This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, November 1, 2006.

Michaela Klingler (Hüller) has a few demons to face. She’s twenty-one but still lives with her parents in their small, depressed German town. Her rigidly Catholic mother (Kogge) disapproves of the idea of her attending college. A long illness kept her out of high school for a year, and socially she has never recovered. The doctors promise that these newest pills will keep her epilepsy at bay, which they do—most of the time, anyway.

And, oh, yes. Michaela’s seizures come complete with ghostly faces and demonic voices.

Conspiring with her kindly blue-collar father, Michaela manages to be admitted to the University of Tübingen. At first, Michaela thrives there, making a close friend in her classmate Hanna (Blomeier), and even landing very first boyfriend, the handsome and gentle Stefan (Reinke). But the more she focuses on her new life at college, the more her seizures intensify. During these episodes, she finds herself unable to touch her rosary or her crucifix, and attempting to pray only brings on hideous pain.

Her elderly priest Father Landauer (Schmidinger) is a rational man who can’t bring himself to believe in literal possession. Since he can’t convince her to see a psychiatrist, Landauer refers Michaela to a charismatic but troubled young priest named Father Borchert (Harzer), who is all too eager to believe her tale of demonic intrusion. Borchert likens Michaela’s suffering to that of St. Catherine and tells her of the trials God reserves for those he loves the best. Increasingly convinced that her fits serve some higher purpose, Michaela washes her medication down the sink.

An unfortunate confrontation with her mother over Christmas break deepens Michaela’s contempt for the ineffectuality of the adults trying to help her. As her behavior at school grows more erratic, Hanna and Stefan try to convince her to enter the hospital, but Michaela is terrified of ending up in a sanitarium, where her possession, immune to medication, would continue indefinitely. At last her skeptical friends drive her to her parents’ home, where Father Borchert at last gets the chance to attempt the exorcism he seems to have hoped for all along.

The devil’s in the details—or not

One of the many perfect throwaway details in this movie is the fact that Michaela and Stefan are just not very good at kissing. The awkwardness of their romance is true to life, painful and sweet, in a way Hollywood seems to have forgotten.

Requiem, though fictionalized, was inspired by the true case of Annaliese Michel, a young German woman who died in 1976 after a long series of exorcisms. These events also inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but whereas that film focused on the trial for manslaughter of her parents and the attending priests, Requiem is a low-key character study that poses difficult questions about the nature of experience, perception, and reality. Can events that only we perceive truly be said to have happened? How can the experience of such dubious occurrences affect character? And does doubting our perceptions equate with doubting ourselves?

Director Hans-Christian Schmid and his screenwriter Bernd Lange pull off this philosophical inquiry in a couple of different ways. One is by creating a raft of distinct, sharply performed characters, each of whom has a separate and, to them, real worldview, and setting the drama at the intersections of their beliefs. The mother’s harsh and pragmatic religion, the father’s belief that everything will turn out okay if he just acts as if it is, the older priest’s reliance on the power of symbol and myth, and the younger priest’s exaltation of tribulation and suffering all bear directly on how Michaela comes to view her own condition, and on what she does about it.

Another is by never settling the question one way or another of whether or not Michaela is really possessed. The viewing audience gets occasional faint snatches of what she sees and hears during her seizures, but no verifiable demons ever burst forth to impugn the dead ancestors of the exorcists, or to otherwise confirm their existence. Since only Michaela has experienced these fits, the filmmakers seem to say, only she is truly fit to pass judgment on what they ultimately mean.

For this reason, Requiem lives or dies by the effectiveness of Sandra Hüller’s performance in the lead role. It’s an awesome responsibility, but Hüller proves herself more than equal to the task. Her Michaela is by turns tentative, vulnerable, inflexible, childlike, awkward, desolate, wrathful, assured, and terrifying. It is a performance that meshes perfectly with Schmid’s naturalistic filmmaking, never striking a false note, and creating a sense that we are voyeurs in Michaela’s life, watching events unfold through the eye of a documentary camera. Grainy, dingy colors and leisurely pacing keep the focus on Hüller’s superb acting, even when she’s framed from far away. There are moments during Michaela’s blossoming at college that are as joyful and heartbreaking as anything that have ever appeared on the screen. Those same attributes give the moments when Michaela turns vile and violent all the more power to shock.

The demons might be real, or they might be an unconscious repudiation of the religious symbols she grew up with. In the end it doesn’t matter much. What matters is the way Michaela sees them and reacts to them, and the way that only her friend Hanna, of all the people around her, seems willing to respect the choice she makes about it.  

Starring Sandra Hüller, Burghart Klaußner, Imogen Kogge, Anna Blomeier, Nicholas Reinke, Jens Harzer and Walter Schmidinger
Written by Bernd Lange
Directed by Hans-Christian Schmid
IFC First Take
Not rated
Open now in New York and Los Angeles, selected cities throughout November