Generationskonflikt: Exorcism as Metaphor in Requiem

Under the Nazi regime, women were expected to construct their lives around three ‘Ks’: Kinder (children), Küche (kitchen), Kirche (church). These were the components of a virtuous female existence in the eyes of the Third Reich. This rhetoric of gendered roles in society became further engrained within families during this time and continued to be upheld after the war had ended. Obviously, these values and expectations existed long before the Nazi regime on a global scale, but the fascist force did nothing to alleviate them in the social life of women. Rather it exacerbated them as girls were sent to train to become God-fearing mothers and housewives. There was little in the way of substantial change until the late 1960s where feminism saw its first organizational efforts; the student revolution of 1968 resulting in the first Weiberäte (women’s centers). Eventually, critiques of the archaic social value system became increasingly heard, making progress visible in the 1970s. It is during this time where we meet religious 21-year-old Michaela in Requiem (dir. Hans Christian-Schmid, 2005). She has just received an acceptance letter to college and is anxious to depart the confines of her hometown. However, Michaela is said to have an undiagnosed medical condition that causes unexpected “episodes.” This worries her parents whether she will be able to live autonomously with her affliction–especially her mother. Regardless of doubts, Michaela moves into student housing with the help of her father.

Michaela going to college for a professional career is exemplary of the social changes that were brewing. There is no talk of her having to get married or fulfill the demure role of the obedient housewife. However, she is still expected to dress and act modestly and honor religious values. Michaela looks forward to an autonomous existence, free from the constraints of the past. That Michaela’s mother, Marianne, is the most hesitant towards her academic career is significant. Marianne is a buttoned-up religious conservative housewife who is skeptical of Michaela’s choices and capabilities. Unlike her daughter, she spent her twenties at the height of the Nazi regime and, in turn, the height of Germany’s gendered labor expectations. Although she is never explicit in her reprimands, she is not openly accepting either. By the time in which Michaela goes to college, the social revolutions of the late 60s had already happened–the first two “Ks” seemed, to many, to be antiquated ideals. However, the last K (Kirche/church) still holds precedence over Michaela’s life. On her first day of class, her professor asks her what she believes in. She says: “God.” The class laughs. For Michaela, who has only known the cloistered life of her religious hometown, the liberated attitude of the college students is both daunting and exciting. She quickly makes friends with an old acquaintance, Anna, who takes her to go swimming in the river after school. Anna strips to her underwear, Michaela follows with hesitancy. A crowd of college guys look on as the two splash water at each other and ecstatically holler. This is followed by a hard cut to Michaela back at home, praying with her family at the dinner table. The contrast of seeing her at her most free and then most reserved clearly visualizes the two increasingly irreconcilable halves of Michaela’s life.

Michaela chooses to be religious, even when away from her home. Her belief in God continues, even when the associated limits imposed on her at home are removed. Michaela tries to reconcile her newfound autonomy with the rhetoric of living a “humble “ Christian life without the puritanical social and sexual limits imposed on her before. Her attitude towards religion is progressive in contrast to that of her parents. It is during this first visit home from college that we see Michaela experience an “episode:” she is unable to touch a rosary, hears voices, and has seizure-like symptoms. Writings by St. Augustine posit that all suffering is the result of a sinful existence and that fits of “hysteria” were, therefore, a sign of satanic possession” (Abse). “Hysteria” was a condition often ascribed to women throughout history. It amounted out of the myth that “not only is a woman vulnerable to mental disorders, she is weak and easily influenced (by the “supernatural” or by organic degeneration), and she is somehow “guilty” (of sinning or not procreating)” (Tasca, Rapetti, Carta, and Fadda).

