It’s rare for a festival like the Berlinale to allow a genre film in its main competition, and this year it was Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s third feature, The Devil’s Bath, that stood out. The period horror film is drenched in shades of gray and dark greens, painting a 1750s Upper Austria as a place of tangible terror. Country life was simple and labor, divided: a man works, a woman bears children. One such story anchors The Devil’s Bath, where young Agnes (Anja Plaschg, better known for her music as Soap&Skin) marries a nice guy but cannot get pregnant. She spirals into depression—the film’s title references the way mental illness was conceptualized then, as a space owned by the devil—and sinks deeper, ever so helpless.

Fiala and Franz are two of the most influential European genre filmmakers working today and they are meticulous in every single aspect of their filmmaking. They write and produce their own films and attend to the greatest detail of costumes (with Jessica Hausner’s collaborator and sister Tanja), music (with Soap&Skin herself here), and camerawork (with Martin Gschlacht who received the outstanding contribution prize at the Berlinale), in order to make sure their horrors crawl under your skin.

Talking to the duo ahead of the film’s release on Shudder, I was most curious to learn about the specific process of turning historical research into a narrative film, their relationship to architecture, and working with Anja Plaschg on such a demanding role.

The Film Stage: I want to lead us into The Devil’s Bath with a question about your previous two films, Goodnight Mommy and The Lodge. I’m asking about the houses…

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala: Oh, we already love this question! We’ve always felt that the houses are characters. 

They are as important, but never “speak” in the traditional way. So how do you approach a house as a character? 

Fiala: Basically, we see them as extensions of our characters. Since we don’t like dialogues very much, we come up with other ways of telling stories and presenting the characters without them actually speaking. And of course the house that somebody lives in––or the space they create––says a lot about them. In Goodnight, Mommy, for example, the house we found was very strange: it had an old structure, but had been renovated in a very weird way at the roof and raised, so it looks different from each angle––like it’s not even the same house! As a result you could never grasp the house’s identity, which we felt fit the main character. For The Lodge, which is kind of a “haunted house” movie, or a ghost movie, thanks to the attic.

In The Devil’s Bath, the house is a prison, while nature is freedom…

Fiala: Also, in the script, we described a house that looked just like that from the beginning. And then we found the exact same structure! Of course we built the interiors, but the exteriors are what you see in the film. We were looking for a house that was somehow trying to hide itself, or sneak into a hill…

Franz: In the grasp of nature!

Fiala: Yes, stuck in its surroundings. It feels like a very accurate image for depression. There’s also this thing when you look at the house from this one side: it seems fine. But if you look at it from another side, you get this threatening feeling, like it’s a face that’s watching you. 

Franz: Long story short, they’re all real houses and we audition them like we audition actors and actresses, driving our production designers crazy because we must have looked at hundreds of houses.

Fiala: Like with actors, we always try to see what they can add, what their personality is, what they can bring to the movie. We picked the house for The Lodge because of the attic, and since there were no attic scenes in the script, we figured we had to include it. But not just like a formality, like a generic scene set in the attic or to have a kid’s bedroom there. Instead we wanted to make the attic shine, so we had to build up the narrative and the film towards that, for maximum impact. 

Franz: With The Devil’s Bath, we discovered a basement which then became her private place, where she has a cross and prays to it. Actually, Anja built it herself, this shrine or altar of some kind. That was not in the script, but it was in the house. 

Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

But the houses are not exactly homes. So if you can just add on this tension between the lived space, I think it really represents the dynamics in a family that you’re also kind of interested in again. So what makes a house a home and what doesn’t?

Fiala: These houses are cinematic spaces, but have their own subconscious lurking out of sight. Here, it’s the basement, as Veronica said, which seems to suck you into this darkness, literally and metaphorically. You feel there’s something dark brewing under and the relationship of this newlywed couple is not going to work out.

Franz: I think all of them feel cold. Maybe that’s what you are referring to. I mean, the stone houses are cold by default and it’s cold outside, but the houses do feel cold. 

Fiala: We want the houses to represent the way the film should feel, and the people in the film should feel. And if we would make a film about a very happy family––which is never going to happen, I think––then the house will feel like it’s very cozy and very lived-in. But as it’s not the case, we also want the audience to be uncomfortable in those spaces, as the people who are there are feeling uncomfortable.

What were the narrative decisions that you had to consider writing that script from testimonies and historian Kathy Stuart’s academic research?

Fiala: Writing the script was a difficult process, as it was based on protocols from one court case. A woman named Ewa Lizlfellner, who lived and died in the 1750s, has left the best-documented one, which amounts to 80 pages or so. That also includes testimonies from the husband, the mother-in-law, the neighbors––so there was a lot of material to go through. We were fascinated by the topic, but what moved us was the way she described her life and sorrows. At first we envisioned the whole thing playing out as a courtroom drama, where we could use as much of this pre-existing dialogue as possible. 

Was that an early version of the script?

Fiala: Yes, but it didn’t touch us at all: in this form, the story had lost all its emotional impact. Then we had to rethink everything and ask ourselves, “Okay, how do we actualize her struggle?” How do we show the horrors she had to face and, more importantly, how do we make the audience feel what she felt? Regarding the narrative decisions: on the one hand, we wanted to do justice to the character by focusing on her and her life. It felt natural to show her life as she describes it in the protocols, and not how society dealt with [the event] afterwards. 

Franz: Also, the theme of melancholia was very important: putting the audience in her shoes to feel, maybe in best-case scenarios, as she feels. That was one crucial narrative decision we made.

Fiala: It’s hard to make a film about depression. To make a character who’s suffering from depression even a tiny bit likable, as someone who’s very passive and all alone, it’s hard. But it was crucial for us to help the audience like her and understand her, because the crime she commits certainly alienates a lot––if not most––viewers. 

Franz: We took a risk by having this [empathy] build up towards the crime and her subsequent confession. But if it wasn’t for that, those two scenes wouldn’t have worked. In the film, she doesn’t say a lot about herself or her feelings, but in the very end she does. And you know: if you were to lose the audience before that point, that would be a pity. 

Did you shoot chronologically? What struck me was the physical and emotional transformation that Anja undergoes. I’d love to know more about how you shot the confession-absolution sequence.

Franz: We did and the scene was one take!

Fiala: By that point we had lived through the whole story: we knew her so well, she knew us and the character so well. I remember we just told her that this is not a scene we’re gonna shoot over and over again. “It’s your confession. You just confess and that’s it.” Of course, she knew what kind of things her character had lived through. She had all the protocols and used lines verbatim; I think she prepared her own confession. We trusted each other enough and that’s what came out.

Franz: She is a perfectionist and she wants to embody the role fully. When we were about to shoot this scene, she stepped into the cellar or stone prison and said, “Oh, no, it’s much too warm in here! We shouldn’t have any heating and we need to get rid of the little warmth there is!” Of course it wasn’t warm because it’s all stones, but she wanted to conjure an authentic performance.

Fiala: As directors, we’re most interested in experiencing something when we’re making a film. You know, film shoots can be very… I mean, it takes forever. It can get very technical and sometimes it can seem boring. But what we really want is to experience something together, and we had that with Ania as well.

The Devil’s Bath arrives on Shudder on June 28.

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