‘The Devil’s Bath’ Directors on ‘Goodnight Mommy’ Remake, Fighting for ‘The Lodge,’ and More

“Goodnight Mommy” directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala deliver another twisted tale of familicide on the rural edges of Austria with “The Devil’s Bath.” Set in 1750, the movie draws from actual historical accounts of depressed women who avoided suicide by murdering children to get themselves executed, thereby granting them salvation from Hell.

Franz and Fiala, whose last feature was 2019’s English-language cult-survivor horror “The Lodge,” evade traditional thriller elements like jump scares and plot twists. Instead, this is a harrowing psychodrama that explores ritualistic child killings that allegedly overtook Europe in the 18th century as women’s reprieve from the bottomless pit of despair.

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For “The Devil’s Bath,” which premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival and is now in theaters, the Austrian filmmaking duo plumbed troves of research courtesy of UC Davis professor and historian Kathy Stuart, who spoke about this “suicide by proxy” phenomenon on a blip of a “This American Life” segment in a 2012 episode entitled “Loopholes.”

“It was mainly transcriptions of court trial protocols and interrogation protocols, and it was really stunning because it’s something you never learn in school,” Fiala said in a recent IndieWire interview. “History’s always about the big wars and royalty and kings and queens and stuff like that. But [here we saw] very normal people who committed atrocious crimes, and [reading of] them talking about the daily lives and hopes and fears was very emotionally shattering.”

Reviewing different court protocols that led to the death sentencings of the women, Veronika Franz said the filmmakers were “hypnotized” by the story of one Eva Lizlfellnerin.

“There’s this woman talking to you and telling you about her fears and dreams and daily life, about her husband, her mother-in-law, etc. This was the emotional starting point for us because we fell in love with her instantly,” Franz said. “It was also one of the reasons later on why we could not make a total genre piece out of it because she was close to our heart, and we didn’t want to betray her story, and if you want to make a proper genre film, you have to add twists and jump scares and whatever it needs.”

Enter Anja Plaschg, the film’s composer, who resonated with the material from such a deep and true place that the filmmakers cast her as the protagonist Agnes, loosely based on Lizlfellnerin.

Anja Plaschg in The Devil's Bath
‘The Devil’s Bath’IFC Films

“Anja had very few limits and was willing to do everything and experience everything,” said co-director Fiala, whose film puts Plaschg through a physical and psychological wringer as a forced (and unconsummated and childless) marriage makes Agnes so physically ill, so bedridden with despair, that she considers the most extreme of ways out. “When she read the script, we could tell she understood the character extremely well, and this whole world, her psyche, and what this woman endured. It wasn’t necessary for us to explain it to her. Maybe she understood it on an emotionally level much better than anyone else did.”

As with “Goodnight Mommy” and “The Lodge,” which shot in remote locations in Austria and Canada respectively, Fiala and Franz plunged their actors into real places, shooting chronologically to keep “things as real as possible, so the house was not a studio set. It was not properly heated, but just this very cold, very dark stone house,” Fiala said. “We wanted to do everything with practical lights and fire as much as possible, which is difficult when you shoot on film. Anja [lived] in that place for a few days, and could actually cook there, wear her costume for weeks before the shoot, and all of that helped her to forget the artificial elements that filmmaking includes. We tried to strip away as many of the technical aspects that make the whole experience feel artificial, which is something professional actors and actress forget.”

From the fisherman to the priests seen in costume on the dank, amenity-free set of “The Devil’s Bath,” many non-professional actors were incorporated into filming, as Franz and Fiala love to do. “Working with them means having that trust, and this is the most important point before you start shooting a movie is sharing a vision and sharing the trust,” Franz said. “On an emotional level, it was a trip into darkness, so we needed to have trust, so we also could cope with sad situations and very challenging situations.”

In fact, “The Devil’s Bath” shot a mere five minutes’ drive from the location where their 2014 horror breakout “Goodnight Mommy,” about twin boys terrorizing a woman purporting to be their mother, filmed. The filmmakers even stayed in the same hotel.

