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Directors Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala talk 'The Devil’s Bath' and giving a voice to the voiceless

Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala talk 'The Devil’s Bath'
Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala talk 'The Devil’s Bath' Copyright David Mouriquand
Copyright David Mouriquand
By David Mouriquand
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Euronews Culture sat down with directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala to discuss 'The Devil's Bath', which shines an unsettling light on a previously unexplored and dark chapter of European history.

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Most descriptions for Des Teufels Bad (The Devil’s Bath) may inadvertently discourage viewers looking for a clear notion of what they’re about to watch. It’s an unclassifiable and tantalising slow-burn that won’t be everyone’s idea of a carefree time at the cinema.  

However, to skip it would be a mistake, as it is without a doubt one of the most memorable films you’ll see all year and the highlight of this year’s Berlinale, where it premiered in Competition and won the Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution - awarded to cinematographer Martin Gschlacht for his striking work.

Many - inlcuding us at Euronews Culture - felt it should have gone home with the top award.

Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (Goodnight Mommy, The Lodge), The Devil’s Bath is a bleak but mesmerising portrait of female melancholia in 18th century Austria, one based on extensive research into historical court records. It shines an unsettling light on a previously unexplored chapter of European history, which saw hundreds of people – mostly women – finding a dogmatic loophole to avoid eternal damnation. This phenomenon of suicide by proxy is explored through the story of a young woman, Agnes, played to perfection by Anja Plaschg – the musician better known as Soap&Skin. 

Read our full review of the film here.

Euronews Culture sat down with the aunt-nephew directing duo to delve into this fascinating film, the use of violence on screen, as well as the act of giving a voice to invisible women history has forgotten.

Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala David Mouriquand

Euronews Culture: The Devil’s Bath is based on a lot of research from all around Europe and but it feels that it could have been taken from very precise and very meticulous diary entries. Can you tell me about the preparation for this film, and the role of US historian Professor Kathy Stuart in that process?   

Severin Fiala: She was actually the starting point for the whole thing, because we listened to one episode of the podcast This American Life. In that episode, she talked about loopholes of escaping church doctorism, specifically that you're not allowed to commit suicide because it's the worst sin, and because it's the only one you can never repent or confess. So people came up with the idea to kill somebody else in order to get executed for this crime. Because before the execution, they could still confess and go to heaven. It's hundreds of cases, all over Europe, and mainly women. Two-thirds of women committed those acts. It was shocking to us because we had never heard about that. Kathy also said that it's nothing that's known. It's her life topic, and she’s been working on it for years and years now, and still nobody knows about it.  

Veronika Franz: There are no diaries on which the film is based on, but we had protocols of interrogation.  

Severin Fiala: I think people would have never cared to write a diary because in those times, how you felt or what you had experienced wasn't the thing. You just had to work and function. So Agnes, our protagonist, would have never actually talked about her inner feelings. She was just forced to do so in an interrogation.  

Veronika Franz: But when we found her protocol, thanks to Kathy Stuart who opened her archive for us, and read for the first time the specific case of this Austrian woman who was interrograted three times, we were so deeply moved. Here was a woman talking to us from the past about her fears, her dreams, her anxieties... We almost cried when we read it. And so we thought: ’OK, we have to make a movie’.  

We’ve never had research or working on a film that has led to us having a nightmares! And I think that was a reason for us to make this film.
Severin Fiala

I had never come across a film before this one that showed quite how much Christianity and certain pagan rituals completely merged in this particular time. The drinking of the blood, for instance... Or totemic charms from body parts... Through the research you both did, were there any details that shocked you in particular?  

Severin Fiala: The fact they used to collect artifacts like cut off body parts of people that had been executed because they thought it would bring luck. Or in case of the drinking of the blood, it was against melancholy. They tried to cure depression by having people drink the blood of executed people. Those were all things that were really fascinating to us.

