Sometimes the biggest gift a film can give us is to force us back into the real world rather than letting us escape.
Many people watch movies as a respite from the stresses of life, but that often has a trivializing effect. When film is used primarily as a medium for entertainment, it follows that we derive pleasure from crime, violence, human suffering, and the like.
The German movie Requiem is about demonic possession, yet in spite of its subject matter, it’s a serious, wrenching piece. And because of its subject matter, it’s all the more effective, as the audience isn’t expecting to be challenged. Its hook is at the end of a fishing line — a trap. The promise of something shiny — the transgressive, horrifying, but safely over-the-top thrill of The Exorcist — gives way to genuine pain.
Even though it works with the same raw material as the clunky, God-fearing The Exorcism of Emily Rose — a college student believes she’s been possessed by demons — Requiem couldn’t be more different. Director Hans-Christian Schmid and writer Bernd Lange have crafted a lovely, sensitive study of what can happen when faith, family, friends, and science fail. It is a nearly devastating account of helplessness, and it is far more interested in human beings than in God or Satan.
Sandra Hüller plays Michaela, whose apparent epilepsy seems to be just one reason her parents — particularly her severe mother — have sheltered her. When she’s accepted by a college, both parents are hesitant, but her enabling father facilitates her higher education.
Their caution turns out to be well-founded, as Michaela’s physical and mental health gradually deteriorates. Does she have a brain malady that medicine can’t fix? Is she mentally ill? Is she merely buckling under the pressure of the first year of college? Or is she possessed by evil? Requiem is ambiguous and doesn’t seem terribly interested in the answer; it’s not so much agnostic about possession as apathetic.
To be sure, the movie is antipathic toward the church, and skeptical about possession. Only toward the movie’s end is there anything in Requiem that suggests the supernatural, and it’s a harrowing fury from Hüller unaided by special effects; the audience allows for the possibility of demonic evil here because the alternative — that this nice young woman could produce that — is so uncomfortable.
And one imagines that’s exactly the effect that Schmid and Lange sought: to push the audience toward a sub- or superhuman explanation in the absence of any evidence, as a means of exploring the ways people use faith to impose order on their lives and avoid considering the less-pleasant options. It’s a subversion of the genre; nearly every well-known movie about possession, after all, adopts as its premise that a body can be taken over by an evil spirit. Even the serious, thoughtful Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist had as its core a force of evil beyond the human soul.
Not Requiem. It recognizes that it’s easy and probably right to see the devil when a girl is vomiting pea soup, turning her head 360 degrees, and stabbing her genitals with a crucifix. It’s less clear how we’re supposed to react when a fragile, college-aged girl who’s been stifled and protected gets her first taste of freedom and responsibility and begins to crack.