Requiem first published by Film4
Summary: Sandra Hüller puts in an award-winning debut in Hans-Christian Schmid’s dramatic dissection of a notorious exorcism case from 1970s Germany.
Review: For ten long months between 1975 and 1976, Anneliese Michel, a devout Catholic student with a long history of temporal lobe epilepsy, willingly submitted herself twice a week to violent exorcisms in her family home, rupturing her knees with hundreds of convulsive genuflections performed each day, before finally dying of starvation, pneumonia and exhaustion. Her story, and the subsequent conviction for negligent homicide of her parents and the two officiating priests, became a cause célèbre in Germany, dividing the public between those who were shocked that such a barbarity could take place in a country that prided itself on its rationalism, and those who believed that a genuine miracle had occurred (Michel’s grave remains a place of pilgrimage for some Christians).
Jump ahead 30 years to a world once more divided between scientific secularism and religious fanaticism, and Michel’s story has inspired two remarkably different films. For where Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) transposed the action to contemporary America, and focussed on shrill courtroom drama and sensationalist horror with little regard for the actual story on which it boldly claimed to be based (coming closer to the pure fiction of William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist, 19731In a case of art imitating life imitating art, the true story on which Requiem is loosely based itself seems to have fallen under the influence of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Anneliese Michel had been experiencing seizures and depression from as early as 1968, but it was only after the initial release of Friedkin’s film, in the summer of 1973, that Michel’s parents would first request an exorcism – and it was only in 1975, amidst a Europe-wide climate of religious hysteria engendered by the film, that the Bishop of Wurzburg would finally give his approval to the ritual for Michel.), Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem is a far more sober, sombre affair. There are no chaotic scenes of exorcism or possession, no satanic SFX, no aggressive confrontations between the champions of science and faith. Rather, Schmid’s interest is in how a bright young woman, and those who loved her, could accede to such an ordeal, and so he concentrates on the confluence of personalities and events that led up to the fatal course of exorcisms. A text at the beginning may state plainly that “the characters and situations portrayed in the film are fictional”, and Bernd Lange’s screenplay may have changed the names of all the people and locations involved, but rest assured, Requiem has a far greater fidelity to the facts of the case than its Hollywood counterpart – as well as a more serious interest in the devilish complexities of the human psyche.
Indeed, complexity is the key here. As we watch the decline of 21-year-old Michaela Klingler (Sandra Hüller) from an enthusiastic student away from home for the first time to a manic basket case returning to her parents and demanding to be purged of her sinfulness, there appears to be no single reason for the transformation, but rather a variety of compounding causes: her staunchly religious upbringing, her unresolved feelings towards her mother (Imogen Kogge), her unpredictable illness and reluctance to keep taking her pills or to see any more doctors, her increasingly unhealthy obsession with the example of Saint Katharina, her sexual awakening (and the Catholic guilt that goes with it), even the pressure of an important essay deadline. All these factors converge to play their part in what happens, with only the devil left out of the picture – for unlike Derrickson, Schmid wisely prefers to confine his presentation of events to the human domain (without, of course, precluding the possibility of a spiritual interpretation for those who, like Michaela, wish to see one).
Equally, Requiem avoids the easy route of demonising any of its characters. Michaela’s friends Stefan (Nicholas Reinke) and Hanna (Anna Blomeier) are supportive and at least try to do what is best for her; Michaela’s kindly, weak father (Burghart Klaussner) and even the older priest (Walter Schmidinger) beg Michaela to see reason (and a psychiatrist); the younger priest (Jens Harzer) is portrayed as a depressive who is in part emotionally blackmailed into ‘doing something’ for his troubled parishioner; and even Michaela’s mother, though oppressive, suffocating and near pathological in her prudish disapproval, acts out of genuine concern and love for her daughter. Far from being simply evil, they are all seen, as much as Michaela herself, to be victims of personal flaws and awful circumstance, making Requiem a tragedy that is almost Shakespearean in the depth of its psychological insights.
Add to this newcomer Hüller’s pivotal performance, making the irrationality of a mental breakdown engage both our understanding and sympathy, and you have an intense, disturbing and bleak drama of ecstasy and insanity, all set in a world where, if there is a God at all, it truly requires a leap of faith into the dark to grasp Him. Rarely has the proximity of faith and madness been shown with such stark lucidity.
Strap: Hans-Christian Schmid’s divine tragedy is a master class in documentary realism, all the more devastating for its plain style.
- 1In a case of art imitating life imitating art, the true story on which Requiem is loosely based itself seems to have fallen under the influence of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Anneliese Michel had been experiencing seizures and depression from as early as 1968, but it was only after the initial release of Friedkin’s film, in the summer of 1973, that Michel’s parents would first request an exorcism – and it was only in 1975, amidst a Europe-wide climate of religious hysteria engendered by the film, that the Bishop of Wurzburg would finally give his approval to the ritual for Michel.