Also, we have to say the atrocious act that the lead character commits is also described in great detail in the interrogation protocols. It's actually something that gave us both nightmares. We’ve never had research or working on a film that has led to us having a nightmares! And I think that was a reason for us to make this film. This woman is a victim of her times and the pressure she's put under. You feel so much for her, but then she does something that is totally horrific and makes you want to run away from her. This is the feeling we wanted to have throughout the film. We wanted the audience to understand and relate to Agnes, but still have her do something that's truly shocking.  

Veronika Franz: I found it very shocking. How strong the suffering must have been so that you kill someone else. How dark must it be in yourself to go down that path? I felt so much for her.  

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Severin Fiala: And like you said, it's an interesting time the film is set in, because it’s 1750, the beginning of enlightenment... And at the same time, there were areas where there were a lot of the pagan ideas that you describe.

When we researched it, we found out that the priests quite often studied in big cities. They read a lot of books and when they came back to the countryside, they actually knew that there was no connection between, let's say, somebody committing a suicide and a hail storm devastating the fields. But people there would still believe it, and basically forced the priests to behave accordingly. Whenever somebody committed suicide for example, the priest would need to ring the church bells to protect the town. The priest knew this was total bullshit, but still he was forced to do it by the people.

Priests were also under immense pressure because they didn't have any fields or woods, and they were dependent on the people supporting them with food and fire log. And the people just said ‘If you don't do what we want, then you'll have a very cold winter.’ So at the same time, those people were feeling an immense pressure from all the dogmas of church and behaved accordingly.

It was a very absurd situation, and very absurd times. But not much more absurd than the times we're living in...  

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The Devil's Bath
The Devil's BathFilmladen
There are no twists and turns, no jump scares... But still, what the lead character experiences is pure horror.
Severin Fiala

A lot of people – from marketing execs to cinemagoers – like to be able to categorize films within a genre. It’s reductive, but when talking about 'The Devil’s Bath' to others who haven’t seen it, I found that it was tough to describe. It’s a history piece. But it uses the language of horror. But it's not a horror film...    

Severin Fiala: (Laughs) For us, it’s very easy to describe the film and give an answer to someone who wants a label. But it’s not going to be a very satisfying answer. We’re just so happy that we ended up making a film that cannot be put in a box, and there is not this one label to put on it. And yes, that's difficult for marketing people, but we think it's true to the to the character and the phenomenon the film is based on.

We started the whole film very close to those interrogration protocols. We were writing a courtroom drama. Then we realized that this was not really having the same emotional impact as those protocols, because in the protocols we had the feeling that this person was actually talking directly to us. There was this voice from the past from person who never had a voice in history. That was fascinating and moving to us, but doing a courtroom drama meant it lost all of that emotional impact. So, we tried to find cinematic means of transporting her inner horrors and the inner hell she's experiencing. And that is, of course, a horror film - without necessarily having the structure of a horror film. There are no twists and turns, no jump scares... But still, what the lead character experiences is pure horror.  

The funniest label we ever got came from our amazing sound guy. Because we try to get everything as real and as authentic when we shoot a film, especially a period film, we really commit. So, for the wedding scene at the beginning of the movie, we just wanted to have a huge party. It was pure madness. All the crew members were wearing costumes as well, because you would never know where the camera was and who it was filming and pointed at. During the shooting of that scene, our sound guy turned round to us and said: ‘Oh god, I've never done a historical documentary before!’ Best part of that label is that it's sort of accurate.

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Anja Plaschg in The Devil's Bath
Anja Plaschg in The Devil's BathFilmladen

One thing that that struck me was that the story takes place in nature, but there is this dichotomy between nature being a catalyst for hope and also something of a dark omen. The butterflies and the dried insects are elements that Agnes treasures enormously, while the fish heads look like death masks which induce the sinister feeling that something terrible is approaching. Was it always your intention to explore the duality of nature in this film?

