2006Director: Hans-Christian Schmid
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Anna Blomeier, Nicholas Reinke
aking its inspiration from the true events surrounding the tragic death and controversial last years of Anneliese Michel, a student who claimed to be possessed by a horde of demons and ultimately died during an exorcism later disavowed by the Catholic Church, German film import Requiem has a plot-based sell that’s more than a little hard to buy. After all, the Americans already made this movie with cool special effects and a far more descriptive title (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, because apparently the producers didn’t want everyone speaking German).
But Requiem has no special effects. There isn’t a creepy melting face in the whole thing, no spinning heads or impaled bodies—not so much as a CGI assist in brewing some ominous weather. There’s almost no score, which means no cues to make you jump. In fact, and maybe it shouldn’t come as a revelation by now, Requiem isn’t a scary movie at all. It’s something far more literate, far more intimate, and far and away more compelling.
It’s a story that begins with the devoutly Catholic Michaela longing to escape her parents’ house and study at the University. Cryptically, her mother hesitates because of those problems she’s been having. Still, with enthusiasm and her father’s support, Michaela finds herself in a dormitory hall with a plucky new best friend (plucky in the German-film mode where she’s actually quite appealingly three-dimensional) and a fetching new boyfriend named Stefan (equally likable). About those problems, though: Michaela calls it epilepsy, while the doctors can’t seem to pin it down, much less get rid of it. Soon it’s taking a more sinister form as Michaela tears apart a rosary and claims herself incapable of touching the cross. As her problems escalate, so does the involvement of her family, ushering in the slow unfolding of a very complex dynamic in what seems like such an easily stereotyped Catholic household.
It’s the relationships between the characters, and director Hans-Christian Schmid’s brilliantly controlled exposition of those bonds, that drive the narrative. Creaky doors are kids’ stuff. Schmid prefers to center his movie on more cerebral tensions: Catholic Michaela and her determinedly secular best friend Hanna, the mother who throws away Michaela’s “slut” clothes thereby provoking a backlash not just of demonic possession but also of sexual revenge, and a father caught between protecting his daughter’s happiness and defending her soul.
Depending on your point of view, of course, Michaela’s perennial problems might be nothing more than a case of psychiatric distress (a theory espoused by some characters through the very end of the film). Certainly with the lack of any supernatural feats or visions, Schmid leaves the possibility open. What is extraordinary, though, is that while every figure on screen takes sides with medicine or religion, Schmid never does. The filmmaker is meticulous in fleshing out the relationships that formed Michaela’s social context, providing justification for either side—that her possession was a psychosis brought on by the frustration of a stifling religious upbringing, or that Michaela was chosen to suffer for the strength of her faith and the conviction of her character; never does the film try to sell either story.
That’s partly because, with his characters so beautifully brought to life by a cast of extraordinary talent (particularly Michaela herself, Sandra Hüller), Schmid doesn’t need to know the precise details of who made her suffer, nor does he need a graphic exploration of just how she suffered. The simple fact that she suffered, that she was caught in the intersection between so many forces finding so many conflicting answers in their irreconcilably different perspectives (and all in her best interest), is dramatic enough.
On that level, the film is intellectually provocative enough to set off a discourse about the place of religion in mental illness, and more generally the tension between science and religion. The courtroom case that awaited the real-life exorcists of Anneliese Michel certainly did. While they were found guilty, Schmid has no interest in condemning any of his characters. Michaela’s death doesn’t come until after the screen has gone black, signaling that what was most important in her story was not the way she died, after all.
Requiem is currently playing in limited release.
By: Amanda Andrade
Published on: 2006-11-02