‘The Devil’s Bath’ Tribeca 2024 Review: A Merciless Portrait of Depression

THE DEVIL'S BATH - Still 1

In a woodland Austrian hamlet in the 18th century, a woman carries an inconsolable baby through the forest. Calm and detached, she drops it over the edge of a waterfall. She confesses to her crime, prompting her execution. Post-mortem, her fingers and toes are amputated and her head is put in a metal cage next to the rest of her body. The Devil’s Bath, written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, only gets darker from there.

Agnes (Anja Plaschg) is looking forward to her upcoming marriage with Wolf (David Scheid). Their wedding is joyous, celebrated with Wolf’s family and community, as well as Agnes’ mother and brother. But the happiness doesn’t last.

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Wolf is distant and neglects Agnes’ emotional needs. His affections, it seems, are reserved for his best friend—another young man from his village. He’s unable to consummate their marriage; a crushing blow for Agnes, who desperately wants a baby. Her mother-in-law, Gänglin (Maria Hofstätter) is constantly in their home, giving unsolicited advice on everything from cooking to grain storage. Gänglin doesn’t bother to hide her disdain.

Agnes is alone more often than not. She loses herself in prayer and various rituals involving dead insects and a severed finger—a wedding gift from her brother intended as a good luck charm for pregnancy. While walking through the woods one day, Agnes discovers the corpse of the executed woman displayed in a clearing. The details of her crime, complete with illustrations of both the infanticide and execution, are posted next to her. The grisly tableau has Agnes transfixed.

Her isolation and loneliness spiral into despondency. She neglects her personal hygiene, doesn’t take care of their farm animals, and self-harms. She continues to visit the corpse. As Agnes’ depression worsens, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, culminating in a final, horrifying act.

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The Devil’s Bath is an unrelentingly grim exploration of mental illness, religion, and the disastrous collision of the two. It’s also not entirely fictional. During the 17th and 18th centuries in Central Europe and Scandinavia, hundreds of people suffering from severe depression committed murder in order to be executed. Dying by suicide, they believed, would condemn their souls to Hell; judicial execution, on the other hand, allowed them last rites, ensuring absolution and eternal salvation. Most of the people who did this were women; their victims were primarily children and babies. Historian and UC Davis professor Kathy Stuart’s 2023 book Suicide by Proxy in Early Modern Germany: Crime, Sin, and Salvation sheds light on this little-known practice, and served as the inspiration for the film.

Bleak and brutal, The Devil’s Bath is exactly what one might expect from the duo behind The Lodge and Goodnight Mommy. The film burns slowly and meticulously. Certain scenes are shocking, but none exist purely for shock value. Martin Gschlacht’s (Goodnight Mommy) beautiful cinematography and lingering shots force the audience to feel the full impact of each scene. Production design by Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin, as well as sound design by Matz Müller and Michael Palm, underscore the story’s carnage as it unfolds.

Throughout the film, we get teasing glimpses of possible witchcraft that never pan out, but it doesn’t detract from the film overall.

Anja Plaschg, who also composed the score, delivers a haunting—and deeply sympathetic—performance as the troubled Agnes. Her character is based on Eva Lizlfellnerin, a real woman whose murder trial is discussed in Stuart’s book. David Scheid and Maria Hofstätter’s portrayals of passive and active antagonists, respectively, contain glimmers of humanity that make their characters’ actions even more devastating. Natalija Baranova, Elias Schützenhofer, Tim Valerian Alberti, Elmar Kurz, Lukas Walcher, Claudia Martini, Franziska Holzer, Agnes Lampl, Camilla Schilia, and Annemarie Schwarzenberger round out the cast with their supporting roles.

5.0

Summary

‘The Devil’s Bath’ is a harrowing experience, but a deeply important and beautiful one from the filmmakers behind ‘Goodnight Mommy’ and ‘The Lodge’.

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