Brisk, taut and confident, Hans-Christian Schmid's "Requiem" swiftly involves the audience with the plight of a lovely young woman, Michaela (Sandra Huller), who's devoutly religious, as are her parents. She has epilepsy but is eager to leave her small town and go to college.
Her mother (Imogen Kogge), a born killjoy, grim and fanatical, is adamantly opposed to her leaving -- why, she might have another attack, and what then? -- but her loving, henpecked father (Burghart Klaussner) supports his daughter's wishes. Because Michaela has undergone long-term treatment for her epilepsy and is under medication, he believes his daughter deserves a chance at happiness.
The time is the 1970s, and Michaela, more than most students, is overwhelmed by the drastic shift from her bleak, puritanical environment to the free-thinking, intellectually challenging atmosphere of university life. (Even so, the impersonal spaces of the university seem as drab as the interiors of Michaela's family home.) Michaela responds to her unanticipated sense of freedom with giddy elation, but she is blessed with the steadying friendship of the strong, sensible Hanna (Anna Blomeier), who's from her hometown, and the attentions of Stefan (Nicholas Reinke), a sensitive chemistry major who offers the promise of first love.
Yet Michaela, in the midst of her blossoming -- and quite likely because of it -- is struck by a sense of fear. In an incident that occurs after a seizure, she discovers that she cannot force herself to touch a rosary she has dropped on the floor. She is soon convinced that she is possessed by demons and beyond the help of medical science. As well-meaning family, friends and clergymen struggle to help her, Michaela plunges deeper into her nightmare, convinced that exorcism is the only solution.
Schmid is on the side of science yet wisely imbues "Requiem" with ambiguity. It is a fresh, vital film that flows easily, catching Michaela's quicksilver shifts in mood and temperament, so beautifully and effortlessly expressed by Huller in what had to be a most demanding portrayal.
The interplay between Michaela's epilepsy and her belief that she is possessed by demons remains tantalizing, yet Schmid deftly limns all the forces that make Michaela's state of mind completely plausible -- it's as if her seemingly joyous liberation from a life of rigid religiosity has snapped back at her, drowning her as an individual whose essential devoutness is inescapable.
In lesser hands, "Requiem" would seem merely bleak, but Schmid makes a rigorously urgent and compelling film out of Michaela's odyssey, inspired by, but by no means a dramatization of, the widely reported plight of Anneliese Michel and her ordeal of exorcism in Germany in 1976, on which "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" was also based. Indeed, in its subtlety, complexity and dexterity, "Requiem" is a notably original work.
MPAA rating: Unrated
An IFC First Take release. Director-producer Hans-Christian Schmid. Screenplay Bernd Lange. Cinematographer Bogumil Gofredjow. Editors Hansjorg Weissbrich, Bernd Schlegel. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.