Drama Horror Thriller
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10th Dec 09
A troubled young woman suffering form epilepsy begins to experience disturbing religious visions while at University. Eventually she seeks help from a priest who offers an exorcism. Based on the same true events that inspired Emily Rose.
Back in April this year, snoozing through the latter stages of hokey possession-themed clunker An American Haunting, I wondered (only for a while mind, I was in and out of consciousness at the time) if it might be time for fresh approach to the genre. After all, between the repetitive pavlovian moribundity of J-horror and the creaky, proselytising piffle of the likes of Haunting, Emily Rose and the Omen remake the whole genre appeared to have been reduced to the status of an enfeebled sideshow carny proffering a threadbare bag of meagre party tricks --- incapable of fooling anyone but the most uncritical horror viewer.
Five months later I’m watching Requiem (limited UK release throughout December) an intense, troubling metaphysical horror/drama from Germany, which draws inspiration from the same source as Emily Rose but takes a very different, more difficult and rewarding path. A radical reworking of familiar themes, it makes those aforementioned shockers look like very small beer indeed. Its important at this point to mention that German director Hans-Christian Schmid’s film is clearly not a horror movie in any traditional sense, but appears to be (in sharp relief to much of the genre) the work of a non-believer.
Looking to Fassbinder and Bergman for inspiration rather than Friedkin and Blatty, Requiem is the story of Michaela - a sheltered young student who leaves behind her small town and religious parents to study in the university town of Tübingen, Germany in the late '60s.
Fiercely intelligent, sensitive and deeply troubled, Michaela suffers from epilepsy and depression and needs frequently monitored medication. While free from the shackles of a restrictive home life she finds the first months away lonely and isolating. When she falls for a young student and strikes up a close friendship with her roommate all seems blissful for a time, but the idyll doesn’t last. A disastrous return home brings the epilepsy attacks back with a vengeance and when Michaela deliberately slips from her medication at Uni she becomes delusional and her already fragile emotional state worsens.
Increasingly obsessed with a religious martyr she becomes convinced she is possessed by demons. The local clergy are far from convinced and her parents and friends believe she is losing her sanity but Michaela is convinced she is possessed by some religious entity. A local priest agrees to perform an exorcism...
Requiem eschews every single cliché of the possession movie. There’s almost no exposition, no explicit gestures, gaudy visions, Grand Guignol or demonic noises. The only ‘special effect’ in the film is the astonishing lead performance of stage actor Sandra Hüller (more of which later). Schmid resolutely refuses to ‘rig’ the picture, hinting strongly that Michaella’s state of mind has nothing to do with the supernatural at all and is rather an increasingly fragile mental state bought to the brink of despair by a combination of inherent illness, a religious upbringing and the heady rush of leaving a stifling home life to embrace the freedom and hedonism of college life.
Chances are that many viewers will side with Michaela’s family and think she’s just nuts. However, a believer could see things very differently, as could someone with an understanding of mental illness or psychosis. By removing itself from the straightjackets of the genre, refusing to identify a responsible evil and utilising subtle shifts in mood and intuitive ways of building tension and unease, Schmid’s film inhabits an emotional terrain that exists in a place a million miles away from the tired Hollywood model.
The flip side of this austere, realist approach is that by turning its back on the supernatural tradition almost completely, Requiem - in its occasional flat moments - starts to resemble a superior TV drama about mental illness, and loses some of the power that would possibly have remained were Schmid to have explored the religious and supernatural implications of such a situation.
That’s not to say what remains is not frequently disturbing. However you decide to take Requiem, one element of the film should unite all viewers - Sandra Hüller as Michaela. Hers is the kind of central performance that critics run out of superlatives trying to describe. The performances throughout are absolutely superb actually, with layered work coming from the actors who play Sandra’s parents, torn between love, faith, rationality and fear. There’s a sinister feel also about Jens Harzer’s performance as the Father Merrin style priest who agrees to the exorcism. Again it would’ve been interesting to explore his motives further but Schmids film teases us without further exploration - like the nature of Michaela's illness were never quite sure, and an abrupt dénouement gives us no further clues.
An unsettling, moving and at times angry film, Requiem is unlikely to make much of a splash commercially, which is a shame - because tucked away in this quiet work are some individual scenes of immense grace and power, much more disturbing than a barrage of shaky bedposts and spinning heads . There are a couple of brilliant scenes in which Michaela hits the dance floor of a local bar and joyously loses herself in the music in an almost trance-like Ian Curtis style. She seems overcome, lost in a hallucinogenic reverie. Schmid uses powerful, almost secular sounding tracks from Krautrockers Amon Duul and Deep Purple to create isolated moments of enormous significance, as the shy devout Catholic gives herself up to rock 'n' roll, alcohol and sex.
The reaction of her boyfriend - looking on in horror at the simple pleasure she is having - is ultimately no different from that of her parents and friends when confronted by her fits. It mirrors our own reaction of helplessness and fear when confronted with an illness or personal demons we don’t or cannot understand. The image of someone we love out of control is scary enough.