This article looks at the representations of a deterioration of a person in Hans Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006). As the film tackles contrasting rationales of the main character Michaela’s condition, that are seen either spiritual or medical, this article centres on the juxtaposition of these and their effect on the main character on a psychosomatic level. Consequently, the main focus of this article is the representation of the socio-familial dynamics and the environment and how these can are marked on the main characters body. The question of representation becomes central as the film tackles highly sensationalistic and voyeuristic themes such as mental deterioration and exorcism.
Requiem centres on Michaela Klinger, 21-year-old woman living in a small, Catholic village in Germany in the 1970s. Living with her parents and a sister, the family life seems to be marked by religious overtone. Michaela has suffered from what seem to be epileptic convulsions and is on medication. She prays to be accepted to a university and despite her mother is against this, Michaela does move to Tübingen and starts her pedagogic studies. This opens a new door for her; she meets new people, most importantly a girl called Hanna, starts a relationship with a fellow student Stefan, attend to parties. However, soon after she starts hearing voices and believes she is possessed. She seeks both medical and spiritual help. Given the general misunderstanding and different ideas of her condition in her family- and friend circle this sparks a way to her slow deterioration. For Michaela, the university time and her whole existence become an academic and religious trial that she is obsessed to pass.
Requiem is based on true events, on a true exorcism case in Germany. A student Anneliese Michel was suffering from visions that the doctors diagnosed as epilepsy but the local priesthood categorised as a devil’s possession. She was subjected to exorcism for months and finally died at her parents’ home from malnutrition (Buß, 2006). However, while based on a true story, Requiem also differentiates from Annaliese Michel’s story. As Lederle has stated the names are different in the film, the location and the amount of family members. Also, while Annaliese died at 23, Michaela is 21 (Lederle, 2006, p.6). As Schmid accounts certain circumstances and locations were changed to protect them legally but also, because for them it was much more important to go beyond a case study, and rather do something more universal. Therefore it seemed only right to indirectly refer to the real case (Oßwald & Arico, 2006).
The film starts Michaela cycling frantically through hilly countryside, her heavy breath heard on the soundtrack. She finally arrives to a church where she prays. The only word audible is ‘please’ and the tight framing of the shot where her praying hands are seen folded very firmly gives urgency to her prayers. Then the film cuts to Michaela nervously standing in front of her house and the letter box where university application results have been delivered. This juxtaposition of scenes alludes how Michaela has been praying to be accepted at the university. It also points how religion forms a fundamental power in all aspects of her life, as seen in the early montage of her efforts to reach the church in order to pray. When Michaela rushes to her parents’ workshop to tell the news, her mother Marianna is highly against this. Instead of rationalising her objection verbally in medical terms, she asks how Michaela thinks she can go with “her thing”, highlighting how her daughter’s condition is not talked about in direct terms. In this way, the establishing scenes allude to Michaela’s quest to freedom that the university as a centre of knowledge and also the ensuing spatial displacement from home would offer.
Schmid concentrates on Michaela’s physical and mental behaviour in their totality, not merely on the illness per se. This way the film shows Michaela as a complex, multifaceted character and subtly alludes to the disruptive qualities the attacks cause. Together with her own sense of self, the film concentrates on Michaela’s environment with different, juxtaposing ideas of her condition. The locations are set between binaries. The home environment and the village life with its church are juxtaposed with the life in the city in Tübingen. However, it must be noted that Schmid is not doing this simply by concentrating on the filmic spatial qualities, since both environments are filmed mainly in the same way. The colour scheme is muted and brown hues dominate in both. The grainy film stock is evident throughout as well as the handheld camera that give immediacy to both environments. However, immediate colour juxtapositions are used in some scenes to accentuate the difference. It is, instead, the people and ideologies that set these locations in opposite poles. Their difference is represented in a juxtaposition of two early scenes. In Tübingen, Michaela dives into water with Hanna, surrounded by fellow university students drinking beer. Although Michaela is hesitating first as she has no swim wear, the later indulgence of swimming with normal underwear alludes to the breaking of barriers that the home life assumingly has built around conventional behaviour. Their joyful scream then changes into a scene of Michaela being home after the first week, sitting at a table with the family, in complete silence, praying. Here Schmid accentuates the difference with filmic effects. The tightly-framed shot together with the dark, grey colours contrasts with the earlier light scene by the river, where Michaela was surrounded by the multitude of natural space. At the table Michaela’s sister Helga looks at Michaela’s new student pass stating how she would like to have one too. Marianne rapidly removes this from Helga. While being merely a student card, arguably it is also a symbolic passport to freedom; Michaela’s personal information together with the photo proves her as an individual person with own sense of self that the mother cannot control.
