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Since Run Lola Run, the Germans have kept up a respectable hitrate when it comes to films that use elements of the thriller to deliver drive – Head-On, The Edukators, Downfall, Sophie Scholl, The Lives of Others. Requiem continues the trend, the thriller element in this case being the jeopardy of its central character, a young woman we identify with entirely (old Hitchcock trick), a student who is plagued with voices in her head.

But instead of getting psychiatric help, she is cast into the hands of a priest convinced she is possessed. Two things immediately make this film stand out from the pack – the performance by the remarkable Sandra Hüller as the poor unfortunate Michaela, and the fact that this story is entirely true. Actually, make that three things. Because director Hans-Christian Schmid really goes the extra kilometre in immersing us in Michaela’s world – we meet her as a nice, ordinary-looking teenager on her way to Tübingen university, with a history of epilepsy and other, undisclosed mental health problems. Her hardbitten god-fearing mother is glass half empty about her prospects out in the wide world, dad is more worldly and glass half full. So off Michaela goes. And she does OK, makes friends, gets a boyfriend even, Schmid taking time to build a plausible, normal world.

But then the old psychological problems start to re-assert themselves, and like those films where someone wakes up and it was all a dream, then wakes up again to realise that the waking up was a dream and the nightmare is the reality… suddenly she is plunged back into the uncertainty and frailty that she’d been struggling to escape.

At this point Michaela is returned home, to the bosom of the family, and becomes the focus of a battle between the kindly father and a rational older priest on one side, and the fundamentalist mother and a zealous exorcist on the other.

Set in 1976, which was a while ago now, but hardly the medieval era, this paints a very dark picture indeed of the secretive world of families, one which the radical psychiatrist RD Laing would doubtless endorse (his credo: mental illness is a sane response to an intolerable situation) and the similarly shadowy world of the Church and its arcane practices.

Imagine The Exorcist, but seen entirely from Regan’s point of view. And she’s not possessed. In fact the thing about Requiem is that there is no occult business at all – no manifestations or ectoplasm or table-turning or disembodied voices – but it is a frightening, awful and terrifying film that saves its grimmest reveal for the very end.

Requiem – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2006

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