Review: ‘The Devil’s Bath,’ starring Anja Plaschg, Maria Hofstätter and David Scheid

July 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anja Plaschg and David Scheid in “The Devil’s Bath” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“The Devil’s Bath”

Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Austria, in 1750, the horror film “The Devil’s Bath” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young newlywed becomes mentally ill in a conservative and judgmental religious community.  

Culture Audience: “The Devil’s Bath” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s directors and horror films with religious themes.

Anja Plaschg in “The Devil’s Bath” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“The Devil’s Bath” is not easy to watch for people who expect horror movies to have quick pacing and obvious jump scares. This “slow burn” film, set in 1750 Austria, shows the terror of untreated mental illness in a strict religious community. It’s worth watching until the very end to understand the true impact of the story.

Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, “The Devil’s Bath” is based on historical research by Kathy Stuart. The movie had its world premiere at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. “The Devil’s Bath” swept the 2024 Austrian Film Awards, winning seven prizes: Best Feature Film; Best Actress (for Anja Plaschg); Best Supporting Actress (for Maria Hofstätter); Best Film Editing; Best Production Design; Best Score; and Best Makeup.

The movie (which takes place in an unnamed Austrian village in 1750) begins with a terrifying scene of a woman named Ewa Schikin (played by Natalya Baranova) is walking through a wooded area with a baby (played by Frieda Seidl) until she reaches a cliff with a waterfall. Ewa then throws the baby over the waterfall. After committing this murder, she makes the sign of the cross on herself, calmly walks to a house, knocks on the door, and says to the unseen person opening the door: “I committed a crime.” Was is then shown beheaded, with her head on the ground. An unseen person cuts off one of her fingers.

And why did she commit this murder? That question is answered toward the end of the movie. In the meantime, a young couple named Agnes (played by Plaschg) and Wolf (played by David Scheid) are shown getting married. At the wedding reception, the guests play a game to behead a chicken while blindfolded.

Agnes and Wolf are living in a small shack-like house, near the house of Wolf’s mother Gänglin (played by Hofstätter), who has a close relationship with Wolf. Before Wolf and Agnes got married, the couple lived with Gänglin. Agnes liked living there and expresses disappointment to Wolf that the couple will now be living in this much smaller house. Wolf tells Agnes that he will soon inherit his mother’s farm, which is another way of saying he doesn’t expect Gänglin to live much longer.

This village community is very religious. Every time a clock chimes in the village, several of the residents make the sign of the cross. Women are expected to be wives and mothers. Young and healthy women are expected to out with any physical work that the men do.

Many of the villagers make their living by fishing for catfish. However, later in the movie, it’s shown that the village is experiencing a food shortage. Loaves and bread are rationed. This rationing leads to some tense moments where people have disputes about how much bread they deserve to get.

One day, Agnes is walking through the woods and looking for Wolf when she sees a drawing on a tree. The drawing depicts Ewa throwing a baby over a waterfall and later being beheaded while she was in prison. She also sees that Ewa’s beheaded body on display with Ewa’s head nearby in a small cage. It’s later revealed that Agnes now has the finger of Ewa that was taken from Ewa’s body.

Another death soon happens in the village: A young man named Lenz (played by Lorenz Tröbinger) has committed suicide by hanging. At Lenz’s funeral, a priest gives a sermon has this to say about Lenz’s suicide: “What he did is worse than murder.”

Agnes wants to become a mother but gets frustrated that she hasn’t gotten pregnant. She falls into a deep depression where she refuses to get out of bed. Agnes also overhears her mother-in-law Gänglin tells Wolf: “You should’ve married a local girl … someone who’s a better worker and can get pregnant.”

The movie’s title refers to 18th century Austrian vernacular that described depression as being trapped in “the devil’s bath.” Because psychology wasn’t developed as a science until the late 1870s, religion in Agnes’ 1750s community is used as an explanation for mental illness. In many of today’s communities, religion instead of science is still used as a “cure” or treatment for mental illness and other psychological issues.

“The Devil’s Bath” shows Agnes’ further mental deterioration as she continues to isolate herself. Some extreme things happen that are meant to be shocking but also demonstrate what can happen when desperate people do certain things when they feel trapped and take what they think is the best option. Religious oppression is inescapable in this story.

There are some haunting images scattered throughout the movie. For example, there’s a scene showing decapitated human arms floating in a barrel filled with water and catfish. Another is a scene where moths come out of Agnes’ mouth.

Some of the most squirm-worthy imagex are how the “treatments” that Agnes gets from Wolf in attempts to “cure” her of her depression. Leeches are put on Agnes to “let the melancholy out.” Wolf also uses a needle to thread a dangling string horizontally across the back of her neck, where Agnes tugs the string back and forth. It seems like a very crude and misguided way of treating nerve pinpoints, like a warped version of acupuncture.

“The Devil’s Bath” succeeds in its intention to depict a dark and claustrophobic experience of someone’s mental illness gradually getting worse and being stuck in a community that equates mental illness with demon possession. Religion is used with rigid harshness to punish those who are mentally ill.

As the troubled Agnes, Plaschg gives a complex performance that is both harrowing and heartbreaking. “The Devil’s Bath” deliberately takes its time to reveal certain deadly motives. The truth has nothing to do with devil possession and everything to do real-life religious fears that human beings place on each other.

Shudder released “The Devil’s Bath” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024. Shudder premiered the movie on June 28, 2024.

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