April 14, 2007

Requiem (Schmid, 2006)

An exhausting, powerful film, Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem is simultaneously elegant in its simplicity, and challenging in its complexity. It is a deeply humanist, multi-layered work. Though based on the true story of a German girl who died while undergoing an exorcism, it is certainly not a horror film in the traditional sense. One could easily perceive Requiem as a film about miscommunication, or confusion, or even more so, about how we respond to something we cannot ever hope to understand. However, at its most fundamental level, Requiem is about a young woman coming of age, and struggling to find herself.

That young woman’s name is Michaela Klingler (Sandra Hüller, in a tour de force, naturalistic performance that earned her the Silver Bear at the 2006 Berlinale), a plain looking girl, from a religious, middle class family. We learn almost immediately, that Michaela is suffering from an illness that doctors have failed to properly treat or diagnose. They call it epilepsy, but clearly, its more serious. Due to her illness, she is only now beginning college, at the age of 21, and though she may seem old, she has not yet experienced the world, has not yet had the chance to develop.

It is Michaela’s subsequent development, while in her first semester at college, which provides the substance for the film’s captivatingly economic narrative. We watch as she proceeds to discover herself. She makes friends and falls in love. But her period of personal fulfillment is brief. We witness her life slowly and painfully descend into confusion, then frustration, and finally madness. The pills she takes for her illness suddenly lose their effectiveness. She begins hearing and seeing terrible things, and in a beautifully composed scene, she finds she is unable to touch the rosary her mother gave her, no matter how hard she tries. She finds herself faced with an impossible dilemma. Is her illness of the body or the soul?

The film’s documentary aesthetic is quite unique and effective in communicating the story visually. The prominent use of hand held cameras and lingering shots creates a sense of realism, which permeates the film. The editing is similarly treated. The film moves along efficiently, but never feels rushed. Each shot is held for the perfect amount of time. The first time you watch the film the events seem spontaneous and real. Within any given scene, characters’ actions seem to begin and end naturally. Certain moments are wonderfully Bressonian.

Requiem succeeds above all due to the things that director Schmid refuses to do. He refuses to take sides in the religion vs. science debate. Instead, he cannily demonstrates that on its own, neither religion nor science can provide Michaela with peace. He refuses to present one dimensional characters. No one is without redeeming qualities. We understand why characters who would be perceived as "bad", in a lesser film, act the way they do. Finally, and most importantly, he refuses to exploit his subject. He grounds his story in the real world, hence the appropriateness of the documentary aesthetic. We never once see the demons Michaela sees, or hear the terrible things she hears. Instead, we are presented with something far more frightening and emotionally affecting, the existential dread of a young woman screaming at blank walls.

Without demons to distract us, we are allowed to focus on the true heart of the story. By virtue of the source material, Requiem will always be shrouded by the supernatural. However, do not forget that its story is a human one, it is the story of a young girls bleak, yet ultimately hopeful quest for, if not an explanation, peace.


Rob said...

a brilliant and perceptive review of a wonderful film

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