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Exclusive Interview: “THE DEVIL’S BATH” creators Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala on psychodrama in period, puking for real and more

Monday, July 1, 2024 | Interviews


A strong contender for the year’s most distressing film, THE DEVIL’S BATH (just debuted on Shudder) is the latest from writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala of GOODNIGHT MOMMY and THE LODGE. The duo go into detail about crafting their haunting period piece in this exclusive chat.

Based on accounts collected by historian Kathy Stuart (one case in particular), THE DEVIL’S BATH is set in late-18th-century Austria and showcases a remarkable and raw performance by musician-turned-actress Anja Plaschg. She plays Agnes, a newly married woman whose circumstances lead her to slip into depression, resulting in her making a horrifying decision. Please note that this conversation, conducted following the movie’s international premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, contains SPOILERS regarding the overall storyline and a few of the details of THE DEVIL’S BATH. You can read our (spoiler-free) review of the movie here, and watch a video chat with the filmmakers here.

How did you discover the research by Kathy Stuart that the movie is based on?

SEVERIN FIALA: It was a coincidence. We were listening to an episode of THIS AMERICAN LIFE, and it was about loopholes, and one very short portion of the podcast was about a loophole in history where people committed suicide by killing other people just to get executed. Kathy Stuart was talking about that, and we had never heard about it.

VERONIKA FRANZ: Her work is mainly based on German-speaking cases, so she did research in Germany and Austria and collected, I don’t know, hundreds of cases. She was about to write a book which now has been published [SUICIDE BY PROXY IN EARLY MODERN GERMANY: CRIME, SIN AND SALVATION], which she is very proud of, and we are too.

FIALA: You would never hear stories about people like these women, because history was never interested in them. It was a fascinating, very unknown story of how people lived back then. And I believe most people lived like them. We only know about kings and queens, to exaggerate it a bit, but not about how other people lived. And Kathy’s research was a very honest and direct source about their lives, and also fascinating.

FRANZ: It was hard to get the script right, actually, because we felt so close to the woman in the main case we drew from that we started out by writing a courtroom drama. But then that felt wrong; it kind of felt fake.

FIALA: When you read the protocol of this case, it’s as if she’s directly talking to you as a reader, and if you staged that, you’d just see two people talking to each other. It was less directed, less impactful, and we felt that we lost what we felt while reading those protocols, because you could really get the sense of her inner struggle. So we tried to come up with cinematic images and sounds to externalize her inner horror, so to speak. Which is why THE DEVIL’S BATH is perceived as a horror film. We don’t know if it’s that; we wouldn’t call it a horror film. I think it’s a film about inner trauma, and dealing with very dark things.

FRANZ: I think the closest we get to the protocols in the film is the confession scene, because there you have the effect of her actually talking to you. She’s addressing the camera, she’s talking about her emotions and her thoughts, and that’s what we experienced when we read the protocols for the first time.

There are elements around Agnes–like her husband, who seems very indifferent to her, and her mother-in-law–who are negative influences on her as well.

FIALA: I’m not sure if we see it exactly like that. I think for the time the film is set in, Wolf is not an unloving husband. That’s what the real woman said in the trial protocols; he didn’t hit her, for example, which for that time was rather uncommon. So she had no issue with him. And the mother-in-law is also under a lot of pressure, because you’re always watched by other people in this kind of small-town society. And this new woman comes into the community, she doesn’t work, and that falls back onto to the rest of the family, so the mother-in-law really needs to make her work. So while of course it’s difficult for Agnes, it’s also difficult for the others.

FRANZ: We didn’t want to paint a picture of, these are the bad guys, and Agnes is the victim. We always thought of it as, people are people, and they have their issues. So for example, the husband, he’s maybe not into women. And there is his friend who hangs himself, with a hint that some people interpret…

FIALA: The interpret it as him being gay, which could totally be the case, of course.

FRANZ: And that was also forbidden at that time.

FIALA: So he has his own secrets and his own problems. For us, the only thing that was important in regards to that was that there is not one reason the film gives for Agnes being depressive. It’s a combination of everything, and her not belonging to this world and not finding a place in it.

FRANZ: And feeling the pressure of religious dogma, and also the pressure of society that you have to function, you have to work, you have to fulfill your duties. That speaks to the modern day, because times may be different but we are still under a lot of pressure–especially women–to fulfill different kinds of tasks, to be a mother, to be a wife, to work.

