Does demonic possession really exist in this world? Can we claim that a person is possessed by demons when we have got psychoanalysis as an academic subject? I am neither a theologist nor a psychologist, so I am not able to provide a concrete answer. I am not analyzing demonic possession or the potency of exorcism, either. The topic is provided only to help us analyze the context of Requiem (2006), a German film about demonic possession directed by Hans-Christian Schmid.
Requiem is based on the true incident, the Klingenberg case, happened in Germany in the seventies. In the small town of Klingenberg, a young girl named Anneliese Michel died from starvation and exhaustion after exorcism in 1976. Whether she was truly possessed or not, both the German court of justice and the German Bishops' Conference declared that this is not a case of demonic possession and the girl should survive if medical treatment is practiced. According to the article on Wikipedia, the girl’s parents, the pastor and the priest were all indicted for negligent homicide. Though this Wikipedia article is disputed, it still gives an introduction to this incident. Alternatively, if you can read German, the website of the German Bishops' Conference has further information on this case.
Although the film was based on the Klingenberg case, the director had adapted the context of the film and claimed that actions and characters were all imagined. According to the interview on the official website of this film, he stated that he personally does not believe the existence of demonic possession. In fact, the narrative of Requiem intends to correspond to the decision of the German court. It seems to state that demonic possession simply does not exist.
In the beginning of the film, the character, Michaela, was presented as a good girl being diagnosed as having epilepsy. She was forced to quit school and stayed at home for health reasons. When she finally experienced her free life in the university, her mental illness suddenly started to exacerbate. The director intended to exaggerate this condition so as to show Michaela’s inability to cope with her new life. This free new life contrasts to the strict upbringing she had at home. This change came swiftly for which Michaela was not able to adapt herself, but lost in it.
Michaela tried so hard to cope with this new life because she had the pressure from her mother who always considered her as not healthy enough for normal life. Through interactions between the two shown on the screen, we could capture the mother’s strict attitude to Michaela. In the scene the mother commented harshly on her clothes, we saw her wrath that ended as somewhat like a demonic possession. This strict upbringing actually suppresses all her feelings. When she is not able to handle a certain situation, she would show this demonic possession to release her anger or frustration. This frantic behaviour is presented when she could not complete her essay writing and got frustrated with the typewriter. This explains Michaela's demonic possession is the behaviour she adopted to express negative attitudes. It also delivers the idea that Michaela was in fact in need of medical treatment for her mental disorders.
However, this intention to say Michaela was not possessed by demons is not delivered successfully. The Klingenberg case is closed with scientific reasoning, but many people still believe Anneliese was a devote believer. Her grave has become a place of pilgrimage. Whether it is this reason or not, the director added certain horrid and supernatural atmosphere in this film. When Michaela’s problem worsened, she had hallucinations and asked for help in the church. She convinced herself that she was truly possessed by demons and kept saying she needed exorcism. She could not touch her beads, nor the Cross, and she could not bear hearing any prayers anymore. She showed her failure to believe in God and finally let her abnormal behaviours take control of her. In the scene where she was presented as fully possessed, she acted like another person yelling at her mother for her strict upbringing.
It is until the end of the film that the director finally decided to place Michaela’s demonic possession in a religious context. Doing so indeed can give more horrid sense to the film, but it seems to distract the whole film from its original implication. The intention of this film is to express that Michaela’s demonic possession results from her inability to manage her attitudes, and in order not to take any medical treatments, she convinced herself and others that she was possessed. Her demonic possession is a representation of her mental disorder.
This approach is very different from the other film also based on the same incident, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), a Hollywood horror film directed by Scott Derrickson. In this film, we clearly get the intention that is to show us what a demonic possession is. The director used special effects to show scars, stigmata, and corporeal and sound changes on Emily. It focuses on giving entertainment and really provides a horrid sense. It places demonic possession over psychiatric disturbance. Unlike it, Requiem seems to place its focus on the human emotions, especially on the psychological process of why demonic possession became the symptom of Michaela’s mental disorder. When the director suddenly shifted his focus from psychiatric disturbance to supernatural forces, it caused problems to this film. What has been presented in the end seems to contradict to the main idea set up for the film. Does the director try to tell us that Michaela was really possessed by demons?
Mental disorders are usually considered as demonic possession in the old days when knowledge of the mental realm is not yet fully studied and analysed. Therefore, we naturally think mental disorders, along with the accompanied weird and abnormal behaviours, are consequences of demonic possession. Speaking with a religious sense, when a person acts differently from others and expresses disbelief in God, he/she is possessed by demons. On the other hand, living in this modernised world, religions are losing their hierarchical powers. When technologies develop, we distance ourselves more away from religions. As a consequence, we no longer consider God as the only saviour. In mental realm, we seek advice and treatment form psychoanalysis when mental disorders happened. However, could we really deny demonic possession? Can we say that it is only a form of mental disorder that could be fixed by psychoanalysis?
In the end of Requiem, it touches this question without giving any possible answer. I believe no one, not even those experts in theology and psychology, can really give a definite answer to whether demonic possession exists or not. Here, we are not trying to argue the existence of demonic possession in our everyday life. Mental disorders indeed require our attentions. It is a condition that may come from a person’s failure to manage his/her negative attitudes. Of course, we could take it as a demonic possession, but at the same time, we should always seek advice from psychoanalysis. After all, saving a human life is more important than compelling the demons to leave the body.
Reading the name of this film, we might think Requiem is a horror film. However, this film is humanitarian, and this special concern gives qualities to it and wins it the Fipresci Award in Berlin International Film Festival 2006. It is such a downfall when the director shifted its humanitarian focus to supernatural forces in the end of the film. Demonic possession should only be considered as a material that adds flavour to the film. If we want a horror film that is filled with supernatural forces and exaggerated performances, we can always choose a Hollywood production without any hesitation. The director of Requiem could have focused more on his humanitarian concerns and completed the film with this special quality.