BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: German devastation.

THE REAL-LIFE story of Anneliese Michel has inspired people from Hollywood’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose to Public Image Ltd., but Hans-Christian Schmid’s take on the events is austere and ultimately, extremely unnerving. The ghost of Fassbinder has haunted the German fiction films of the Film Society this year, and Requiem is no different – the drab surroundings, the intensity of the mise-en-scène, the ruthless view of institutions and bourgeois sensibilities were some of the great German director’s key concerns. Admittedly Requiem is much more sympathetic to its characters than Fassbinder was to his, but the film succeeds by showing the ‘extraordinary’ events through a gruelling realism. This isn’t a horror film, but a descent into madness. Of course, this approach wouldn’t have worked nearly so well without the astonishing acting performance of Sandra Hüller as the afflicted girl.

Schmid thrusts his camera in his characters’ faces, with a Dardenne Brothers-like intensity, forcing his actors to carry the story. Hüller responds magnificently, with an intensely physical and believable performance. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such a convincing portrayal of madness before. She’s initially shown as an ordinary girl – the film mentions her epilepsy – with cautious parents, a desire to become a teacher, and the complications of living away from home for the first time as she goes to university. In fact, her first few weeks away are about as far removed from the traditional Animal House-type depictions of first-year university students. Her first few weeks are so mired in the mundane moments of isolation, freedom and stress that her subsequent mental disintegration is both completely understandable but also completely disturbing. The other acting performances are excellent too – the parents pitch-perfect in their concern, and their unknowing cruelty, the young priest frightening in his rationalised irrationalism (and seediness). But it was not as if the medicine worked too well for her either.

The film succeeds as it also places itself within the middle of things: in between youth and adulthood, rationalism and irrationalism, freedom and oppression, modernity and traditionalism, religion and secularism. No wonder when a university professor asks his class ‘what do you believe in?’ and no-one knows, he’s so resigned to their indifference. It probably explains the film’s abrupt ending too, an ending that might confuse or annoy some. The sense is the film’s not too concerned about explaining the actual specifics of her condition (or depicting its tragic aftermath). We as an audience are instead lobbed into the middle of it all, and empathise with these characters at a juncture, all the way up until the film’s devastating conclusion.