Veronika Franz: When it comes to the fish, yes! (Laughs) But to be honest, the butterflies weren't in script. We didn't write them in. They are always there where Anja (Plaschg, who plays Agnes) is! (Laughs) Even if it's winter time and it is only two or three degrees in the northern part of Austria where we shot, they just come to her! It started with the wedding scene. We were kind of like: ‘OK, this was a sunny scene, butterflies are great! What luck!’ We didn’t wonder back then. But when we shot in this very cold stone house, Anja just knew how to find them! Or they knew how to find her! She came to us and said ‘I’ve found another butterfly!’ Which is, biologically, basically impossible.  We kept them in when we shot the film, and in the editing room, we tried to include the butterflies into the story to make them meaningful. But it's how we work, and real life enters the movie. In this case, it was magic real life because it was butterflies in winter!  

Severin Fiala: It felt perfect because Agnes is a person who doesn't seem to belong to this world and to the other people around her. She's a woman of many talents that are not recognized in their time. She hears music where other people just hear noises. I think that she’s a woman who could be an artist nowadays, but back then nobody realized that she was talented and somebody who feels the beauty of the world she's living in. For most of the people, it's just a place where they're living and where they need to do their work. She seems to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. But the bigger the horrors grow, the more we tried to drain the film of all the colours and all the beauty. It gets darker and grayer, and more like a prison.

I’m glad you mentioned Francis Bacon, because he is somebody we always look at before every film we make!  
Severin Fiala
Severin Fiala, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and Veronika Franz at Berlinale 2024
Severin Fiala, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and Veronika Franz at Berlinale 2024Nadja Wohlleben/AP

Speaking of which, your cinematographer Martin Gschlacht seems to have been inspired by the Dutch masters when it comes to light and darkness. And even Francis Bacon – especially when we see the decapitated body of the first woman, which is presented inside of a triangular structure, or that hung up carcass of the animal. They’re disturbing tableaus but your eyes can’t help but be drawn to them. Were these reference points discussed with him?  

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Severin Fiala: Funnily enough, there is one Rembrandt self-portrait that we used as a reference. His face is in the darkness and you don't actually see his face, just the back of his head basically. For us, it looks like a symbol for depression. We always showed him this image and said that was something we were looking for.

We also told him that sometimes it's fine not to see Agnes' face, because it's telling you more about how the character feels then all the acting Anja could do.

Martin is a great collaborator but he is always at his best when the challenges he faces are close to impossible. We wanted to shoot on 35 millimeter film. We didn't want a lot of artificial lighting. The first time we visited the stone house, for example, everybody was putting their cell phone flashlights on because it was too dark to even walk! We shot in that darkness, and from the first day to the last, the light meters read ‘Error’! Martin had the confidence to say it will be okay. And he was right.

And I’m glad you mentioned Francis Bacon, because he is somebody we always look at before every film we make!  

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Veronika Franz: (Laughs) It’s true! 

The Devil's Bath
The Devil's BathFilmladen
Every actor or actress has his or her limits. And it's good to know their limits. That's more important than to know about their strengths.
Veronika Franz

Time we talked about Anja Plaschg, because she is just phenomenal as Agnes. She doesn't have much acting experience, and it must have been a bit of a risky casting decision to have her carry the whole film... 

Veronika Franz: Every casting decision is a risky one, at the end of the day. (Laughs) Because you never know... Every actor or actress has his or her limits. And it's good to know their limits. That's more important than to know about their strengths.

Originally, we approached her because we wanted her to compose the music. That was the first contact. We sent her the script, and she wrote us a letter back, telling us how she experienced reading the script. And we instantly knew. She really could connect so strongly, so we asked her to audition for us. She has a lot of charisma, as a performer and as a musician. But as she's not a trained or professionally educated actress, we thought ‘OK, let's go on this journey and let's see. If she can't do something, we can just adapt the script and change it.’ 

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Severin Fiala: And being a musician, she’s so disciplined. More than most actresses, and certainly most actresses in Austria, she was better at repeating takes over and over again. She was a total professional. At the same time, being a performance artist, she's very emotional and she always could open up even in the most technical shoots. She really tries to fully experience things.  

Veronika Franz: For example, we tried to heat up the set one time because it was very, very cold. We didn’t want her to freeze to death! (Laughs) But she got very annoyed with us and said that she needed to feel the cold. She really, really wanted to feel whatever the character experienced, however extreme or physically demanding.  

