Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz on Wading Into the Dangerous Waters of “The Devil’s Bath”

Given the exacting nature of their work, you might be surprised that Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala came across the subject for their latest film “The Devil’s Bath” by looking for loopholes, not to apply to their own production methodology, but on a larger historical scale after listening to the historian Kathy Stuart talk on “This American Life” about the disturbing 17th and 18th century practice of women who were led to believe that suicide would result in eternal damnation take a more circuitous path to the afterlife by committing murder, often of their own children, to remain pure in the eyes of God. Parenting has never been too appealing to the filmmakers, having launched their career with the terrifying notion of a pair of twins who relate to their mother entirely differently after she returned home from a surgery in “Goodnight Mommy” and try as she might, the heroine of their 2019 psychological thriller “The Lodge” could never bond with the offspring of her fiancé that he’s foisted on her after he has to take leave on business, triggering all sorts of bad memories from her time growing up in a cult.

When the mere thought of kids can induce panic attacks in the nightmares that Franz and Fiala have been so gifted at creating, their physical presence is limited in “The Devil’s Bath” to the fact that Agnes (Anja Plaschg) finds it impossible to conceive, unable to enjoy her status as a newlywed when she can immediately feel the crushing weight of attempting to start a family in a rural and religious fishing village in upper Austria. Even when her husband (David Scheid) is less concerned and doesn’t listen all that much to his more irritated mother (Maria Hofstätter), who is staying with them as they start to make a home, Agnes grows disillusioned with the notion that she’s failing God, feeling as if she’s being sent a message when she finds maggots in her hair, among other disturbing natural occurrences. When “The Devil’s Bath” opens with another villager finding relief in horrific fashion, it seems like only a matter of time before Agnes surrenders to the same idea and the feeling of inevitability allow Franz and Fiala to expose all the patriarchal institutions that govern her experience that she can only intuit as pressure she’s putting on herself.

Not only is the devil in the details on screen in their third feature, but off-screen as well when Franz and Fiala brought the same level of scrutiny to their first period piece as any of their chilling thrillers set in the present day, studying how a fishing village really would operate in the era in which the film is set and immersed their cast and crew in the lifestyle to pull it off, but as the filmmakers explain, it’s always a highly collaborative effort and with “The Devil’s Bath” now streaming on Shudder following its premiere at Berlinale earlier this year, they described how their composer became their lead actress, their production designer led them from an agricultural compound to the aquatic realm and how they continue to find such horrors hidden in the every day experience.

From what I understand, this all started with a podcast. What stuck enough to want to turn it into a film?

Severin Fiala: There were many things that stuck with us. There was this huge phenomenon mentioned in the podcast — like suicide by proxy — that was going on all over Europe in the 18th century. There were hundreds of cases and we’d never heard of it, so we felt, “Okay, this is something we need to explore.” Then we contacted Kathy Stuart, the historian who is primarily researching that phenomenon, and she gave us access to her research and to many interrogation protocols of those murderers and this was actually the emotional starting point [for the film] because like those people in a time where you didn’t talk much about your feelings and you always projected happiness to the hereafter, like the earth was just a place to work and to function. Those people in those interrogation protocols were talking very much about their emotions and their unhappiness and their sorrow. That was fascinating to us and very touching.

Veronika Franz: And when you talk about history of that time, you mainly know about royals, famous artists, and rich people, but you only know a little about so-called ordinary people like farmers. There are almost no sources about their lives, so those protocols [where] the women talk about their sorrows, fears, dreams and daily life, this was a very rare possibility to know about those people at that time and to tell something about them. Because it doesn’t make so much sense to make a historic film and not talk about present times, we also tried to have a bridge to our days in a way.

Severin Fiala: We could feel a strong connection to the way this woman in the interrogation protocol talked about her life to today because she seemed to have been a perfectionist who just couldn’t cope with the tasks that society put on her. She always thought it was her fault.

Veronika Franz: She [felt she] was not good enough.

Severin Fiala: And we feel this is also something that very many women experience nowadays. The pressure is a different one. It’s not mainly not religion or the church putting pressure on society, but it’s a capitalistic system that makes people like work all the time. Some people need to have two or three jobs to be even able to sustain their life and support the family.

Veronika Franz: And then there’s a modern theme of depression when people just don’t function anymore and you don’t know why or you cannot explain. In many countries, it’s still very taboo and it’s a very important moment in the movie.

Severin Fiala: It’s a huge illness all around the world, and one of the main problems of this illness is that no matter how much you want to support a person suffering from depression, it’s really hard and making a film about somebody suffering from depression is also hard because the audience needs to relate to this person in order to attempt to understand what she’s going through.

Something that distinguishes your work is how the inner lives of the characters come out in the landscapes. Was this an area you were familiar with in upper Austria?

Veronika Franz: It’s set in upper Austria, but we actually shot that in Lower Austria — and not the whole movie, but two-thirds of the movie [was filmed] five minutes away of the shoot of “Goodnight Mommy,” so it’s actually the same area.

