‘The Devil’s Bath’ Review: A Childless Woman Searches for Relief in This Bleak and Brilliant Religious Drama from Directors of ‘Goodnight Mommy’

Upper Austria, 1750. A middle-aged woman holding a baby stands at the mouth of a waterfall that seems to stretch all the way up to heaven on a cascade of white foam. What happens next won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the rest of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s captivatingly bleak — and religiously familicidal — body of work: She lobs the child over the edge, with no discernible expression on her face as the little bundle plummets out of sight.

From there, the woman immediately reports herself to the local authorities. The next time we see her, she’s on public display in a local forest, her decapitated head resting in an iron cage next to her corpse. This morbid exhibit is complete with an illustrated plaque that’s meant to serve as a warning for those who would dare to trespass against God. It doesn’t. On the contrary, it might even inspire other women to commit the same crime.

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Why? “The Devil’s Bath” doesn’t fully answer that question until the end credits, which kick off with a series of title cards that contextualize the rash of ritualistic child killings that once spread across the German-speaking world. It’s the kind of information that a different film might choose to provide at the start. But this haunted and harrowing psychodrama — based on surviving records from the 18th century, and rooted in the day-to-day tedium of Styrian farm life — has too much respect for its emotionally isolated heroine to frame her unraveling as part of a broader phenomenon.

The ecclesiastical loopholes that explain her choices are less important than the unheeded despair that compels her to make them in the first place. If “The Devil’s Bath” is a case study that could rival “The Witch” for its historical accuracy, such immaculate attention to detail is purely in service to the inescapable presentness of its circumstances. This is a story about a depressed newlywed’s desperate search for expiation amid a society that sees childless women as a living sin, and it refuses to let us judge her actions by any other standard.

And why should we? The timelessness of her circumstance is the only thing scarier or more damning than the specifics of her ultimate response to it. “The Devil’s Bath” may not be a horror film, but it’s easily the most frightening thing the “Goodnight Mommy” and “The Lodge” directors have ever made.

Played by Soap&Skin musician Anja Plaschg, whose relative inexperience as an actress lends her performance the same raw immediacy that Björk once brought to the similarly wrenching “Dancer in the Dark,” Agnes only happens upon the headless woman in the forest because her new husband forces her to move into a stone cottage on the outskirts of the Christian hamlet where both spouses were born and raised. As a nature-lover who hums to the grass and invites butterflies to flirt with her fingers, Agnes isn’t upset that Wolf (a gentle but terminally patriarchal David Scheid) has bought her a house, but any hopes of making it into their own private eden are dashed by the end of their wedding night, when the groom asks his bride to roll away from him so he can masturbate — grimly — under the covers.

We recognize that Wolf might have eyes for one of his bros in the village, but it’s possible the thought never occurs to the naive and godly Agnes. Not that it would matter if it did; this is her life now, and no one is going to help her make sense of it, least of all her husband or his disapproving mother (Maria Hofstatter), who readily identifies Agnes as the cause of any problems her son might have. As for her problems, well, they’re completely irrelevant to a culture that only sees women for the purpose they serve — and doesn’t see Agnes at all for her inability to serve it.

Fiala and Franz train our eyes on their heroine’s invisibility, as the first hour of their film — paced at the speed of 18th century farm life — threatens to lose her against the dull light of her daily life. The toil is everything. Fishing in the muddy river. Washing clothes along the rocks with her mother-in-law. Cooking for Wolf by the dark of the fire. Agnes sings to herself in an effort to steal a melody from the joyless torpor of this existence, which has no room for art or personal expression of any other sort (dancing is strictly for weddings, where it might serve a purpose by setting the mood), but her a capella warblings are drowned out by the sawing queasiness of the movie’s score, which — on a fittingly self-confined note — was written and performed by Plaschg, herself.

It’s no wonder that Agnes semi-consciously wanders back to the headless creature in the forest whenever she has an idle moment to spare. Ghastly a spectacle as her rotting body might be, its fingers and toes either chewed away by wildlife or severed on behalf of esoteric superstitions (I’ll give you one guess), at least her soul is free from the earthly constraints of a mortal woman. And not just free, but in heaven.

Unlike the male villager who hangs himself towards the movie’s halfway point, therefore condemning his spirit to eternal damnation in the pits of hell, the child-killer had a chance to atone for her sins before she was publicly executed for them — a suicide by proxy. God forgave her for murdering a perfect innocent, and invited her to join the baby at his side in the afterlife. In that light, it’s tempting to imagine the woman’s death as one of her life’s most and only joyous occasions, as she was liberated from the bitter cold of Martin Gschlacht’s beautifully unsparing 35mm cinematography and welcomed by the warm glow of the paradise beyond.

Shaken by that awful example, Agnes frantically begins to search for other, less fatal ways by which she might assert some agency over her existence. Over time, her frustrations begin to pool into a growing sinkhole of sadness that forms beneath her feet; a pit of despair that can only grow so deep before delusions become Agnes’ best hope of seeing a life for herself outside of the hole.

This is when the unfussy naturalism of Fiala and Franz’s design — a sharp change of pace from the severe compositions of their previous work —starts to create a sickeningly effective friction against the man-made religious strictures of the community in which it takes place. “The Devil’s Bath” might be punctuated by the occasional jolt, and it’s true that a veiled promise of death hovers on the horizon from the start, but the final act of this movie is all the more terrifying because it isn’t softened by genre language or expectations.

The logically illogical casualness with which doctors prescribe leeches for Agnes’ melancholy — among other, more agonizing treatments — counterbalances the delirium of the scene where she steals a wax doll of baby Jesus from the local church and then rages like Medea when it melts in front of the fire she creates to keep it warm. The horror of watching Agnes kidnap a newborn from a basket so that she can bring “the miracle” home to her husband is offset by how rationally Wolf defuses the situation, despite knowing full well why his wife hasn’t conceived a child of her own.

Agnes is the victim of an insanity that refuses to identify itself as such, and the excruciating sequence in which she finally attempts to reconcile that situation — far and away the most traumatic thing I’ve seen on a movie screen this year — is naturally answered by a moment so rapturous it promises to redeem the lifetimes that were forfeited at its expense. It’s the only joy that Agnes will ever be able to call her own, and “The Devil’s Bath” tells us to be happy for her, but only so this brutal and unflinching historical drama can soak up the full horror of watching God’s children drown in his love.

Grade: B+

“The Devil’s Bath” opens at NYC’s IFC Center on Friday, June 21. It will be available to stream on Shudder starting on Friday, June 28.

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