The Devil's Bath: “How can something so drastic happen without anybody knowing about it?”

English Daily #1
The Devil's Bath (Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz, Austria/Germany, 2024) Twisted Apricot, 9-7 22:00 House of Cinema H. Malyan Hall

It might surprise you that the spark for a film about depression and infanticide in the countryside of 18th century Austria was an episode of an American podcast series, but when directing duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz were listening to This American Life, they discovered an incredible historical narrative that demanded a film adaptation. “We were listening to this American woman with German roots called Kathy Stuart,” Severin Fiala explains shortly after the premiere of The Devil’s Bath at this year’s Berlinale. “She researched this phenomenon of what is known as ‘suicide by proxy’. She was on this podcast to talk about loopholes, and suicide by proxy was a potential loophole for women around the 18th century if they wanted to end their own life. If they would kill somebody else, they could confess before their own execution and still be absolved and allowed to go to heaven.”

Suddenly, the duo known for their artful treatment of genre fare, got obsessed with this largely forgotten historical narrative. “Especially one Austrian case moved us,” Veronika Franz adds. “There was this peasant lady who talked in court about her daily life, her dreams, her fears, her insecurities. We would never know about these kinds of personal insights, if it wasn’t for the fact that she stood trial because she killed her baby.” This vivid and personal insight into the soul and psyche of this ordinary woman from the margins of history was the initial genesis for the duo’s latest project.

With a treasure trove of court documents, it seemed only logical to construct a courtroom drama out of this tragic story. But Fiala and Franz felt that it would diminish the staying power of Agnes’ story, the protagonist of The Devil’s Bath. “When we re-read our initial script,” Fiala remembers, “we weren’t satisfied with the courtroom aspect, as it didn’t have the impact that we wanted to convey. It’s still a fascinating process, but when you’re in court you’re basically repeating lines and mediating again and again what has happened before.” Instead, they went for a more direct and immediate approach: “we had to find a way of externalizing her inner-horrors and feelings, and turn them into a highly cinematic form.” The result is a startling and highly unsettling drama that masterfully evokes this historic form of depression and melancholy deeply buried in this poor soul.

Hugo Emmerzael