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The Devil’s Bath (Des Teufels Bad)

Extremely bleak and gruesome Austrian drama with a touch of Carl Dreyer and exec produced by Ulrich Seidl dissects an unhappily married woman as she slowly descends into madness - from the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival

QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM BERLIN

The year is 1750 and the setting in rural Austria. The story begins with a woman inexplicably throwing a baby down a waterfall, and consequently being subjected to torture and execution. Her fingers and toes are slowly cut off one by one, before she is finally beheaded. Her headless corpse is left to rot nearby, in a ghastly display of barbaric justice. This is just the first of the many very graphic and disturbing scenes of this 121-minute Austrian drama.

Agnes (Anja Plaschg) lives with her absent and dispassionate husband Wolf (David Scheid). She prays to the Lord that He will give her a baby, but that remains unlikely since her husband prefers masturbation to coitus, also for reasons that the directors leave us to speculate. Wolf’s mother Gänglin (Maria Hofstätter) isn’t particularly fond of her daughter-in-law. She believes that the woman is lazy and at fault for not conceiving a baby, and encourages her son to abandon her. Agnes eavesdrop on the conversation, nearly breaking into tears. The young woman’s frustration gradually morphs into indignation. Even worse, she begins to feel guilty for being a motherless child. While not making an overt feminist statement, The Devil ‘s Bath reveals a society where the blame always lies with women.

Our hapless protagonist feels lonely and vulnerable. She begins a descent into female madness similar to Anne of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943). In the Danish film, which is set roughly a century earlier, women are accused of witchcraft. Here they are accused of “the devil’s bath”, a euphemism for demonic possession. After all, women are such evil monsters. Phaschg delivers a terrifyingly visceral performance, particularly in the confession: her swivelling eyes are bursting with delusion, her cathartic laughter palpable with fear. The talented actress is also a famous singer, composer and producer, best known by her artistic name Soap&Skin. She is a very strong contender for the Leading Performance Prize (the Berlinale no longer dopes gender-specific awards).

This is not a movie for the squeamish. There is a touch of horror, with an insistently foggy weather and countless night scenes, particularly indoors (at a time when electricity did not exist). And there is no shortage of grisly scenes: fingers chopped, animals butchered, corpses rotting, medical procedures from hell, and some very cruel games. Villagers drink human blood, bored children pluck animal’s teeth out, and a rooster is sadistically crushed with a metal bar (a moment guaranteed to ruffle some feathers amongst animal lovers). The torture and killing of these poor creature looks very real, and that’s hardly surprising for a film exec produced by Ulrich Seidl, the director of the shockling graphic hunting documentary Safari (2026). While disturbing, these images are not gratuitous. Instead, they are a very realistic representation of a time when Europeans had a different relationship to their own mortality and to that of other species.

Be prepared for a shocking turns of events at the end of the film, when the real motivation of the murderesses is finally revealed. A rationale so religiously twisted that it beggars belief.

The Devil’s Bath just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. The film is based on historical court record. Not an easy watch, however a very convincing drama.


By Victor Fraga - 20-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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