The contrasting concepts and ideas of Michaela’s condition form the kernel of the film and show how the environment and reactions affect her as well as her illness. The family life is highly shadowed by religious rituals and it is shown in two occasions that when Michaela’s condition deteriorates, the local priest and younger novice priest are called in to intervene. This alludes how Michaela’s condition is seen in a highly religious context. Schmid represents the family dynamics from the first scene onwards when Michaela tells about her university acceptance. As becomes clear from here onwards, Karl often stays back and while balancing between Michaela and her mother, he tries to keep the family harmony intact. Marianne seems to be the strong, authoritarian character in the family, even despite she sits down and Karl is standing. This is connoted through the intonation and looks between the characters. Also, while Karl stays in the background and is filmed mainly in medium shots or in shots that give him space with the environment, Marianne and Michaela are mainly filmed in close-ups. This emphasizes the urgency and their obstinacy with the theme, more than the middle shots of Karl do. He tries to slow down Michaela’s excitement but he has already enticed her to study by renting a student room and bought her a typewriter. None of this has been conversed with the mother that highlights the lack of conversation in the family, but also shows the difficult position in which Karl is. While he approves and even supports Michaela plans it seems that all her attempts to adult, independent life are hampered by the mother. This is clearly exemplified when Michaela comes home for Christmas. She has bought grown-up, stylish winter boots and a skirt that she is very proud of, as seen in Tübingen when she is glowing self-confidence when exhibiting her new clothes to Stefan. At home, Marianne’s verbal disapproval of the new clothes is taken to a next level by throwing them away to a rubbish bin. The looks between Marianne and Michaela in this instance are all-encompassing and the tension is highlighted by the rapid cutting between shots of them and then culminated in a two-shot of them very close one another. It seems that while Marianne is concerned about Michaela’s well-being, she is also worried about the family reputation and about the independence that grants Michaela knowledge outside the religious paradigm.
Although Schmid is not condemning nor judging the characters, it is clear that through thematic and formal qualities the film shows how the conservative, religious family dynamics, and especially the mother – daughter relations have psychosomatic effects on Michaela. After the first week at the university Michaela comes home and the family is off to a pilgrimage to Italy together with the local priest. It is at the guesthouse where Michaela gets her first attack on screen. The attack is preceded by cutting remarks by the mother. Marianne gives her a rosary and with a sound of a biting innuendo says that she has prayed God to keep an eye on her. Michaela starts saying how she will not let her down but her assurance is interrupted by Marianna asking her to stop before disappearing to the bathroom. As the mother thinks that Michaela cannot live alone “with her thing”, she has the pressure to prove her wrong. A lot could be written about the evil mother figure, but Schmid does not demonise her and does not allow easy, over-determined judging of the mother or the church. Schmid states that the mother is a victim as Michaela is. He sees her as a representative of the post-war generation that has lost the joy and inner contact with the others (Westphal, 2006). Once Michaela’s condition has deteriorated and she has been taken back home, there is a tender shot of Marianna washing Michaela in a bathtub. While they were often filmed in close-ups or in middle shots when having a confrontation, this time the camera films then from a further distance, giving them space that also brings a sense of calmness to the shot. This is the first time that no words are uttered but there is a sense of mutual understanding between them, no matter how delusional Michaela may be at this late point.
Drawing on this concept of understanding, Michaela’s first attack on screen is also decisive as it points to the lack of conversation and secrecy evident in the family. After the attack at the breakfast room Michaela’s father founds her on the floor. He says that Michaela should be happy that he found her, not the mother, as “that would have been it then”. Lederle has stated that this scene shows the family tragic and how the conflicts in the family are so threatening that they need to hidden (2006, p.13). This impossibility of dialogue becomes a study of dysfunctional family relations in terms of constructive communication and exchange. As Karl later explains to Marianne, he hid the doctor’s letters diagnosing Michaela as mentally unwell as he wanted to give her a chance. The father–daughter relation is shadowed by the mutual secrecy, as Karl knows more than he is able to utter. He secretly comes to visit Michaela at the university once he has received an insurance letter from Michaela’s doctor appointment. As they are filmed facing each other, Michaela sitting on bed and Karl on a chair the short distance enabling them to hold hands, the scene shows the warmth between them. Despite Karl is worried the scene shows his reliance on his daughter who clearly masters the situation. However, soon after that Michaela has an attack at home and Karl drives her to see the young priest on her request. This time he is anxious and tells Michaela how he is tired of keeping it all secret from the mother. As they converse in the car, the secrecy of their conversation is indicated by filming them mostly in close-ups and from behind, showing the back of their heads and shoulders. In comparison to the earlier scene where Karl and Michaela was conversing facing each other, here they hardly share an eye contact that indicates the father’s indignation with the situation in which he is in.
