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Demon Lover: Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem”

Demon Lover: Hans-Christian Schmid's "Requiem"

The eloquent humanism of German director Hans-Christian Schmid‘s “Requiem” is as far a departure in both form and content from last year’s hokey “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” as shared source material would seem to allow–both films are loosely based on the real-life story of Anneliese Michel, who died of exhaustion after failed exorcism attempts. Though each circles around the clash between spiritual and scientific belief systems brought into tension by a young girl’s apparent “possession,” they take startlingly divergent paths and reach opposite conclusions. Where the American version focuses on the ensuing court case against the priest (unsurprisingly, this being the land of “Law and Order”) and charts his agnostic defense lawyer’s growing faith, “Requiem” takes a meditative, naturalistic approach, one “freely imagined,” as the director puts it in the press notes, though it hews more closely to the facts of time and place. Working from a script by Bernd Lange, Schmid’s examination of the various interlacing, very human forces that contributed to an extreme situation brings this case of exorcism unexpectedly and gracefully down to earth.

Much of what we need to know about seemingly fragile Michaela Klinger (Sandra Hueller) we gather from the get-go. Preparing to leave for school after mysteriously missing a year (later, we learn, on account of being diagnosed with epilepsy), she bounds off to her new life with barely contained enthusiasm, put into perspective by her overprotective mother’s darkening brow of disapproval and doubt. What we notice about Michaela in the context of college away from her cloistered family, with its “amens” around the supper table and crosses adorning the walls, is how visibly out-of-place she appears. With her schlumpy cardigans and un-brushed hair, she looks downright anachronistic, especially when compared against friend Hanna (Anna Blomeier), all form-fitting flared pants, barrettes, and faux fur jackets. Though Schmid doesn’t set the film in a specific year, his choice of music and decision to work with washed-out colors and grainy film stock so reminiscent of movies made in the Seventies leaves no doubt. And his conjuring of Michaela’s old-fashioned worldview in this most modern of eras–evinced so vividly through her style, or lack thereof, and the set design of her family’s home–provides a foundation for what’s to come.

Having begun awkwardly, self-conscious of her sickness and socially unskilled, once Michaela becomes friends with Hanna, her life, seemingly, shifts into gear. This is gorgeously encapsulated at a party where she dances with uninhibited joy: the camera cleaves close to her and captures her hair swinging, rhapsodic tears shining down her face, the flush left behind by a boy’s kiss (her first, we’re sure) still warm on her lips. But this heightened moment of happy awakening to a wider world doesn’t last; the next morning, Hanna finds Michaela on the floor of her dorm room in the throes of a seizure. From this point forward, Schmid subtly connects her “transgressive” behavior–whether dramatically chopping off her hair, fighting with her mother over newly bought clothes, or having sex with her boyfriend, Stefan (Nicholas Reinke)–with subsequent fits.

Aided by Hueller’s beyond-words amazing performance, the filmmaker then gently guides us into a maelstrom of convergences, strikingly elucidating how numerous factors coalesce into a perfect storm which gives rise to Michaela’s psychosomatic manifestation of possession: a history of illness, a devoutly religious upbringing, a classic mother quick to criticize, a lifelong obsession with a saint who endured hardships and died young, guilt over her sexual awakening and attendant questionings of faith, topped off by the suggestion of squatting demonic forces by a slightly overeager young pastor (Jens Harzer). Though Schmid attributes the nature of his protagonist’s disturbances to the earthly rather than the ethereal, his empathy extends to all and never lapses into condescension. And so he lends credence to believers on both sides, emblematized perfectly in a scene where Stefan takes Michaela out to a club. Watching from his confused point of-view, we see the unnatural stiltedness of her body as she dances–simultaneously suggestive of both possession and epileptic convulsion.

Michaela seems gradually to sink almost with relief into the supernatural idea. This self-deception is rendered strangely understandable: She has been encased for so long in the conservative cocoon of her family, that possession presents a more digestible, even romantic alternative to the possibility of psychosis in need of medical treatment. Likewise, rather than accepting that their sweet-natured and obedient daughter’s acting out in previously unseen ways may be indicative of repressed adolescent rebellion, “Requiem” intimates that the far-out notion provides the parents with a refuge. So when Stefan brings Michaela home after another collapse, the subconscious complicity beneath the family’s interactions with one other, as her pastor and priest gather around, becomes visible; each moment illuminates new layers in the interior lives of its subjects. Avoiding the sensationalistic and standard-issue spook tactics of its predecessor, “Requiem” casts a vastly more complex and durable spell of disquiet.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

A scene from Hans-Christian Schmid’s “Requiem.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Take 2
By Michael Koresky

The main reason that William Friedkin‘s “The Exorcist” has never been able to move me emotionally, or even frighten me on a momentary gut level, is because its horrors are so contained. Apart from the ethical and logical conundrums it dredges up (it’s just so sure of its alleged true-life tale’s power to move our puritanical culture), the devil’s possession of young Regan MacNeil remains hopelessly literal: the brutal tactility of the underworld unleashing trauma on ours, localized in one preteen’s upstairs bedroom. Unthinkable body horror, fine, but the film leaves no room for interpretation, ambiguity, or doubt; perhaps as a pummeling, purely sensory experience, “The Exorcist” attained Grand Guignol heights, but as a human interrogation into faith, it’s spiritually bereft and thuddingly banal. Hans Christian-Schmid’s “Requiem” might not have been intended as an antidote to the culture of shock-horror exorcist flicks, but that’s exactly how it functions.

Eschewing genre at every turn, “Requiem” foregrounds character rather than diabolical ominousness, and in so doing lays the properly humanist foundation for one girl’s psychological disintegration. “Requiem” is so attuned to its main character’s contradictions and fraught inner torments, as unsolvable as they may be, that Schmid doesn’t even allow it to work as an easy screed against the church. It’s about desperation in all its forms: familial, spiritual, educational, social. (Especially refreshing is Walter Schmidinger’s performance as a priest who tries to lead the fraught Michaela away from one sector of the church’s medieval practices, recommending a more scientific approach to treatment–it makes Michaela’s eventual fall into the hands of Jens Harzer’s novice exorcist all the more difficult to watch.)

Central to the film’s success is of course Sandra Hueller’s performance as the epileptic Michaela, whose inevitable decline into self-immolation she documents in minute images of sadness and struggle, before culminating in an almost “Crucible”-like display of delusional madness. Hueller opens the film shambling around university with an awkward gait, a young woman not yet comfortable within her own body who will eventually try and shuck herself of her very skin; every step towards an understanding of her culture and environment only brings on more questions about herself, none of which ever seem answerable. The most terrifying aspect of “Requiem,” empathetically and understatedly directed by Schmid, blows away all the bull of films like “Exorcist” and “Exorcism of Emily Rose” (based on the same story as here): that Michaela actually chooses to be possessed because there’s seemingly no other earthly solution for her mental torment. It’s the only explanation for the inexplicable.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Interview and Film Comment.]

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