"Requiem" The Sad Song of a Religious Trauma By Nils Olav Saeveras

in 56th Berlinale

by Nils Saeveras

Inevitably Requiem will be known as the film based on the story of the last known exorcism in Germany. And that is a pity, because this film is most rewarding if you see it with an open mind.

It is an exceptional film, handling a subject that most filmmakers would have given a more sensationalistic treatment. Instead, director Hans-Christian Schmid offers a portrait, complex and precise at the same time. Even more impressive, the film is able to be non-judgmental and yet disturbing and involving.

The relationship to the real story, which took place in rural Klingenberg in Germany in 1976, is described in the opening titles: “Although Requiem is based on a true incident, the characters and their actions were freely imagined.” With such an introduction the film is able to become a story about much more than a religious trauma with a tragic outcome.

It is also a story about family mechanisms and about a young girl of a strict, but sheltered upbringing, entering a wider world. She meets an open-minded environment with fascination and fright in equal measure.

Michaela has been diagnosed with epilepsy a few years earlier. At 21, she decides to study teaching at a nearby university, supported by her father but against the wish of her repressive mother. At university, she first blossoms, opening up to friendship and love. But later, the combined effect of epileptic seizures and study pressures lead her into a psychosis that she herself, her family and a priest, misinterpret as a demonic possession.

When seeing the film, please ignore what you might already know about the case or what you read in reviews because the real masterstroke of the film is the slow but very precise build-up of the family and village atmosphere that ultimately will lead to the tragic outcome of the story. Every detail in the portrayal of the 70’s village, from the dress code to the tapestry to the table manners, ring true. Another wise choice is the refusal to be sensational. In the end, the exorcism is almost off-screen. But the words of the exorcism ritual, audible through a half-closed door, are many times more chilling than any Hollywood version would be. Actually, there was a Hollywood version of the same story just last year with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but the two films bear few resemblances.

Sandra Hüller won the Golden Bear for best actress in the role of Michaela. Her performance is a remarkable film debut. It is possible to read in her face the repression and angst of a strict, religious upbringing. At the same time, she makes the mid-section of the film, with Michaela’s opening-up to the world, all the more touching in its fragility.

Requiem does not raise any fist against religion. The atmosphere is more that of a sad song. It’s not a case study; it’s a very poignant and complex drama.