Based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, Requiem follows a Michaela, 21-year-old epileptic woman in 1970s Germany, as she struggles to adjust to adulthood. As her condition worsens, she loses her faith in medicine and becomes increasingly convinced that she's suffering from demonic possession. But the film doesn't focus on CGI or gruesome makeup; its effectiveness lies in that the viewer never truly knows if Michaela is truly possessed, mentally ill, or suffering from extreme epilepsy. The terror grows as the audience watches Michaela become independent, begins her path to becoming a teacher, starts a relationship, and then watches everything come crashing down around her. We want her to be okay, and we want there to be answers for her. Her pain at the unknown becomes our own, and we're as terrified as she is as her condition deteriorates without explanation.
In addition to the moving story, the film includes gorgeous cinematography. Requiem goes beyond 1970s clothing and set design; the 16mm film beautifully mutes the colors of the scenery, moving the actual film itself appear to be from the 70s. Requiem isn't a throwback; it meticulously recreates the setting so that the viewer never questions when or where we are. This further engrosses the viewer in the world of Michaela, making it even easier to relate to her.
Without the traditional exorcist special effects -- heads turning around, extreme vomit, crawling on the walls, floating, etc. -- we're left not knowing what's real or not. The actual symptoms Michaela presents could very well be mental instead of demonic; she stops eating, cannot bring herself to touch religious iconography, becomes impulsive, and screams at the sound of prayer. Is this the work of evil spirits, or is this very religious young woman traumatized by her strict Catholic upbringing? We see her physical pain as her body slims without food, but what's more painful is the unknown. To me, this source of terror is incredibly overlooked in modern film, mostly explored nowadays by European filmmakers. It's a damn shame, as Requiem both moved and chilled me more than all of the other films I've watched this month.
My only true complaint about the movie is its abrupt ending. [SPOILERS AHEAD!] The majority of the film is slow, even quiet, as it chronicles Michaela's descent into illness. The final shot of the film is a beautiful closeup of Michaela's face as she appears calm, even blissful, in her newfound path. I would have been 100% satisfied had this been the ending, not knowing whether she pursued medical treatment or sought further help from the church. Instead, we're met with a closing title card that essentially says, "Oh, PS, Michaela got some exorcisms and died of exhaustion." It's a staggering blow to know that all of our support and sympathy has been in vain. Furthermore, its suddenness is so dissatisfying after such a gradual, steady build. True, it's fitting that Michaela met the same fate as Anneliese Michel, but I believe it could have been incorporated in a much more organic manner.
Regardless, I found Requiem to be both haunting and visually appealing. In a world filled with loud, flashy horror movies, director Hans-Christian Schmid managed to create a quiet, even simple film about exorcism. If nothing else, this shows that what's unseen and unexplained can be far more impactful than even the most expensive and brutal graphics.