Requiem (2006)

Director: Hans-Christian Schmid

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The filmmakers of the Berlin School have caught the interested and often admiring eye of serious cinephiles around the world since they began releasing their deceptively simple films at the beginning of the new millennium. The Berlin School filmmakers, of whom Christian Petzold (The State I’m In [2000], Yella [2007]) is perhaps the most iconic, generally shun the overtly political breast-beating other German filmmakers have engaged in with regard to Germany’s fraught past; instead, their stories are quite personal in scope. Yet there is an underlying seriousness of purpose that often puts difficult choices and feelings of guilt at the center of their films, thereby coming at the problem of the moral legacy with which Germans are still struggling from a less sensational, but no less acute angle.

These films vary in the degree to which they work; sometimes stripping them down too much takes some of the urgency of the questions they pose out of them. Such was the case, I felt, with Longing (2006), Valeska Grisebach’s Lady or the Tiger parable that never really fleshed out its dilemma for me. So, too, Hans-Christian Schmid’s most recent film, Storm (2009), seemed a hybrid of the overtly political and the politics of personal betrayal that didn’t do either perspective much justice. However, with Schmid’s earlier film, Requiem, the tone is perfect, and its tale of possession leading to tragedy is a perfect allegory for Nazi Germany’s brutal mindset.

Requiem, which tells the story of a modern-day demonic possession and exorcism, is based on the true story of German college student Anneliese Michel. Schmid’s take on this story, which certainly must be well-known in his country, focuses intensely on the possessed woman herself. In using this approach, Schmid does a remarkable thing. He takes us inside the life of someone who eventually comes to believe she is possessed by demons.

Unlike the makers of another film released about the same time that is also based on this story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Schmid isn’t interested in deciding for us—and especially for the woman herself—whether her claims of possession are real. If we want to draw our own conclusions, screenwriter Bernd Lange has provided “evidence.” It must be kept in mind at all times, however, that this so-called evidence is the interpretation of a writer, and therefore not truly factual.

Michaela Klingler (Sandra Huller) is a 21-year-old woman with a strong and completely natural desire to become independent of her family and start her own life. She receives a letter in the mail informing her that she has been accepted to a college in another town. Her father (Burghart Klaussner) and younger sister (Friederike Adolph) are happy for her. Her mother (Imogen Kogge) reacts by saying, “How can you go there with your thing?” and reminds her of her previous failed attempt. A predictable fight ensues, during which Michaela accuses her mother of not wanting her to have anything of her own. This could be any family, anywhere in the world.

Michaela prevails with the support of her father, who arranges a dorm room for her. He drops her at her new home with a smile and a hug, and Michaela begins her first steps into freedom. On her first day of class, she is late. The professor stops her on the steps of the lecture hall as he describes a theory of teaching. He then asks her if she agrees with the theory. She answers that she doesn’t know. He asks her what she does believe in. She says, “In God.” The room explodes in titters—this is the rebellious ’70s after all. The professor cautions them that their response means they may not believe in much of anything, and that is a problem. In this not terribly subtle, but effective, way, Schmid is cautioning the film audience to suspend judgment about spirituality and its power. It also, however, provides a much subtler set-up for the rest of the film that believing in something too deeply can have grave consequences.

Michaela sees a woman from her hometown leaving the lecture hall at the end of class. At first, Hanna (Anna Blomeier) rebuffs her, but when Michaela later gives her a cheat sheet during an exam, she warms up. They become fast friends, especially after Hanna finds Michaela collapsed in her room and learns her secret—she has epilepsy. Michaela and Hanna have some carefree times together, including going to a mixer at which Michaela meets Stefan (Nicholas Reinke), a handsome young man who appears merely to want to get in her pants. She ends up as his girlfriend, however.

Michaela confesses to Hanna that she hears voices. Hanna thinks Michaela should see a doctor. Michaela argues that she’s seen doctors, been to hospitals, and taken pills all her life, and they have done her no good. She decides to follow her instinct to seek spiritual help.

Michaela goes home to see her parish priest to complain about the voices. He sternly chastises her for believing in demons, calling God and the Devil symbols rather than facts. Michaela sees another priest, who wants to perform an exorcism once he sees how agitated she becomes when he tries to pray with her. She has lost the ability to pray, touch the cross, and hold a rosary.

Events snowball, including a major fight with her mother and a break-up with Stefan, and eventually, Michaela ends up at home. Her mother and father are now convinced she is possessed, and they call in the two priests to start the exorcisms. The movie is almost over by the time the exorcism begins.

