Sandra Hüller, the extraordinary 28-year-old star of Requiem, is pale and delicate, with lankish brown hair and a trusting light in her eye that makes her resemble the young Isabelle Huppert. In Requiem, which is set in the 1970s, Hüller plays a university student from a small German town who believes she’s possessed by the devil. When she stretches out her hand, in a clawlike Dracula grasp, reaching for the crucifix that the voices inside her won’t allow her to touch, her intensity is so compelling you truly have no idea if those demons are real.
When she isn’t collapsing into fits that might be epileptic, or psychotic, or — just maybe — satanic, Hüller’s Michaela is a sweetly devout and charismatic Christian girl who is wisely trying to move beyond her pious, parochial family, especially her prude of a mother. At school, she makes friends, dates a handsome guy, and pulls all-nighters in which she battles that ultimate college Beelzebub, a faulty typewriter ribbon (oh, do I remember those days). She also goes dancing, letting herself trance out to Deep Purple’s darkly gorgeous ”Anthem.” The way the film uses that song made me think of Lars von Trier’s ’70s-rock chorales in Breaking the Waves, and Requiem has been directed, by Hans-Christian Schmid, with something resembling the von Trier touch: a jittery, cleansing naturalism, all the better to root the uncanny in the surfaces of this world.
Requiem is drawn from an incident that was also the basis for last year’s demon-seed hit, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. That film was as literal as a videogame, yet it pandered to the evangelical market by viewing satanic possession as a crisis of faith. Requiem, a far more radical film, suggests that Michaela is driven to become everything her family hates in order to break out of her prison of faith. I read her as a schizophrenic who only thinks she’s possessed, yet to call the voices inside her an illness, a chemical imbalance, anything but a force would be a lie, even if it’s one everybody is willing to tell.