By Daniel G. Cabrero

requiem-hans-christian-schmidt-1.jpgRequiem, 2006

An interivew with Requiem director Hans-Christian Schmid

Based on a true story, Requiem charts the story of Anneliese Michel, an intelligent and sensitive young woman from Germany who suffered in the early 1970s from depression and an epileptic convulsant disorder. In part due to her strong religious beliefs, she came to believe that she was possessed by demons, and in 1976, at the urging of her family, underwent protracted Catholic exorcism sessions which eventually led to her death later that year. A sensitive, non-sensational film that attempts to explain how such a seemingly irrational treatment can be taken by (and recommended to) such a vulnerable individual, the film has won numerous awards internationally. While in London to present Requiem at the 50th Times London International Film Festival, Hans-Christian Schmid was interviewed by Vertigo

Daniel G Cabrero: How did it feel to come to present your film as part of the offical selection of the 50th London Film Festival?

Hans-Christian Schmid: It is always a very exceptional opportunity to show your film in front of an audience such as the one in London, especially in this so special edition of the festival. This year the list of films selected is very thorough, so we, the entire team, feel so thrilled to have Requiem shown here before such demanding and seeking-for-new-experiences public.

DC: The film has travelled to many festivals and has won prizes including Best Film at the Sitges Festival in Spain and the Silver Bear for the Best Actress in Berlin. How has this experience been for you?

H-C S: As for Sitges, I just went to the festival when the film won the award. I was very surprised that the film won an award for the Best Film at a Fantasy festival because Requiem is an authentic and realistic story that we are telling, but I realised that the festival organisers were very open and took films such as ours into consideration. The way Requiem was told – as a filmic story in which Michaela believes that she is possessed by the demons – is a great achievement for winning this award. The same feeling came to us when we got the prizes for the Best Actress in Berlin for Sandra, and the prize from the critics in this festival too.

DC: Any other festivals coming up?

H-C S: So far it has been in 25-30 festivals and competitions already. It has been to Toronto, Shanghai, Chicago and so many more places. It has travelled a lot and it is still is doing so, and I believe that is something great about filmmaking. The fact that the physical film prints travel so much indicates that the film works and there is a wide audience that is thirsty for this sort of story.

DC: The film deals with a quite controversial theme such as exorcism, and therefore I assume that the way of working between director-actor was quiet intense; how did it work for your professional relationship with Sandra in this regard?

requiem-hans-christian-schmidt-3.jpgRequiem, 2006

H-C S: Truly, I think we were not that close to one another. Sandra needed an area where she could just make the character up by herself, and make it feel like what she wanted to play. For me, in the beginning, I was a little bit disappointed, not with the way she performed – that was really good. Nevertheless, I had made another film before with a similar role in it and I knew that I would work a lot with the actor, and that we would need to prepare the character for weeks, and also that he was to read a lot about everything that was to be read. This was the idea with which we started to approach Requiem with too. With Sandra, however, this was not possible to do in the same manner. When we had decided that it was Sandra who would play the character of Michaela, she was performing at a theatre in Switzerland. She had her premiere of a Shakespeare play right the night before we started shooting. This ran like this for about six weeks before she got completely involved in another project. It was the only way we would fit her in the shoot, by starting right the day after her premiere. And we knew that at the moment we would end our film, she would at once have to go back to the theatre and begin rehearsing for her next play. So, in between the six weeks we got for shooting the film, the theatre company released her from one play she was meant to do, so that she could make our film. Thus, it was a very tight and condensed schedule for all of us. She also had to go once a week to perform the Shakespeare play in the evenings. That was really hard to make it all work smoothly, though we managed well and came up with the film we expected to make.