“This was a more poor area in Austria close to the Czech border, where there used to be the Iron Curtain. There are no new houses; there is not much electricity. Because we shot here in the COVID period, there were also no planes, which for a historic film is always a problem because of the sound, the noise of planes and cars, and we didn’t have all of that,” Franz said.

In 2022, Amazon Studios distributed an American remake of “Goodnight Mommy” starring Naomi Watts and directed by Matt Sobel; it was horribly received by critics and largely deemed a cautionary tale for unnecessary U.S. retreads of already beloved international horror properties. Fiala and Franz, while admittedly “open-minded” about that remake, explained why they’d never do it themselves.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY, Naomi Watts, 2022. © Amazon Prime Video /Courtesy Everett Collection
Naomi Watts in the ‘Goodnight Mommy’ remake©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection

“In Austria, you can raise no more than $3 million for a movie. If it’s an international co-production, then it’s $7 million. If you want to make a bigger film, the U.S. is the only option there is, but it comes with a lot of restraints,” said Fiala. “The ‘Goodnight Mommy’ remake filmmaker encountered a lot of those restraints, and it’s very tough to fight a lot, and that’s the reason we felt we would never do the remake ourselves, because there’s so much fighting involved, and there’s a risk the film turns out way less interesting. We’re fighters, and we like to discuss with producers and fight. You can’t do this 100 times. We need to pick our movies carefully and invest energy only in projects that are worth it, and doing the same film a second time didn’t feel like it was worth it.”

Similarly, the path to “The Lodge” (starring Riley Keough and released by Neon in early 2020), which involved working with British and American co-producers, reacquainted the filmmakers with the limits of control.

“The experience on ‘The Lodge’ is maybe the difference between us and some Americans,” said Franz, laughing. “They tend to want to have everything explained, and we like secrets. This is a gap between our culture and some of the American concepts [about our movies].”

“Financiers want to be on the safe side that the film will make money, which we understand, but after a ‘Lodge’ test screening, the focus group was discussing the film,” Fiala said. “We were sitting in the back and were super happy with that and felt, ‘Oh, good, they have questions. They talk about the movie. They’re smart. That’s great!’ Then, one of the financiers said, ‘Oh, God, no, they have questions!’ There is a different perception whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and for us, it’s always a good thing if the audience is left with questions. For financiers, it doesn’t seem to be the case.”

THE LODGE, from left: Richard Armitage, Riley Keough, 2019. © Neon / courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Lodge’Courtesy Everett Collection

Is “The Lodge,” led by Keough as the survivor of a mass suicide on holiday in a nowhere wilderness with her new stepchildren, the version the filmmakers intended? It ends with ambiguity and doesn’t leave the viewer feeling reassured — very much like “The Devil’s Bath,” which ends with an ear-shattering scream.

Franz said they “fought” for the ending of “The Lodge.” Fiala said, “We fight for every aspect of [our] filmmaking. Even the editing process, it was 99 percent the way we wanted. Then it comes to post-production and ADR, and of course, they can explain everything with ADR. There’s always the very weird ADR. We always start laughing when we watch the film, when somebody shouts off screen, ‘Oh, no, there is a fishing hole!’”

“Which is before you see the fishing hole,” Franz said.

“The producer said, ‘Oh, no, what’s that hole? People won’t understand what that hole is, and we said ‘I don’t care,’ but that leads to someone saying offscreen, ‘Oh, no, there is a fishing hole,’ which doesn’t make much sense to us. Stuff like that at the very last moment of the sound mix. … We found it funny and included it, but other [suggestions], we did not.”

When we spoke, Franz and Fiala were on Zoom out of Massachusetts, where they’re scouting locations for their next English-language project, “A Head Full of Ghosts,” adapted from a novel by Paul G. Tremblay centered on a reality TV show about a suburban demonic possession. Franz and Fiala inherited the project from directors, including Osgood Perkins and Scott Cooper.

“We were really surprised by how posh [Massachusetts is, like] Salem, for example, felt very touristic, very posh, and very clean, and film stands to make things look more beautiful than they are. If you have a proper, touristic village, we will need to find the darker, less posh corners of Beverly, Massachusetts [where they’re also scouting],” said Fiala.