We recognize Michaela’s swearing and rude behavior from The Exorcist (1973), and it does seem demonic coming from such a pious girl. But it’s not horrifying. It could be the result of many factors, such as being off medication, heartache, school pressures, her mother’s disapproval, her own identification with St. Katherine, who suffered possessions all her life. What becomes obvious is that medical science is as primitive as religion at this point in time, and that a troubled girl brings out the worst in everyone, from her long-suffering mother to an eager young priest in love with the idea of exorcism.

The cast is uniformly superb, but Huller, who is in nearly every frame, gives one of the great performances I have ever seen. She brings to life a complex woman with a view of her condition consistent with who she is. Schmid adds to the verite feel of this film by shooting with a handheld camera and concentrating on close-ups, making us feel as though we are trying to peer into Michaela’s soul. I don’t know what was going on in this girl, but I found this film to be a fitting requiem to her spirit.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    13th/01/2011 to 9:07 pm

    Indeed. This is a far more subtle and psychologically perceptive film than it’s American counterpart, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, (which showcases the demonic angle with all the standard set pieces). If it were a true horror film, it would fall under the ‘Val Lewton’ banner, as a film characterized by intelligence and fine taste. The documentary feel here was a plus as well, as above all for this subject matter it gave the film an acute sense of urgency.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2011 to 10:09 pm

    Sam – Absolutely right about this being like a Lewton film in its approach to the horror of the situation. I was so enveloped by this film and by Huller’s compelling performance, watching her move inexorably to the point of no return was gut-wrenching. This reminds me a great deal of Tuesday, After Christmas in how a private story has such allegorical implications for the country at large.

  • Maren spoke:
    17th/01/2011 to 7:16 am

    Thanks a lot for posting this, Marilyn
    Because I like a lot of H.C.Schmid´s films and esp. this one I want to write a longer comment when i´ve got more time than now.
    The real story was well known in the seventies. I ´ve never heard of this before 2006. Schmid made Requiem after reading a newspaper article about people still doing”pilgrimages” to her house. Thanks for the ” Val Lewton film” ! One of this too rare moments when its possible to see something familiar in a different light -and i prefer it to the Nazi-Allegory but there are many ways to see it .I just wish it was more well-known.

  • Maren spoke:
    21st/01/2011 to 8:43 am

    “Requiem” is a film about spirituality and its power- and its never one-sided.
    The villagers, their catholic faith and their pilgrimage are shown in a very respectful way.
    We don´t see Michaela as part of a group of churchgoers but cycling and running up a hill,than praying at a chapel (for admission to university).So we know right from the start that her faith is an essential part of her character, her old and new life and as individualistic as herself. She is an intelligent self-observing person who wants to be independent and we love to see her start a new life .This is not a film about christian faith, sexuality and repression; another “standart set piece” i don´t miss.

    But we are aware how much pressure she puts upon herself: She sees this as her first and last chance and doesn´t allow herself any weakness or failure.This isn´t new (she never missed any pilgrimages) but now as her illness comes back this leads to a process of self-destruction.

    We have to decide for ourselves if demons and posession exist but hints are given: The rosary she could´t touch was a gift from her mother given to her with the words: I prayed for you
    Michaela beliefs in the power of prayers.We know why she left the church on christmas.When finally taken home her life in Tübingen seems to be over and her mother treats her like a sick child.Its not hard to imagine what this means for a person who has fought so hard for her independence.

    When Borchard tells her that St Catherine suffered for a higher purpose we see her smile- definitively a horror moment.The rest is predictable and mostly off-screen. “She saw herself as a matyr but she was ill”- everyone else didn´t have this excuse, if they shared the same believes or were just too frightened to do anything – a troubled girl brings out the worst in everyone -and christian religion does have some dark corners.

    “Religion was a source of her power. So noone was able to get through to her….She had no enemies in her life , just the ones from within” (Quotes from Interview with Schmid on A.Michel and Requiem/Artechock.de)
    Hanna:There are no demons, its just you

    If this is an allegory I relate this more to all kinds of Fundamentalism and Fanatism ,politcal as religious motivated
    “The sleep of reason produces monsters”

    But “Requiem” is film where we have to decide for ourselves and find our own interpretations.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/01/2011 to 9:43 am

    Maren – This is a beautiful comment and interpretation of the film. It is indeed a very personal film, respectful of Hanna’s point of view, and that is why it is so thought-provoking and affecting. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts.

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