She doesn’t rotate her head 360 degrees or spit pea soup, but in Requiem, the West German–born actress Sandra Hüller creates the definitive screen portrait of supernatural possession. If director Hans-Christian Schmid’s film operates smartly outside the confines of the horror genre, its star inhabits her role with a fervor that borders on the terrifying.
Like Scott Derrickson’s dismal 2005 hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Requiem (which appeared briefly in U.S. theaters last October) is based on the strange case of Anneliese Michel, a Catholic girl from Bavaria who claimed to be inhabited by demons and died during an attempted exorcism in 1976. (The priests who performed the ritual were convicted of manslaughter.) The film improves in every way on its CGI-laden Hollywood cousin, eschewing conventional scares to focus on institutional critique and the unnavigable gulf between hard-wired faith and more modern notions of human psychology. Credit is due to Bernd Lange for his intelligent script and Schmid for his modulated direction, but it’s Hüller who makes the film work. The jury at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival agreed, awarding her the Best Actress prize. (In the Weekly’s recent film critics poll, Hüller ranked seventh in the Best Actress race, just behind this year’s five Oscar nominees and Inland Empire star Laura Dern.)
“I think that people think it’s all right that I won,” says the 28-year-old Thuringia native via telephone from Munich, where she’s appearing in a play. Hüller isn’t just being ingenuous: Requiem was her first film role after several successful years on the stage. “I played all you can play at my age onstage,” she recalls. “All the strange girls. And I was really lucky, because people trusted me and gave me big roles.” She notes that she was especially lucky that Schmid tends to cast first-time performers in his films, joking that this fact might infringe on future collaborations. “He’s famous for his work with actors. He’s a very quiet person, but he looks after the actors all the time. He knows how hard it is to produce big feelings.”
Hüller makes it look easy. Her Michaela is a case study in torment; she’s devoutly religious and painfully shy, beset by odd seizures and the relentless criticisms of her obstinate mother (Imogen Kogge), who tries to prevent her from leaving home to attend university. Once on campus, Michaela finds herself caught between fresh stirrings of freedom and separation anxiety. As her seizures persist, she becomes increasingly convinced of their otherworldly nature — a suspicion tragically abetted by the priests with whom she seeks counsel. “It’s much easier for someone to think that when something is wrong with them, it has to do with the devil rather than themselves,” says Hüller. “Michaela is under so much pressure, from all sides and from inside herself, from her parents and from these religious figures she admires.”
Despite the internalized nature of Michaela’s predicament — the audience is never made privy to her visions, which only makes the episodes more unnerving — Hüller’s work in Requiem is astonishingly physical. At first, Michaela moves with a sort of head-hung shuffle, arms folded defensively; but a jarring scene on a barroom dance floor in which she literally lets her hair down (to the accompaniment of Deep Purple) anticipates her flailing desperation in the exorcism sequences. “It was a big help that I knew how to act with my body,” says Hüller, citing her training at the prestigious Ernst Busch theater school in Berlin. “To know where the borders were, and how far I could go — that was very important.”
The technical demands of the role were secondary, however, to the responsibility of playing a real person — or rather, creating an authentic surrogate. Prior to filming, Hüller says, she and Schmid had long conversations about Anneliese Michel and the details of her case, but what they were after most was emotional verisimilitude. “It was important to us that Michaela was a character — that she wasn’t the real girl. It was important that we found our own language and our own truth in this story. For me, it was a strange experience to play someone who might have existed that way. I had a different responsibility than if I was playing Shakespeare.”
As it happens, while Hüller was filming Requiem she was simultaneously starring in a stage production of As You Like It, an exhausting experience from which the actress says she’s still not fully recovered.“I’ve read a lot of scripts in the last months,” she says. “But I don’t want to [do more movies] right now. I want to do theater. And I just want to take a rest. I had to think about so many things after Berlin last year. Many things have changed in my life. Then somebody came by and asked if I wanted to do a play here in Munich, and I said yes. So we started, and everything else will just happen from here.”
Asked if there are any filmmakers she’s particularly interested in working with, Hüller demurs. “I have no idea. I’m looking forward to the ideas of others. It’s the fantasy of the director that I depend on. If somebody gives me the right character, and I like them, then we’ll work with each other. I hope.”