He added, “We read all the old drafts of the script, and what was interesting was they were all really personal in a way. We liked them, the producers seemed to have encouraged those filmmakers to really make it somewhat their own, so I don’t know why it worked out with them. Let’s see if it works out with us, but so far, we’re pretty confident.”

“The Devil’s Bath,” meanwhile, might mark the last credit for producer and filmmaker Ulrich Seidl for a while. The Austrian director is Fiala’s uncle and Franz’s husband and is in many ways an aesthetic compatriot of Michael Haneke, shocking and riling audiences with bluntly told satires of European society.

His 2022 film “Sparta” did not see the light of day in North America after a Der Spiegel report alleging on-set abuse spurred Toronto to cancel the premiere. Der Spiegel alleged child exploitation on the set of the film about a non-offending pedophile teaching martial arts to children — including instances of physical abuse, all debunked by investigations launched in Romania and Austria. But the damage, as Fiala and Franza said, is done.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - JUNE 05: Veronika Franz, Ulrich Seidl and Severin Fiala speak on stage after winning the Best Feature Film award in "Des Teufels Bad" (The devil's bath) at the Austrian Film Award at Wiener Rathaus on June 05, 2024 in Vienna, Austria.  (Photo by Christian Bruna/Getty Images)
Veronika Franz, Ulrich Seidl, and Severin Fiala at the Austrian Film Awards on June 5, 2024 in Vienna, AustriaGetty Images

“For us, the whole thing is very weird because, as opposed to other famous directors whom we personally know, who don’t always behave nicely on set, Ulrich is a very gentle, very nice person. What he was accused of, for us, it was clear that there is no basis,” Fiala said.

The Der Spiegel report accused the filmmakers of duping parents into allowing their children to star in the movie without knowledge of its pedophiliac overtures.

“If you’re a director, and you see the film, then you know you only could have done this film if you had a good relationship with those kids, because those are kids,” Franz said. “They tell you, ‘I don’t want to be in that movie’ if they are not feeling great, and you can see that, actually.”

Fiala said that “of course” the controversy will prevent his work from getting distributed going forward. Seidl, a producer on “Devil’s Bath,” has not announced a film since the 2022 Der Spiegel report published.

“There’s never been a trial. There was just an investigation; nothing came out of it, but just somebody making false accusations is enough to really destroy something,” Fiala said. “It’s never going to be 100 percent OK again, so no matter what you find out, it will never be totally redeemed. That’s a problem not only in this case but many other cases as well, and it’s a problem that we as a society have created, that it’s enough to say, ‘This person might have done something wrong,’ and then there is actual problems for that person no matter if that accusation is true or false.”

Franz added, “It really makes us sad, not only knowing the whole story around Ulrich, nothing after that, and all the parents, they stated that the shoot was OK, they stated they saw the movie, they stated they liked the movie. Nothing helped after that.”

“They were only interested in scandal, so the good news that nothing happened is not interesting to them, and that’s the problem,” Fiala said. “I won’t use any specific names, but there was a female director at the Austrian Film Awards last year, and one of her actors was accused of something, and she was onstage, and she accused two other filmmakers, who have been accusing her, so it’s like a Salem Witch Trial situation.”

He may be referring to “Corsage” director Marie Kreutzer, whose star Florian Teichtmeister was charged with possession of child pornography in early 2023. “Corsage” was among the winners at the ceremony.

“It’s just like people accusing each other instead of really trying to improve things. Of course, people make mistakes, not only in arts but in every field of work, of course they do, but if we’re not able to overcome those mistakes, to learn from them and improve, then it’s useless,” Fiala said.

Franz added, “To be honest, I don’t understand why we aren’t in a society where we can’t make mistakes. You need to make mistakes because you learn from them. Of course, it depends on how severe they are, but everyone makes mistakes every day. You should just say sorry, and learn from that.”

“The Devil’s Bath” is now in theaters and streaming on Shudder.

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