In Requiem, Michaela’s episodes of physical aversion to religious iconography are positioned more as a rejection of the limits that the conception of the “virtuous female” sets. She is not believed to be strong enough to attain her “lofty” goals; the doubt and shame imbued upon her are her poison. She has tasted freedom; her homecomings always result in an “episode.” It isn’t religion that Michaela can no longer physically endure, it is the reification of that religion in language that her family uses towards her as well as the imagery associated with these expectations. When Michaela relays her experience–aversion to the rosary and hearing voices that tell her she’s a “whore”–to her priest, he tells her she is delusional. He describes how God and the devil are simply symbols meant to spiritually guide, not be taken literally–there are no demons calling her a slut. However, religion has translated over to Michaela’s lifelong social conditioning in a more direct way; the voices of those telling her to be modest are using religious justification. The societal expectation of women is confused with God’s will. The last “K” (church) suddenly justifies the other two: Kinder (children) and Kuche (kitchen). These last two are heavily loaded with puritanical sexual politics and subservience to men respectively. Michaela’s episodes are always the result of her attempts at liberation. Whether she attempts to write a paper, dances feely at a club, has sex with her new boyfriend, or yells at her parents, it is followed by an episode, without fail. St. Augustine’s theory of cause and effect (sin and punishment) seems to apply.

Michaela’s episodes are not just a reaction to reapplied limits, but also are manifestations of her learned shame: of giving in to desire and living life liberally. When Michaela returns home for Christmas, she wears a modern outfit: a shorter skirt and a top with a lower cut. Her mother, Marianne, asks: “do you think that suits you?” When Michaela and her family exchange gifts that evening, she gives her mother a leather bag. Marianne, awestruck, asks: “real leather?!” These two instances portray the generational differences between the two women. Marianne spent her twenties adhering to conservative values with no aspirations towards fulfilling material desires–mostly because there was no access to them. Contrarily, Michaela is living more autonomously and now has access to luxury commodities–antithetical to modesty. The tension between the two reaches its apotheosis when Marianne throws Michaela’s new outfit in the trash. Michaela has another “episode.” Her reinvention and emancipation are consistently punished.

Michaela quickly returns to college after the altercation with her family and makes some radical changes. She decides to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time, blames the cross on her wall for keeping her from writing, flushes her medication, and dances unrestrained at the club she frequents. Her boyfriend raises concerns about her behavior and attempts to tame her. Her friend, Anna, believes she needs help. Eventually, her parents and priest show up at her school and force her to pray with them. She is brought home for a final time. We see Michaela at her most defiant: breaking objects, insulting her parents, and grimacing at them. Her parents call the priest to perform an exorcism.

It is during this exorcism that Michaela apologizes to her parents for her behavior and asks the priest to absolve her of her demons. We slowly see her slip into her former self, however without the ambition of pursuing a new life. She is infantilized: fed, bathed, restrained. She is removed from school and is forced to live a tranquilized existence at home. When Anna comes to visit her, Michaela has radically changed. She speaks of having to stay home until all the demons are purged to which Anna replies: “there are no demons, there’s only you.” Whether Michaela is actually suffering from affliction or is suffering the repercussions of gaslighting is never clear. The film ends with a denouement in which we are told that Michaela undergoes a dozen more exorcisms before eventually passing away due to exhaustion. The keyword, and the one that necessarily carries the most ambiguity, is “exhaustion.” Exhaustion from what?

The term “exhaustion” opens the film up to further interpretation. It can easily be read as being about a case of mental illness being misdiagnosed by religious fanatics. As has historically been the case: “mental disorder, especially in women, so often misunderstood and misinterpreted, generates scientific and/or moral bias, defined as a pseudo-scientific prejudice” (Tasca, Rapetti, Carta, and Fadda). But the narrative structure of having “episodes” consistently follow attempts at liberation, leaves us to question issues of residual guilt and shame stemming from divergence from the expired social values of our ancestors. This ambiguity begets Requiem’s relevance now, and possibly forever.

Sources/Further Reading

 Tasca, C., Rapetti, M., Carta, M. G., & Fadda, B. (2012). Women and hysteria in the history of mental health. Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH, 8, 110–119.

Abse, D. Wilfred (September 24, 2013). Hysteria and Related Mental Disorders: An Approach to Psychological Medicine. Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-1-4832-2166-3.

Heineman, Elizabeth. “Gender, Sexuality, and Coming to Terms with the Nazi Past.” Central European History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2005, pp. 41–74. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Mar. 2021.