Friday, December 15, 2006


Good atheist as I am I nonetheless have a fondness for films with religious themes. Not religious films such as the dourly devotional The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Passion of the Christ, nor Martin Scorsese's ethnic tourist trips The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun. I really couldn't care less about the major personalities of world religion, on film at least, but it is the religiosity of ordinary people that I find fascinating. The obvious examples are Bresson and Dreyer, two-thirds of Paul Schrader's 'blessed trinity' - strangely enough, the third, Yasujiro Ozu, was so disinterested by religion as to be practically secular in his gentle, old-fashioned work - and there is also Lars von Trier, and even the anti-religious cinema constituted of such films as The Magdalene Sisters, Ken Loach's Raining Stones, Bunuel's Viridiana and The Milky Way. A film that is so remarkable as to bear immediate comparison to both Bresson and Dreyer is the second film by the young German director Hans-Christian Schmid entitled Requiem, which is one of the most moving portrayals of mental illness and undying faith that I have ever seen.

Requiem, based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, tells the tale of a 21-year-old German student Michaela, played by the brilliant Sandra Hüller - resembling a young Diane Keaton -, who is raised in the sort of diabolically-strict Catholic family that every Catholic dreads waking up one day to find it their own, and who suffers from an exceptionally debilitating strain of epilepsy that threatens her college career, and which she despairs of ever escaping. Tied to her strident faith, nurtured by an embittered harridan of a mother and a loving but sadly powerless father, and her obsession with an obscure martyred saint, her mental well-being wavers to a point that nobody, even her devout parents and parish priest, are capable of absorbing it in a way explicable to them.

Though it is likely that Michaela's illness is purely corporeal, the temporal location of her situation, after the loss in certainty among the German catholics, renders her trauma all the more unsettling. Her psychosis is not accepted, even by the clerics and the faithful, as spiritual due to their own faith's wavering, until it is too late. When exorcism finally takes place, it is much more disturbing than in William Friedkin's film because, as well as being patently inappropriate, it takes place amid an environment of such selfless love, with even the embittered mother casting off her coldness in her daughter's hour of need. We see a world of unconditional love and one where rationalism has supposedly killed off all lingering traces of religious superstition, but Michaela, in her conviction that her illness makes her special, constitutes a nightmarish throwback to the past. There is a great similarity to von Trier's mighty Breaking the Waves but this film avoids von Trier's algebra of suffering, a schematism that misled many of his critics into accusing him of rampant misogyny (it is there in his other films but exists only as a decoy in Breaking the Waves). Requiem rather progresses in a sober fashion with occasional fits of activity as the heroine tries to live a normal social life, and consequently suffers further seizures. The film's combination of static shots and intimate handheld camerawork recalls the Dardenne brothers and the opening two scenes draw the viewer in rapidly like no film since Rosetta. The film is set in the mid-70s but its period detail is for the most part restrained, no kitsch set design or platform shoes; the one concession to the era is a fantastic scene where Michaela almost breaks down trying to replace a dried-up typewriter ribbon. It is a scene that will be familiar to anyone that has felt unreasonably stymied by household obstacles, but it is rendered frightening by the intensity of Hüller's performance.

After years of so-so output, German cinema is once again a major creative force, which, to be honest, is the least that can be expected of Europe's largest country. As well as popular hits such as Goodbye Lenin! and Downfall there is also a new wave of young directors such as Schmid, Christoph Hochhaüsler, and Henner Winckler. Like the recent films of the last two, Requiem is distinguished by its heartfelt sympathy for young people, and its effortless dramatisation of their stories. But that boils Requiem down too much. There is an awful lot there. That's why I am going to see it again tomorrow.