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The Devil’s Bath: Film Directors Discuss Depiction of Historical Murder Case

In the film “Des Teufels Bad” a woman becomes a murderer. Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala say she became a victim of her living conditions.

Guided by mutual trust: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have made a visually stunning film Photo: Wolfgang Borrs

taz: Ms. Franz, Mr. Fiala, you came across the material for your film through a podcast. In “The Devil’s Bath” is about a sensitive young woman who perishes in 18th century Upper Austria due to the strictness of a God-fearing rural society and sees no way out other than “indirect suicide”. The main character Agnes kills a child in order to be sentenced to death herself and thus – unlike suicide – still have the opportunity to confess. What convinced you that you wanted to tell this story on film?

Veronika Franz: We were first and foremost impressed by this historical, little-known phenomenon of “indirect suicide”. It throws away the stereotype that women don’t commit violent acts and simply don’t do cruel things. In our films we are always interested in people who are victims and perpetrators at the same time. That’s the case here: It’s about women who are victims of their living conditions, of social pressure, who simply don’t fit in as outsiders, then slip into depression and commit an act of violence.

The trigger for us saying this must became a film was when an American historian opened her archive to us and we came across the interrogation protocols for the case from Upper Austria shown in the film. The inquisitor in charge really wanted to know why this woman killed a child and asked very psychological questions for the year 1750. Right up to: “How was sex with your husband?” Actually, we simply don’t know anything about women from this time who weren’t famous or rich. And now it seemed as if she was suddenly speaking to us across the centuries: about her life, her fears, her mother-in-law. About the fact that she actually came from a much more generous family than the one she married into – and how afraid she was of that. Today we would say she was a perfectionist who always felt like she wasn’t doing things well enough. That moved us very much.

“The Devil’s Bath” deals with a dark historical aspect. Even if it is primarily a historical material: what does the film have to do with our present?

Veronika Franz was born in Vienna in 1965. After her studies, she worked as a film critic and in 1997 began an artistic collaboration with the director Ulrich Seidl. Her first feature film as a director, together with Severin Fiala, was “Ich seh ich seh” (2014).

Severin Fiala was born in Horn in 1985. He studied at the Vienna Film Academy and made his debut in 2009 with the short film “Elefantenhaut”.

Severin Fiala: The pressure to perform and the perfectionism that destroys this character also has something very modern, we think. The same goes for depression as an illness that society still cannot deal with. This phenomenon of “indirect suicide” – killing someone in order to die yourself – is, at first glance, something completely absurd. But once you delve into this topic, you notice that these constraints also reveal something about today.

What constraints do you mean by this and to what extent do they affect our today?

VF: Religious dogmas, for example. There are now studies showing that suicide bombers are actually melancholic people suffering from depression. Those who make themselves available for such cruel acts in order to die with “the blessing of God” and kill others in the process.

SF: At first glance, our society itself seems much freer than it was back then. However, we see a tendency today to quickly put people in a box from which it is best not to move out. Maybe it’s because of social media that people make absolute judgments with a thumbs up or down instead of really engaging with people and things. That’s what our character in the film also suffers from: she doesn’t fit into a box. You couldn’t deal with that back then, and I don’t think that has changed at all. People who don’t fit into a box don’t have it much easier these days.

You chose her for the main role Austrian singer and composer Anja Plaschg, better known as Soap & Skin. Her music contains a lot of the dark melancholy, but also the enormous tenderness that characterizes her character Agnes. Nevertheless, Anja Plaschg has not previously appeared as an actress and her part is an extremely demanding one. Why were you sure that Anja Plaschg was the right person for this and how did you experience working together?

VF: When you start a film you believe in things. You can never be sure, but we had faith that we could take this journey together. Anja Plaschg is not a trained actress, but even every professionally trained actor has limits. Knowing them is actually much more important as a director: you can quickly recognize skill and charisma, but what is important is what actors and actresses can’t do. You don’t know that beforehand, even with famous actors.

SF: We just said we trust each other. Of course, Anja Plaschg didn’t know much about us either, and so we said: We dare to do it together.

VF: Exactly, and then it turned out that she is a wonderful talent. She is incredibly disciplined. As if she were practicing scales, she could repeat any take the same way thirteen times if you wanted her to. And on the other hand, as we know from her concerts, she can open up and expose herself incredibly well to the moment. Anja Plaschg is someone who is very interested in the physical experience that you can have with film.

For both of you, “Des Teufels Bad” is the fourth feature film on which you have worked together on directing and writing. Directing duos are still a rarity, and the risk of artistic differences is great. What unites you in your approach to film?

SF: What unites us is that we look for things in the cinema that disturb and offend. We are attracted to a form of dangerous cinema that questions and shocks you as the person you believe you are. We then try to make films like this together. This works because we are each other’s first audience, so to speak, and we want to do things like that to each other.

They have repeatedly turned to religious motifs and the family as a haven in which horror and violence arise. With a Adaptation of the novel “A Head Full of Ghosts” is to be followed by a film about an exorcism. What fascinates you about this topic?

VF: Catholicism is still very present in Austria, and we both grew up under this strong influence.

SF: I think you’re always concerned with where you come from.

Do your films also have something specifically Austrian in them? Most of them seem almost like anti-homeland films, especially the productions that emerged from the collaboration between you, Ms. Franz, and Ulrich Seidl.

VF: (laughs) We had to laugh a lot when the jury president said her favorite film was “Sound of Music”. So we said to ourselves: Nanja, we have made an “anti-sound of music”.

SF: In Catholicism it is always about the question of guilt. That’s why who may have been guilty and why. At the same time, the Austrians are, so to speak, world champions in suppression and have not dealt with many things in the past. Of course, that’s what interests us as filmmakers: the corpses that lurk in the basement, that you think you actually have buried, but that find their way into the daylight.

VF: As for blame, we tend to deal with situations in which no one person is truly to blame. In Austria one of the most common exclamations is: “It’s not my fault!” or “It’s your fault!” We tend to believe that it is not a matter of individual guilt, but rather that there is usually a lack of communication. Often situations become disastrous because people don’t talk to each other. The Austrians suppress it, they don’t talk about it. In this they are completely different from the Germans.

2024-02-22 22:28:40
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