The Devil’s Bath

The Devil's Bath
The Devil’s Bath
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Directed and written by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (The Lodge, Goodnight Mommy), The Devil’s Bath is one of the gloomiest movies to hit the screens for sometime now, but at the same time it is a thrilling if not a chilling reflection on one of the most horrifying phenomena that was ignored ever in recent times. Set in 1750 Austria, Agnes (Anja Plaschg, Soap&Skin band) starts feeling so lonely and imprisoned in her limited life that she thinks about doing something shocking just to end her misery.

Midsommar comes to mind when watching this film however it goes much deeper than that. Based on their research, the directors finally show how many women across Europe during that period tried to escape eternal damnation which would result from suicide by committing “ritualistic” murders. By confessing their murderous crime, they would be killed but forgiven for their sins and therefore go to heaven.

This was only one among more than 400 reported cases in German-speaking countries alone where we learn through Agnes’ character. While it may not be your typical horror movie as such, The Devil’s Bath is scary in its own way and stays with you long after the black screen fades.

For gritty psychodramas, The Devil’s Bath nails it. It is however a slow moving film with extended shots and scenes setting up a sense of place and above all else despair. Melancholy was referred to as “devil’s bath” back then when this movie took place whereas here Agnes has just married her beloved (David Scheid) but starts getting scared.

His lack of interest in physical intimacy kills her hopes. His mother (Maria Hofstatter) is not happy about it too though he did marry her anyway. Chores and expectations are common enough but life routine continually gets overtaken slowly by more than existential malaise.

Agnes finds the dead body of a female murderer whom we saw at the start of the movie in the woods. She is taken aback. There it sits, a table away with its head on top of a chair’s back. A hand-drawn picture on a tree reveals what happened there. This scene haunts Agnes’ thoughts for days on end as she continues to return there.

At home, Agnes makes an audacious move. Barren and miserable, she runs out on her family only to be brought back by her husband soon after – quite literally! However, now she doesn’t want to live anymore just like she does not want to be married either. Here is where the filmmakers so perfectly capture both the time period and depression’s universal notes. As Agnes moves closer towards darkness, she cannot stop her own fate from taking over. Surely that corpse in the woods must have given some hints about how to save herself from these troubles.

Plaschg (also credited as such here) who is well known as a composer gives an absolutely heart-breaking performance as Agnes in The Devil’s Bath thereby contributing to a broader theme that this film tries to depict even more broadly through its narrative arc. Her close-ups are paranoid and obsessed which Plaschg rises up magnificently every single time presenting sadness falling into homicidal disdain with great conviction throughout the film.

To this end, Anja Plaschg’s casting is a coup de grâce for the film. The filmmakers took a gamble and it seems to have paid off as she was reportedly so captivated by the story. This Agnes’ desperation has been completely captured by Plaschg in an unadorned, brutal, palpable performance that is truly amazing considering she is a novice actress.

In case you have seen their other films such as Goodnight Mommy and The Lodge then you can bear me witness on how well they create an eerie journey which slowly simmers into an unforgettable nightmare. Character studies play out so effectively in The Devil’s Bath because it knows how to set up certain tones.

The movie exposes the ugly truth of life during that era. Back then, the victims were usually young ones who were considered as ‘innocent.’ In essence, they could not be held accountable for their actions hence they were guaranteed automatic entry into heaven. It does not explicitly show any of this happening; there may be one scene where it fades into the background. Still, your mind can conceive of much more gruesome images than what appears on screen, and this is why even more interesting is The Devil’s Bath.

Nevertheless, I believe it’s an extremely bleak film with anti-natalism in its heart which might put some viewers off. Everything here is terrible and you know it will only get worse. There are many other similar gloomy movies about depression and anhedonia which have taken place in different epochs – from A City of Sadness and Melancholia to The Elephant Man or The Seventh Continent (Bilge Ebiri). They’re hard to sit through (for instance Bilge Ebiri calls his Vulture review “I Never Want to See This Movie Again”), but there’s something poignant about them and at least one thing we might take home with us.

That’s both a pro and a con for The Devil’s Bath. Nonetheless, it is simply shot and well executed due to the delicacy of its directors. Yet, it is Plaschg who stands out as the film’s signature component. It is rare that we witness such an emotionally shattering performance in any genre. And while one may argue that the bathtub water here is murky, this bath cleanses itself from all illusions about what a terrible thing depression can be.

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