Although Hanna becomes Michaela’s strong support, she is unable to see beyond her own conceptions of Michaela’s condition. When Hanna finds Michaela on the floor in her room after the party, she tells Hanna about her epilepsy. Hanna promises not to tell anything to Michaela’s parents if she goes to see a doctor, to which Michaela agrees. The next scene shows Michaela going to see the priest. This emphasizes her unwillingness to accept her condition in medical terms. However, it could also be argued that her hope is that the priest would offer her an opportunity to talk and to be listened instead of being subjected to machine-like, inhuman tests, and as Michaela earlier tells Hanna being prescribed pills and then pills to secondary effects. The older priest is opposing the idea of devils, unlike the young novice priest later, stating these to be mere metaphors and indignantly asks Michaela to go to see a doctor. As soon after that the film shows Michaela subjected to medical brain scan tests this highlights how she is not listened or let to speak. Neither a doctor nor any in depth conversation are shown, merely a nurse connecting the cables between Michaela’s head and the machine. This makes the scene very cold, impersonal, degrading Michaela to another medical case, as the lines seen in the monitor. The close-up of her head covered in tiny cables with her desperate face shows not fear as such but disappointment. As in the preceding scene Michaela is telling Hanna how she should not undervalue her studies as she herself already lost one year, arguably this rejection of medical reasons is also self-protection. Accepting medical reasons possibly would mean an end of her academic career as happened before when she had to skip a year given medical rationalising.
However, despite Michaela is not keen on going to doctors, given the contrasting spiritual and medical rationalising the film leaves open Michaela’s own conceptions of her malady. It seems that these also fluctuate, and this is often enhanced by her current environment. Additionally the two first attacks on screen are filmed or preceded by scenes that show Michaela in ambiguous, ethereal way as if not to give any direct answers. The first attack at the university is preceded by a student party scene. Michaela is dancing alone in the university disco and she seems to be in a state of euphoria. She is clearly dancing for joy and freedom being away from home, able to study again and being kissed by Stefan for the first time. However, her upward, heaven-reaching look also has religious connotations. The lyrics by Deep Purple “If the day would only come. Then you might just appear. Even though you’d soon be gone. When I reached out my hand. If I could see you. If only I could see you” can be seen within the religious, god approaching contexts. In the same way the first attack in Italy at the guesthouse is filmed in overexposed light that gives an ethereal feeling. It is as if her attack has intangible spiritual dimensions. Michaela cannot touch the rosary her mother gave her, and her malady is filmed in close-shots of her twisting feet and hands that are unable to pick up the rosary from the floor. Consequently, as the director combines these ethereal shots with the earlier verbal remarks by the mother that insinuate their psychosomatic effect on Michaela, Schmid makes the scene ambiguous in the context of the film. It is also important that once Michaela starts seeing grotesque faces and hearing voices these are never visible or audible. These are only sensible through Michaela’s expressions.
The faces and voices Michaela sees and hears appear at the university. The university as an emblem of test and assessments is emphasized and the film revolves around this concept personal and professional trial. The complete novelty of many activities and juggling between the two contrasting environments seems to become her personal trial as Michaela explores the freedom that university life brings, such as parties, relationship, and sex. These are clearly seen as outside the proper Catholic behaviour as delineated by the mother, who disapproves even Michaela’s new grown-up clothes and her friendship with Hanna merely because of the reputation her father has. In the morning after making love to Stefan for the first time Michaela is convinced that she has to study in order to pass the tests. Although referring to the university exams, in the context of the preceding scenes it arguably refers to her ‘transgression’ with Stefan, to her test as a good Catholic. Michaela has the pressure to prove her parents that she can succeed on her own. This then culminates at the test time, when Michaela cannot handle the pressure and she spends days and nights studying. This is magnificently represented through a succession of shots of nervous Michaela. She is moving around frantically, or sitting still looking into emptiness. The ticking clock in the background accentuates her nervousness. She shouts furiously to a cross on the wall asking to let her to finish the assessment. In a nervous attempt of taking her medicines she throws them away instead. This scene thus brings close the religious and the scientific, as Michaela is blaming both for her failure. At the same time the young priest is repeating how Michaela’s existence and suffering are a test. Michaela goes to see him explaining that “Everything I do is wrong. I try to pray. I try to be a good student, but they always come and get me”. When she adds that she has started to understand St Katharina’s suffering the young priest answers that St Katharina indeed had to survive many trials, but kept her faith and therefore was chosen by the God. He continues that “He tests those He loves the most. You know that. I have to see it as a trial or there is only despair left to me”. When the pressure to prove her mother that she can cope alone and succeed academically becomes overwhelming, Michaela stars to identify with the St. Katharina and leads to her fully believing she is possessed. This turns her more to the religious explanations of her condition. However, it could also be argued that the demons are an unconscious feeling of quilt and self-enacted punishment for not passing the tests symbolically set by her mother to her independent life while also struggling with the university tests.
