Saturday, October 05, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Requiem

Hans-Christian Schmid’s ‘Requiem’ is probably the most sober, serious-minded horror film that I’ve ever – … actually, no, it’s not even a horror film. Let’s start again. Hans-Christian Schmid’s ‘Requiem’ is probably the most sober, serious-minded film I’ve ever seen on the subject of possession. And even then there’s a case to be made as to whether ‘Requiem’ is actually about possession. Stack it up against that doyen of the sub-genre, William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’, and it’s demonstrably lacking in overt displays of the demonic and/or supernatural.

‘Requiem’ is based on the well-documented case of Annaliese Michel, a 23-year old German woman who died of malnourishment at her parents’ home in 1976 after several months of exorcisms. This is the same case that inspired the turgid ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’ (made a year earlier than ‘Requiem’) and the more recent ‘Annaliese: The Exorcist Tapes’ (released to DVD by The Asylum under the cash-in title ‘Paranormal Entity 3’). It’s depressing that the stupidly unnecessary death of a young woman who was suffering enough already courtesy of epilepsy and depression has morphed into a filmic cottage industry, but at least ‘Requiem’ offers a balanced, observational, non-judgemental approach to the material that requires the audience to weigh everything up and arrive at their own conclusions, rather than recoil from projectile arcs of pea-soup and screeds of blasphemy.

Schmid and script writer Bernd Lange are savvy enough to use the facts surrounding Annaliese Michel’s death as a jumping off point for a fictive debate on science/superstition and mental illness/possession. A more literal ‘The Annaliese Michel Story’ type of approach might – particularly since she’s still held by many as a martyr – have tipped the film more one way than another. As it is, by inventing subsidiary characters and allowing Annaliese a sort of alter ego in the form of Michaela Klinger (Sandra Hüller), Schmid and Lange achieve something akin to Werner Herzog’s philosophy of ecstatic truth.

‘Requiem’ opens in small town Germany in the 70s (the period setting isn’t laboured); Michaela has just been accepted to university in Tübingen – the first scene has her pedalling furiously up to a hilltop church praying earnestly for this very piece of news – but her mother Marianne (Imogen Kogge) is dead set against it and her father Karl (Burghart Klauβner), while quietly supportive, is full of trepidation. Marianne feels Michaela should not leave home because of “your thing”: her unwillingness to refer to a medical condition by name is quickly explained by her total immersion in the Catholic faith. Anything not encompassed by the Bible or the sanction of dour parish priest Gerhard Landauer (Walter Schmidinger) is immediately dismissed. It’s a mindset that has turned the Klinger household into a regimented, ruthlessly neat and utterly humourless place. Karl, who doesn’t seem quite as devout as his wife, nonetheless kowtows to her, presumably for the sake of a quiet life.

Nonetheless, Michaela departs for university, a study of pedagogy first up on the syllabus. At the very first lecture she attends, she’s put on the spot and asked what she believes in. Her reply “In God” provokes derisive laughter. Her belief systems – and, by extension, the belief systems of her mother and Father Landauer – receive other, sometimes less direct challenges, as she rekindles an old friendship with the liberated Hanna (Anna Blomeier) and enters into a tentative romantic relationship with the good-natured Stefan (Nicholas Reinke). And for a while she blooms, awakening intellectually and emotionally.

Then, rejoining her parents on a pilgrimage, she experiences an episode that leaves her prostrate, petrified and unable to touch or hold her rosary. Terrified that this is all her mother needs to terminate her studies, never mind that she’s dutifully taking her medication for epilepsy, Michaela initially hides the details of what’s happened. But when the episode recurs, she approaches Landauer and tells him that she’s hearing voices shouting vile things at her and forbidding her to pray, all the while being assaulted by visions of grotesque faces. Landauer, to put it mildly, goes apeshit and bawls Michaela out, as good as ordering her to get with the fact that it’s all in her mind and she’s talking shit. Seriously, if you’re looking for a film in which a priest uses the expression “bunch of shit”, look no further.

Michaela finds more sympathetic counsel in younger priest Martin Borchert (Jens Harzer), who believes that she’s undergoing some sort of trial and urges her to find solace in prayer. Michaela begins to identify, on an almost pathological level, with St Katharina. At the same time, the strain of living her life at cross purposes – a whirlwind of discos, drinking and the heady rush of sexual awakening forming a stressful dynamic with the (self-dictated) necessity of excelling academically at all times in order to prove herself to her parents – inexorably takes its toll. Michaela’s behaviour swings between the outré, the needy and the pious. Hanna and the infinitely patient Stefan counsel her to slow down. Meanwhile, her parents and Borchert convince themselves that she is genuinely exhibiting signs of possession.

Schmid packs a hell of lot into a film that barely scrapes an hour and a half. He establishes the Klinger family dynamic with depth and subtlety in a surprisingly economic amount of screen time. He charts Michaela’s highs and lows – and her disorienting shifts in emotional behaviour – in an unfussy and realistic fashion. Hüller’s performance is exceptional. Klauβner turns in finely nuanced work as the loving father crushed under the heel of his wife’s dour Presbyterianism. Blomeier is also very good as the best friend with problems of her own struggling to try to do the right thing by Michaela.

‘Requiem’ is a horror film that isn’t. There is nothing gothic about it. The voices that assail Michaela are not part of the soundtrack. The faces that crowd in on her are never shown. All we see is her reactions. Religious and medical rationales occupy equal place in the script. Nowhere do Schmid and Lange err more towards one explanation than another. ‘Requiem’ is a film about possession that leaves it to the viewer to determine whether the possessor is demonic or psychological; a film that ends with its heroine about to undergo exorcism, but omits the exorcism itself.

There’s a term in literature: via negativa. It means a work that draws attention to its subject by purposefully omitting it. ‘Requiem’ is the best film about exorcism I have yet encountered – sorry, Messrs Blatty and Friedkin – purely because it’s intelligent and sure enough of itself not to palm the audience off with a slurry of special effects.

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