

Laura's Review: A-

The aunt and nephew team of writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala ("Goodnight, Mommy," "The Lodge") have made their best film to date with this 2024 Berlin Silver Bear winner (for cinematographer Martin Gschlacht), a historical drama with horrific elements rather than a straight-out horror film like their last two.  Gschlacht’s contributions cannot be overstated, his prize winning work beautifully composed and painterly, his palette the colors of the forest.

The film, which is based on historical records, begins with a shocking prologue, a woman, Ewa Schikin (Natalya Baranova, "Import Export"), carrying a squalling infant through the woods to the top of a magnificent waterfall overlooking the Austrian Alps.  At first we think she is drinking in the beauty of the scene, but then she simply drops the infant over the waterfall’s crest.  This is a depiction of one of about 400 cases of 18th century infanticide that was essentially suicide by proxy, as the murderer could repent her sins before execution, unlike with suicide, and the victims were considered pure and without sin and so would immediately enter heaven. 

We then meet Agnes on the morning of her wedding day, standing by a window carefully wrapping up her belongings – a petrified fish, a dried dragonfly and other natural wonders (she’ll be gifted what we will later learn is Ewa’s finger by her brother Lukas (Lukas Walcher) as a fertility talisman and will happily slip it beneath the mattress of her marriage bed).  She dons a wreath adorned with red berries over her braided hair and is jubilant as she is passed overhead following the ceremony.  As the day turns into dusk, we note a red flag though, Agnes’s husband Wolf exhibiting excessive affection for another man (this man will later be found hanging, a suicide), but the fleeting glimpse is forgotten when he blindfolds his new wife and guides her towards a surprise, a dark cottage she seems less than thrilled with.  Their wedding night will be even drearier, Wolf demanding she turn away from him while he pleasures himself despite her welcoming willingness.        

She’ll awaken to an empty house and, after calling for Wolf, begin to scour the countryside to find the pond he fishes at.  She eventually finds it, his mother inserting her into the toughest job on the line of workers bringing in netted carp, but not before she finds the corpse of Ewa, sitting headless at the scene of her crime, her head locked down within a steel cage, her fingers and toes removed, her crime illustrated in a woodblock print affixed to a tree.

Agnes will be castigated for wearing the wrong clothes, for praying too long, her mother-in-law rearranging her kitchen and cooking for Wolf in yet another rebuke.  The filmmakers cut to an underwater view of a stream, a cloud of blood suddenly invading the frame, before a switch to the surface reveals women washing menstrual rags, Agnes’s wish for a child unfulfilled.  Buckets of fishheads and drying fish hanging overhead take on sinister expressions.

Plaschg, a musician who performs as Soap&Skin, is a natural as the young woman who sees (and hears) beauty others take for granted.  In this regard, her character reminded me of Jagna in last year’s “The Peasants,” but Plaschg has an even darker arc, spiraling into depression that drives her to disturbing actions and the newcomer impresses with her realistic portrayal of mental anguish, especially contrasted with her earlier happiness.  Her contribution doesn’t end there, Plaschg also responsible for the film’s score, screeching hurdy-gurdy, flute and her own scream juxtaposed with her softly singing an era appropriate song intermittently throughout the film.  In addition to Gschlacht’s gorgeous, 35mm cinematography, the period production evinces painstaking attention to detail, from the well researched screenplay, to design and Tanja Hauser’s homespun costumes, which includes a hair comb made from a fishbone.

Robin's Review: B+

IFC Films releases "The Devil's Bath" at NY's IFC Center on 6/21/24 before it begins streaming on Shudder on 6/28/24.