FIALA: Agnes is also a perfectionist, in a way. She always has the feeling that she is never good enough, that she can never live up to these high expectations, which is something that I think a lot of people feel nowadays. I think it’s very easy to slip into mental health trouble when you don’t get help, which back then was, of course, much more difficult than now. But still, I believe the greater part of the world still doesn’t talk about those issues.

When I first read THE DEVIL’S BATH’s title and saw it was a period piece, I expected it to be a folk-horror film, but it isn’t that, though you do touch on religion as a motivating factor. Can you talk a little more about the movie’s place in the genre and the expectations around it?

FIALA: For us, the most important thing was to do justice to this character, because she actually lived. That was the goal, and we didn’t think about the genre. We actually like that you cannot easily put a label on THE DEVIL’S BATH, because in cinema, we prefer to watch a film and be surprised by how it moves, and in which unexpected directions it goes. If a film is not so easy to categorize, that’s something we very much appreciate, as viewers ourselves.

This is your first period feature, so how did that impact the production?

FIALA: Period films are very hard in a way, because there are many things you can easily get wrong. So we practiced [laughs] when we did our segment of THE FIELD GUIDE TO EVIL, the anthology film. There was not a lot of money involved, but it’s set in roughly in the same era, so we tried some costume ideas, and we had the same DP.

FRANZ: One of the houses is even the same; we shot in a house we later used in DEVIL’S BATH.

Your previous films, even though they’re contemporary, have a timeless or even fairy-tale quality about them, so is period storytelling something you’ve always wanted to try?

FIALA: What you just said is interesting, because I think DEVIL’S BATH also feels sort of timeless. You shouldn’t be able to watch it and say that, back then, all people were ignorant or something like that. I believe every film should talk about the world we’re living in right now. A period piece just for presenting history is not so interesting to us. And I think the most dangerous thing about period films, or how people do them, is that they try to recreate, let’s say, famous paintings from the time, because those paintings are often idealized or clichéd versions of reality back then. If people had their portraits done or sat for a painting, they obviously wore their best clothes; they didn’t look like that every day. It’s an idealized version, and if we copied those, the film would be even further removed from reality. We believe everything should feel authentic, so the actors moved into the houses and actually cooked there and wore their costumes for weeks, so that everything would feel normal to them.

We told the costume designer [Tanja Hausner] that every outfit had to have a mistake, because they were not tailored specifically for these people. Sometimes it would be, for example, the older sister’s clothes, and the younger sister would get them afterward and they wouldn’t fit perfectly, so we wanted to have stuff like that. But still, when we had the first dress rehearsal, all the actors totally looked like they were “in costumes,” like it was a dress-up party.

FRANZ: It didn’t look real.

FIALA: Although it wasn’t a costume problem, we found out, because after they had been in those clothes for a few weeks, they wore them more naturally, and that changed how we perceived the costumes. If they don’t think about wearing the costumes, and forget that they’re wearing them, you can feel that on the screen.

Your lead actress, Anja Plaschg, gives an incredibly committed performance, both emotionally and physically.

FIALA: She wanted to do as many things for real as possible. That’s very rare in an actress, the combination of being super-disciplined and precise and on the other hand truly wanting to feel something. Like, she wanted the other actor to actually put his fingers down her throat to make her throw up. She was complaining that he wasn’t putting his fingers deep enough, and he was like, “I cannot go in any further!” [Laughs]

FRANZ: After five times, she came to us and said, “He’s not doing it right!” [Laughs] She had a hard time throwing up, and she always wanted to do everything for the movie.

This is not a movie that necessarily encourages a big audience response; it’s a very interior kind of film. How have audiences taken to it so far?

FIALA: In Austria, the film has already been released in cinemas. And our experience has been interesting; it’s about a historical phenomenon, but after the screening, people have said they can connect to it. Most of them have questions related to the period in which the film is set, and are interested in whether we invented all that stuff, or if it’s based in reality.

FRANZ: For example, they ask about the blood drinking or the cut finger: “Is this real? Why is that?” People really want to know about history back then, and about women’s lives.

FIALA: It’s not exactly an uplifting film, but it’s been very easy to have talks after the movie, because people seem to be interested in those subjects. And what makes us very proud is that people who have had some kind of mental health issues have related to the film, and told us they’ve never seen depression depicted in a way that feels so real. They’re people who know how depression feels, and that was something we set out to do. It was a difficult task, to make an engaging film about depression, because it’s a social disease that alienates you and makes you feel very alone. So when people say we showed it in a way that spoke to them, it really makes us proud.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).