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Tribeca Review: “The Devil’s Bath”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 9th, 2024

The Devil’s Bath (Severin Fiala/Veronika Franz, 2024) 3½ out of 5 stars

Not for the faint of heart, The Devil’s Bath, from the filmmaking pair Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (The Lodge), is set in Upper Austria in 1750, a time and place where religion and superstition co-exist in feverish fellowship. The opening alone proves how disturbing the rest may be, as we see a woman throw a baby into a waterfall. The stunning cinematography and majesty of the landscape only make the truth of what we have just witnessed that much worse.

Adding to our horror, the murderess, who promptly confesses her crime (appearing eager to do so, in fact), is summarily executed, her head severed and some fingers cut off, as well (perhaps as some sort of gruesome talisman). When next we meet this deceased soul, it will be on a cliff overlooking the aforementioned falls, for all to see and be forewarned.

Anja Plaschg in THE DEVIL’S BATH. Courtesy of Shudder. A Shudder Release.

If this violent prologue does not deter, watch on, intrepid viewer. What comes immediately next is merrier, in any case, for it’s the wedding day of young Agnes (Anja Plaschg, aka Soap&Skin) and Wolf (David Scheid). She’s a dreamer, close to the natural world and ready for love and motherhood, while he’s a more plodding soul and very much a mama’s boy. He’s just purchased a house just down the hill from his mother (Maria Hofstätter, A Whole Life), in fact, so expect her to play a major role in the narrative.

Unfortunately for Agnes, Wolf is not so interested in performing his husbandly duties. In fact, there are some serious hints that his inclinations lie elsewhere, a sub-plot further developed when the possible object of his affection kills himself. Which leaves Agnes frustrated and unfulfilled, not just sexually, but in terms of how she thought her marriage was going to go. It doesn’t help that her bossy mother-in-law becomes an increasingly intrusive presence as times goes on.

l-r: Anja Plaschg and David Scheid in THE DEVIL’S BATH. Courtesy of Ulrich Seid Film Produktion and Heimatfilm. A Shudder Release.

Initially, life takes on a simultaneously dreary and eerily beautiful pattern, woodland mists lending the brutal community pond-fishing rituals an almost lyrical charm. So do Agnes’ wanderings though the forest, whether by herself or with another young woman, who is with child as Agnes would like to be. But slowly, Agnes begins to descend into a kind of hysteria that grows in intensity as she worships first at a makeshift Christian shrine in her basement and then at the grotesque shrine to the dead murderess by the falls.

Hallucinations, dreams, and ostensible reality mix and mingle in a roiling combination. Wolf and his mother don’t know what to do, except send Agnes to the “barber” (aka, a medieval doctor who wants to give her a neck wound that will fester and lead the evil spirits out). They think Agnes is in “the devil’s bath,” clearly gripped by a madness of unknown origin. It’s a wonder they don’t burn her at the stake.

Anja Plaschg in THE DEVIL’S BATH. Courtesy of Ulrich Seid Film Produktion and Heimatfilm. A Shudder Release.

But what is one to do when unhappiness strikes to this degree? Suicide is not an option, as demonstrated by what happens to the unfortunate young man (Wolf’s playmate?) whose body is thrown into a field, rather than buried. It’s the worst sin possible.

And this brings us back to those very first scenes, when the movie goes full circle in the bloodiest possible manner. Look on the good side: we learn a history lesson via the explanatory text at the end. We also witness a powerhouse performance from a magnificent Plaschg. It’s too bad that not all of it adds up to a perfect justification for the awful images burned into our brains, but the power of The Devil’s Bath’s filmmaking nevertheless leaves us frequently awestruck. Still, I think it’s time now for a purifying shower.

Still from THE DEVIL’S BATH. Courtesy of Ulrich Seid Film Produktion and Heimatfilm. A Shudder Release.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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