Severin Fiala: One scene where her husband tries to make her throw up and puts his fingers down her throat... After each day, she kept complaining that he didn't put this fingers down deep enough! The actor, David (Scheid, playing Wolf), kept saying: ‘My fingers are just too short, I can’t get them in any deeper!’ (Laughs)   

Anja Plaschg in The Devil's Bath
Anja Plaschg in The Devil's BathFilmladen

Anja’s soundtrack is really powerful and ominous in all the right ways. Did you give her any specific directions or did you just let her loose? 

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Severin Fiala: We wanted to start the whole film with old music, or music of the time played on period-accurate instruments. Then we wanted the soundtrack to transform and get more modern, but still using some of these old instruments. We could all agree on that, and it was a very collaborative effort. We always shared, and Anja discussed what was on her mind with the music.   

Veronika Franz: Sometimes it was very strange because she started with the ending music. She composed the ending, so the first thing we had to work with was for the end credits. And at that time we had no credits! (Laughs) She kind of moved backwards there! 

We never show violence for the sake of violence. But it needs to be shown.
Veronika Franz

Coming back to some of the film's themes: for such a historical film, it has incredibly timely resonances to the present day. Not only is The Devil's Bath giving a voice to the voiceless, but certain ecclesiastical doctrines remain alive and well to this day. That, and the film touches upon the still-present stigma surrounding depression and suicide.  

Severin Fiala: That’s all totally well put. This phenomenon of suicide by proxy does not exist in catholic religion anymore, but there are cases of suicide bombers and suicide attacks. And the only way that religion allows is if you kill somebody else or other people and take them with you, then you will enter paradise. So it's a very similar phenomenon that is still going on.

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And the other things that you said, for us, they're perfectly true as well. The pressure that many people experience today is a different one. It may not be the church or dogmatism mainly, but the dogma of capitalist societies means that there’s so much pressure that's put on people just to function. Everybody thinks they need to function, and if they suffer from depression, it doesn't fit with the current dogma. It's a very undetected disease. Most people suffering from depression don't even know it. They just feel that they’re not good enough, that they cannot keep up with the work. They cannot fulfill the expectations that society has. I think that's still a very relevant thing.

And something that’s still a taboo, even when people talk more about mindfulness nowadays. To admit that you're depressed is still something which is not necessarily an easy thing for people to admit to in today's society...

Severin Fiala: For some people, it seems to get easier. But I think that it’s still a very small bubble of people who think it’s OK to talk about mental health issues. You're right, for the largest parts of society, it’s still very much a taboo.    

Veronika Franz: They published a study earlier this year, in which it was revealed that in Germany, one in two men suffer from depression once in their life. And it's more a phenomenon related to men than it is about women these days. Because they can't admit. Because they feel they need to function.  

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Severin Fiala: The majority of them don't realize they’re suffering from depression. And men often react with aggression or self-aggression.  

To end on a cheerier note, one thing I hesitate to say I ‘enjoyed’ but very much admired is the use of violence in The Devil’s Bath. It obviously needs to be there in order to show the harshness of Agnes' reality and what this character is going through both internally and externally. How did you navigate the more graphic aspects of outer violence without belittling her internal struggle?  

Veronika Franz: We never show violence for the sake of violence. But as you said, it needs to be shown.  

Severin Fiala: And it needs to be unpleasant. But if it’s too gory or too much like a movie with blood spurting out of wounds, then it almost makes it more harmless. I think we just wanted to be as unpleasant and as real as possible in order to achieve the complexity of this woman being a victim of society and her times. And like we mentioned earlier, it was important to feel for her and then to be repelled and shocked by what she does. For this duality to work, the violence needs to be as unpleasant as possible.  

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Veronika Franz: What a way to end an interview! (Laughs) 

Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala
Veronica Franz and Severin FialaDavid Mouriquand

The Devil's Bathis out now in select theatres and on Shudder.

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