Severin Fiala: We know it very well, and what is specific about that area is that it’s rather poor. All those old houses have never been renovated and people just moved away, so there are basically ruins standing around everywhere. The woods also feel more wild, or less cultivated than in Germany, so this felt like the right amount of roughness that we imagined for the film. And as this is very much a film about the inner state of one character, that’s a huge aspect of looking for locations. For example, there is one scene where she’s hiding in a cave and the gallows are just in front of her and she’s looking up — everything where she hides or disappears felt appropriate to her inner state, so we’re looking for images to convey that. We’re also open to the weather, so if there is fog or amazing clouds, we would always change the schedule and try to get those like on camera because a shot of fog or clouds used in the right moment of the film can tell much more than we could tell in the script, so we’re always collecting those moments to use in the editing.

It’s rare how you choose to focus on the internal pressure over the external forces such as the church, and you’ve mentioned at one time, this could’ve been a legal thriller. How did you realize you could tell the story this way?

Veronika Franz: That was one of the biggest questions we asked ourselves during not only the screenwriting process, but also in the editing because of course there is more we could’ve shown like you can go to church three times more, so you would feel it more [in the film], but then it’s always a question of rhythm and how much can the film take of those moments until it gets really boring and repetitive, so it was a question of achieving the right balance.

Severin Fiala: And in our research in upper Austria, [we learned] they were farmers that didn’t go to church every day. They would confess maybe once a year only or they would go to church because they wanted to buy some things in the village because they were very isolated in the farm houses, so the faith was more something they had inside. We decided we wanted to show [Agnes] in her inner fears more than the outside world, which is personified by the mother-in-law and her husband in a way for her.

Veronika Franz: Yeah, she’s a perfectionist. She wants to be better at everything than anybody else or everybody else and she can never achieve that, so she’s always unhappy, but it’s the same with faith. She feels everything very strongly and she really wants to believe also more intensely or stronger than the others and that’s why she seems more faithful than the others who just do their work, but that’s also how they can survive. There is a certain sense of pragmatism involved in everything they do, which is less dangerous than being a perfectionist and always unhappy with themselves.

It was fascinating to learn that Anja was initially approached to compose the score and eventually became Agnes. What sold you on her as an actor?

Severin Fiala: Instinct. There is no other way to put it. We knew her and she’s very charismatic, but she had never really acted in a fiction film, so she isn’t an obvious choice. But she was an obvious choice for the music because we thought she could really relate to what we’re trying to tell, and when we sent her the script, the way she reacted told us that she really understands this character and this world. We’re curious people, so we wanted to try and see if she was interested in acting and then it was a very long process. We pushed the film for another year in order to really get to know her. There were no classical rehearsals.

Veronika Franz: And also to give her the opportunity to prepare herself for the part, which does not mean learn any lines, but to dive into this world of religion. She did some research about her own relatives. She’s from a farmer’s background herself and she did the physical preparation that was needed — she even took baths with ice cubes in it because she was so afraid of the cold and we shot the whole film chronologically in this stone house, so it’s not warmed up. It’s not a studio and it was December in up Austria, so it was really cold. That was the only thing actually she was really scared of — the cold. And we worked on the whole film by getting to know each other, talking about all the themes.

Severin Fiala: We prepared for a very long time, but in an unorthodox way. It was not learning the scenes or how they would work, but just to get an idea of this world and then trying out as much as possible for real. So she lived in that stone house for a while. She cooked there. She was wearing her costume. All the other actors were as well because only then it feels normal to them. For us, that’s important because we also improvise on set. We’re not so much [insistent] about the lines, but the situation that must feel real and in order to achieve that, a lot of preparation is necessary to give actors the time to grow into that. Those fishermen are actually real fishermen who do the work the same it’s been done since the 13th century in that area, so they really know how to do it. And our actors worked with those people for numerous times in order to really understand all of that.

Is it as much of a period of discovery for you? I’ve read Maria Hofstätter actually brought in recipes from her ancestors for some of the meals that are prepared in the film.

Severin Fiala: We’re always very open. The whole layer of collecting insects, for example, came from Anja Plaschg, and [just generally] the collecting stuff that’s not practical – it’s not of any use in the real world. It [becomes] a small puzzle of making her an outsider in this world. And Maria Hofstätter, [who] grew up in a farmhouse in a very religious surrounding, would tell us the mistakes we made or more about the mindset of those farmers while we were still working on the script. She made us aware that they would be very pragmatic in every sense of life. So we are always open what actors and actresses bring on and we even would change the script once they do.

Veronika Franz: It’s even bigger than that. It’s not only with actors, but everybody else involved in the film. I think it’s ridiculous if directors say it’s their 100% their vision. It never is. A film is always a collaboration and our goal is to pick people for all the jobs who are able to really contribute and bring on something creatively and artistically. For example, [the idea of] fishing came from the production designers because they said they were bored with all this work in the fields that was described in the script. They said, “Oh, that’s in every other movie and it’s never done well.” So they came up with this carp fishing [in the village]. So it’s just about being open as a director and picking the right ideas that the very creative people bring to you. Maria Hofstätter [also] told us that she had to collect stones in the winter from the fields as a child. And we said, “Oh, we have never seen that in a movie like about farming,” and we liked that because it has this association of prisoners’ work.

Severin Fiala: We’re blessed with very many good ideas from very many creative people around us.

“The Devil’s Bath” will start streaming on Shudder on June 28th.

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