Early Modern times were messy: Europe was finding its footing in rationalism, seeking independence from the centuries-long spiritual yoke of Catholicism and Protestantism. Shedding the skin of the past seems, at least from our standpoint today, the best thing that could have happened to modern man. Preempting industrialization and a desire-fulfilling capitalist society, the journey towards Enlightenment positioned its preceding times as “The Dark Ages.” But the freedom to live or die was certainly a luxury for many––especially women caught in the patriarchal webs of rural life. Ewa Lizlfellner was one such woman who didn’t want to live, but to die. 

In the 18th-century common beliefs, “the devil’s bath” figured as a metaphor for depression and suicidal ideation. Judging from the phrase alone––replete with pejoratives and a particularly spatialized horror––one can gather exactly how unfitting it was to be of “ill” mental health. While the stigmas are far from dissolved today, 1750s Upper Austria (its countrysides, bordering with Germany and the Czech Republic) was the home of Ewa Lizlfellner, a village woman whose criminal and court records informed the plot of The Devil’s Bath, directing duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s (Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge) newest psychological thriller.

They first heard of “suicide by proxy” and Lizlfellner’s fate from historian Kathy Stuart, whose research shines a light on why 18th-century women would commit infanticide in order to be executed: to be allowed to die and still be buried as Christians. This is the historical context of The Devil’s Bath, the genre oddball in this year’s Berlinale Golden Bear Competition, and it only graces the screen after a gloriously cathartic final scene. There are more than 400 cases of indirect suicide known in the German-speaking world, the ending informs.

The film begins with a young woman throwing a baby down a waterfall, an unthinkably cruel crime for which she is then decapitated in front of the village people. Yet a faint smile crosses her face before death. Ominous and dark, The Devil’s Bath somehow manages to be a surprisingly empathetic film when tracing the marriage of young, impressionable Agnes (Anja Plaschg) to the stern Wolf, her growing melancholia, and the vile resistance against her poor mental health. By creating a tactile psychological thriller throbbing with heartache, the Austrian duo has once again raised the stakes of what European horror might be.

Plaschg, known best as the experimental singer-songwriter Soap&Skin in the neoclassical darkwave genre, is Bath‘s biggest treasure. First commissioned to score the film, she then replaced an actress in the lead role, and now one cannot imagine anyone else portraying Agnes with such fragile sincerity stretching out to a villainous grin. By film’s end she is absolutely unrecognizable: the physical transformation so arresting that her soft features stiffen into what seems like a different face, skewed and tormented. Naturally, close-ups from Martin Gschlacht’s ever-present camera enhance Plaschg’s beauty as it disfigures her face.

Befitting that oppressive atmosphere, the period setting (captured on 35mm) is colored by desaturated greens and yellows, a sickly, crisp vision of a challenging life: the constant cold, the stone houses and limited fire; the wet, overworn clothes passed from generation to generation (expertly fashioned by the meticulous Tanja Hausner), and the dampened dreams of someone who doesn’t belong.

The Devil’s Bath is a slow-burner because it wants to transmit the feeling, to make you feel melancholy in your skin and bones––as you sink deeper into your chair, to know the weight of depression intimately in the chasms of your soul. For a young woman like Agnes, not fitting in means not being productive in the ways society demands you be: to bear children, to cook and tend to your husband, to “be a wife” as if it were a profession. Women’s labor, in this case, is just another trap in the patriarchal cage, and the religious pressures pile to the point where life slips away. There’s something hypnotic in the rhythms of the film, seeing how troubles that could be easily resolved are left to fester; now there is no going back. That fatalistic feeling seems to be Franz and Fiala’s signature mark, a tone that ties their work to Jessica Hausner and Ulrich Seidl, compatriots and collaborators.

The Devil’s Bath premiered at the 2024 Berlinale and will be released this summer by Shudder.

Grade: B

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