Consequently, Schmid is not giving any easy answers in relation to Michaela’s deterioration, not even in the end of the film when she is subjected to exorcism that later leads to her death. When this first and only even slightly visible exorcism practice starts, the camera slowly zooms back and thus stays away from any sensationalistic images. This distance is also essential, as Schmid has stated it would be unbearable to be any closer. He says that some things have the quality to have a threatening element, the secrecy, when they are looked from too close (Nord, 2006). Given that the film deals with exorcism – although only indirectly as it is never the main scope of the film – it could have been much more exploitative in form. While representation of exorcism were already seen in the Jesus films of the silent era (Greydanus, 2011), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) has become the hallmark of the theme. Huskinson argues that while the representations of exorcism have developed since The Exorcist, its portrayal “is engrained in popular consciousness and its influence can be traced in successive popular interpretations of exorcism” (Huskinson, 2011, na). In the same vein, Greydanus has argued that “The Exorcist is the source or channel of much of our culture’s awareness of and ideas about possession and exorcism; it’s also the pivotal link between the Catholic-inflected piety of Golden Age Hollywood and the demonic world of latter-day horror” (Greydanus, 2011). Given this special place, and perhaps because of the multitude of special effects the films has, The Exorcist imitators “seldom approached their inspiration for authenticity or quality” (Greydanus, 2011).
In complete opposition to this, the way Schmid handles the spiritual is not to offer voyeuristic and highly theatrical representations but to evoke emotions through the subject matter. As the director has stated he did not want to make a film about exorcism. He sees that the theme is way too superficial and also speculative (Nord, 2006). In relation to the representations of the spiritual Grodal has argued that it is easy to believe that the spiritual force can have an impact on the material world, as seen in many stories about possession by evil spirits. However, he continues that although many people do not fully believe in such notions “their popularity in films suggests that such conceptions not only are easy to understand but also powerfully activate our emotions” (2009, pp.109-110). Despite Schmid’s film has elements of the demonic, in Requiem the emotions are not those that frighten us, but those that make us sympathise with Michaela. The devil becomes an ambiguous concept in the film as it fluctuates between the spiritual and the psychological. Huskinson has argued that “the popular imagination is attracted to themes of exorcism principally because in exorcism we find the demon animated and its monstrous aspects intensified” (2011, p. na.). Consequently, given that the popular culture glorifies the demonic presence and there is a huge interest in the representations of demons this also partially explain why images of exorcism are relative rare in the popular culture, as Huskinson argues. She sees that “popular culture affirms the devil more than its eradication” (Huskinson, 2011, n.a.). In the only and partial exorcism scene in Requiem it is not about the eradication of the devil per se but the scene punctuates the breakdown of any notions of Michaela’s condition in her family and friend circle. Michaela is brought home by Stefan as her condition completely deteriorates. As her parents are unable to handle erratic and unstable Michaela and Stefan stays back in total perplexity, the two priests are called in. The scene shows how the people around Michaela have no idea how to handle the situation, they are afraid and thus they are driven to the exorcism, even the older priest who previously rejected any ideas of demons. In this respect in the exorcism scene the demons are nowhere to be seen – it is the accumulation of all different ideas of Michaela’s condition as the family, Stefan, priests and later Hanna are gathered in the house.
Schmid has succeeded in representing one person’s disorientation in a very economic but objective manner. The film is a deep character study and its strong point is that it does not try to explain the inner torment but ushers to observe its devastating effect. As Mattin argues “Schmid’s interest is in the mind, not the supernatural” that makes Requiem “a naturalistic and thrillingly powerful film” (Mattin, 2006).The voices and grotesque faces are never seen or heard, and in this light Nord has stated that the threat comes from the unseen (Nord, 2006). The threat is that there are no answers or visual certainties as the film never intends to make logical explanations of Michaela’s condition. Although there are moments when it clearly borders psychological dimensions and seems to be caused by the familial and academic pressure, the film does claim neither medical nor spiritual rationale.
The film is like a circle; it starts Michaela leaving the family home and in the end she comes back for good, the film’s time span being only a year. The friendship with Hanna was formed when Michaela helped her to cheat on a test. In the end of the film Hanna comes to visit Michaela, trying to convince her to leave the home and to come with her. However, Michaela is already so rooted to the eternal psyche of test that she cannot come, stating that she needs to follow the path God has chosen her. She believes to be suffering for something bigger and identifies herself with the St. Katharina. If the film started her striving up to the hill to pray in order to get the right university application results, the film ends her on top of the hill, wanting to go down home. Whether religious or psychological, her test has become the main reason in life, a trial in which she has immersed completely.