Credit: Ulrich Seid Film Produktion and Heimatfilm/Shudder
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Devil’s Bath — Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala

June 24, 2024

How does one approach a film that reveals everything about itself in its opening sequence? Do we applaud its ability to summarize its themes succinctly? Or do we criticize its overly and overtly telegraphed delivery? It’s complicated. Answering our questions even before we have the chance to ask them encourages a different kind — almost privileged and passive — of movie watching: we wait for what the film has already told us will happen, our attention now redirected to how exactly the narrative pushes its characters to reach its cathartic (or despairing) endpoint. Films like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) and Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) use this narrative inevitability expertly. They both begin at obviously despairing ends: Eggers’s film reveals the creature-in-the-woods as the devil incarnate who destroys everyone and everything in its vicinity; Von Trier artfully stages the obliteration of planet Earth in slow motion, set to operatically depressing classical music. But the more we follow these characters, the less clear we are about their apparent hopelessness. We still see exactly what each of these films promised us in their respective opening sequences, but we feel differently about them because of how they take us to that point. Inevitability is no longer a predictable endpoint; it gives concrete answers but inspires you to question your conflicted reaction to them.

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s psychological horror film The Devil’s Bath, about the religious dogmatism and warped traditionalism suffocating the life out of peasant women in mid-18th century Upper Austria, never manages to do that. In theory, it should: the Austrian director duo’s cinema of aestheticized cruelty (Goodnight, Mommy and The Lodge) belongs to the European arthouse school of thought that Von Trier and A24’s elevated horror also share: make genre films that go beyond generating just genre thrills. But to what end? The Devil’s Bath isn’t brashly auto-critical like Von Trier is in nearly all his work; neither is it particularly psychologically invigorating like the best A24-produced or distributed horror fare. It’s consistently well-acted, richly atmospheric — Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography took home the Silver Bear for Outstanding Cinematography at this year’s Berlin Film Festival — and it features a genuinely chilling opening sequence involving a crying baby and a troubled woman “taking care” of that baby in a rather cruel way.

But Franz and Fiala detail the potentially tragic motivation behind it almost too clearly to the detriment of the rest of the film. They stage this opening sequence like the least exciting first kill in a slasher horror film: the stark silence of the woods and frugal shot-cutting build up the suspense, but the woman’s overall weariness punctures the “catharsis” — fabricated or not — she feels after committing the act of murder. We already suspect someone has forced her into doing this; we already feel that she may be both an innocent victim and a monstrous perpetrator. Rather than allowing these questions to linger, though, the film shows this woman confessing her murder and then getting brutally punished for it before the screen cuts to black. After revealing its title, the directors double down on confirming what we saw as an overwhelming tragedy by throwing us this uncited quote: “As my troubles left me weary of life, it came to me to commit a murder.”

The rest of The Devil’s Bath is nothing more than a drab depiction of what all these troubles are that make another peasant woman, Agnes (Anja Plaschg), so weary of her life as to commit murder. Everything from her husband’s implied homosexuality to her mother-in-law’s inhumane authority to her and society’s hyper-religiosity become factors responsible for her eventual downfall. It’s all utterly miserable and hopeless. But the film already told us that in its opening eight minutes. What point is there, then, in watching monotonous misery play out for the remaining 112 when the takeaway remains the same?

DIRECTOR: Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala;  CAST: Anja Plaschg, David Scheid, Maria Hofstätter, Natalija Baranova;  DISTRIBUTOR: Shudder;  IN THEATERS: June 21;  STREAMING: June 28;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 1 min.