I think Sandra is very talented and gifted actress, and that comes across in the film quite clearly. I then realised that she had the right way of approaching this character. She read one book about Anneliese Michel, and I offered her lots of material from the psychological point of view, neurological point of view, church point of view, etc. However, Sandra was not interested in all those things, and I believe it is because she did not want to be limited and feel she had to act like being Anneliese: she wanted to be Sandra playing Michaela, so she wanted to be Michaela herself. And once I came to respect that view, that, I think, it was the only possible way for her to concentrate and come up with her best performances. This approach also came because of the fact of Sandra not being with the team after the shooting each day – that was when she went to her room to go through the lines for the next day. All in all, however, I believe we were very, very close in terms of how you can trust each other. As with all directors, I've seen that actors need someone who observes closely what they are doing, and whom they can also always to rely on, after the days shoot, to have a director that says thank you. You know there was always this kind of looking out for each other and I'd always say if something was wrong in my mind and she knew what that was, or if I would say something wasn’t right and if she could see another way of doing it she suggested it straightaway, and because there are always three or four different ways to play a scene, and none of these ways are wrong, but just different and that's what we did quite a lot. But essentially I am not a director who tells an actor how to play a character, I never do that.

requiem-hans-christian-schmidt-2.jpgRequiem, 2006

DC: Which format did you shoot on and why?

H-C S: We shot the entire film on Super16, and then transferred it onto 35mm. It was risky and tricky because you need two optical steps: one is a blow-up from Super16 to 35 normal; and then from 35 normal to 35 Scope. A lot of things happening are not that easy and simple to control, so it was brave – and eventually good -- decision between my DoP and myself. The positive thing in using this method is that it gives a noticeable and positive grain, which we felt was something characteristic from a lot of films from the 70s. Furthermore, it gave us a lot of freedom especially when we were shooting with small lenses on the Super16mm AATON camera. We were just like a MiniDV team, which I like a lot. And we also developed something that we had trialed in an earlier film: that is, if time and place do not change between the scenes, we started to combine some of the scenes in a single shot. It may not have been in our schedule that way, and therefore the actors would not know in advance. For example at the end of the film when Sandra starts to run from the living room into the kitchen, she spits soup out onto her mother's face and then she runs into the kitchen and the father smashes the door, just for the mother to then enter the kitchen and talk to her daughter. That was scheduled as four scenes in the script, but we did them all in one so Sandra could use the mood and the energy from the beginning of the scene right to the end of it. This only works with a cameraman who is not too rigid, but accurate, open-minded and efficient. The feeling we both tried to achieve was closer to a documentary feeling, in which you get closer to the story. As an example, it is what Lars Von Trier did when shooting Breaking the Waves.

DC: How was your working relationship with Bogumil Godfrejow, the young Polish DoP you worked with on this production?

H-C S: Our professional relationship is very close. We are really artistic collaborators and partners. We've made two films together and he's the first DoP that I met who is completely without vanity and just completely understands what he does. If I tell him that I want 7 out of the 10 hours of the shooting time in a day reserved just for working with the actors and not for setting up the lighting, it's fine with him. He knows how to make a quick lighting set-up and he knows how to plan the lighting so we can shoot in the whole room 360º. This set-up is never perfect for a DoP because obviously one direction of lighting would be much more ideal. Bogumil, however, sees it as a challenge, and I think that even if he didn't understand all the lines – although we had a Polish version of the script – he has a very good understanding of camera aesthetics. We did not talk about camera movements that much, and most of the time it was completely up to him how to move and operate the camera, and set the lighting. So, I trusted him to feel the right moment to move the camera to one subject or another. And I also gave him the freedom to work with the colour filters that he used a lot to achieve the double optical blow-up we did from Super16 to 35mm Scope. It was really good to have him on board.

DC: The film carries a lot of themes and touches upon many different issues from the church to psychiatry and family inter-relationships. Which was the topic that you as the visionary of the film felt closest to and most interested in?

H-C S: I think that the author, me in this case, would try to understand how it can happen that a young woman like Michaela at one point says 'yes, please I want to undergo an exorcism' and how it can be that no one around her – the people that loved her – could prevent that from happening. So, I'm more interested in the family drama involved, say the mother-daughter story/relationship rather than in the exorcism itself. I don’t think I can offer an explanation; more just to suggest something like what it perhaps would have appeared. I suppose that if all the people involved would have sat together and kind of talked together, it would have been impossible to have that feeling. Of course I think that exorcism is the last resort to have Michaela involved in, but I can also imagine how it feels if you go to your neurologist or your doctor and you try to tell him that you're very religious and that you may be possessed – they just may not take it that seriously – and that was something we always had in mind while making this film: to show the reality of the story from the human perspective, rather the phenomenon of the exorcism itself.