Stations of the Cross Dir. Dietrich Brüggemann

[Film Movement; 2014]

Styles: religious drama, black comedy
Others: Dogtooth, Ordet, Breaking the Waves, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence

When I was in grade school — somewhere around fifth grade, I’d wager — I was asked to participate in a school-wide art project for the Easter season. Mrs. Santos, the art teacher, had selected me along with thirteen other students to each paint one of the Stations of the Cross, the fourteen-chapter narrative of Jesus’s crucifixion, familiar to anyone who had the dubious distinction of a parochial education. This year, for whatever reason, these student-made canvases were to adorn the walls of the parish in lieu of the intricately carved and stained wooden panels which usually served to remind us, our parents, and the pious townsfolk of Colonia, NJ that White Jesus sacrificed himself for our as-yet uncommitted sins.

Now, I believe if you tasked a group of religiously indoctrinated preteens to regurgitate the brutal parables they’d been spoon-fed since birth, you could potentially tap a wellspring of outsider art to rival that of Henry Darger. Alas, I and my compatriots were not granted free artistic license; rather we were given canvases already pencilled by Mrs. Santos and firm guidelines regarding which colors were to be applied and where. We were selected, it would seem, for our ability to stay within the lines — artistically and ideologically — as much as for our graphic talents, since the finished projects were little more than paint-by-numbers. Little bother to my naïve young self; I was happy just to miss a week’s worth of religion class and to learn of crackle paint, which I was instructed to apply over a dark base coat on the cross to create the (poor) illusion of woodgrain.

One of organized religion’s greatest failings is that in upholding its form, it often loses sight of the content for which those forms were originally conceived; appearances become paramount, thought and action are judged without context, and homogenization triumphs over an individual’s personal spiritual quest. Many of history’s greatest atrocities have been committed in the name of religion — in the name of peace, of love, of progress — against those who have dared to harbor opposing beliefs, and countless works of art have been made to both valorize and denounce such acts. Dietrich Brüggemann’s beautifully conceived and executed Stations of the Cross is something else entirely, an indictment of a system blind to both its faults and its glories, toxic in its quest for purity, which ultimately destroys itself and its faithful from the inside.

Filmed in fourteen predominantly stationary (no pun intended) uncut takes, Brüggemann recasts the stages of Jesus’s passion as chapters in the life of Maria Göttler (Lea Van Acken), a fifteen-year-old unable to reconcile the dogmatic strictures of her oppressively religious upbringing with her innate and empathetic sense of love, compassion, and morality. Maria is no rebel, in fact the quiet and unassuming teenager is the purest of the pious; all she wants is to follow God’s law and to do what’s best for her autistic brother Johannes, but her noble intentions are misunderstood.

Her priest and teacher Father Weber (Florian Stetter) accuses Maria of “the sin of conceit” for thinking that her love may be greater than those around her. This circular bait-and-switch logic — contradicting itself and indicting the parishioners while absolving the system — is one of Brüggemann’s primary concerns, and he illustrates it beautifully and succinctly in the first sequence with something as innocuous as a plate of cookies: despite having placed them there himself, Father Weber chastises Maria for taking one, suggesting there is a potential sacrifice to be made on behalf of the lord.

Father Weber drills it into Maria’s head that vanity is among the worst sins a teenage girl can commit, so much so that she is too self conscious to smile in family photos, which infuriates her mother (Franziska Weisz) who takes every action of Maria’s as a personal affront. It is in the mother-daughter dynamic that Stations of the Cross finds its brightest spark, largely thanks to Weisz’s phenomenal performance. As the autocratic matriarch, Weisz recalls no less than Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, stern women who somehow become colder despite their gestures toward maternal warmth, the transparency of their motivations, and their helplessness within a greater system, be it psychological, professional, or spiritual.

Brüggemann’s long takes — averaging about ten minutes per shot — are unforgiving to an actor, but Weisz’s outbursts are so perfectly calibrated and timed, and the attack-and-nurture dynamic of the mother’s relationship with Maria is so raw and real, that the technique becomes an asset rather than a liability. The film catches fire when it lets Maria’s mother shout herself into self-incrimination, extrapolating every one of her daughter’s words into a fabricated narrative that serves only to justify her own rage. “Don’t act like you’re being mistreated here,” she bellows at Maria, and the irony is not lost on the audience, even if it is on the speaker.

Most of the discussion around Stations of the Cross has centered on formal elements of shot composition, length, and staging, suggesting a rigor that mirrors that of the institutions critiqued within the film. What’s most interesting, however, are the instances in which Brüggeman breaks from the form and moves the camera. There are three such instances, and to delineate them would be to spoil several of the film’s surprises, so I will discuss them only obliquely. The first occurs in church and follows the choreography of Maria and her classmates as they receive the sacrament of confirmation; movement is allowed only within the walls of the chapel, and only along predetermined axes. The latter two, however, are freer and suggest the indomitability of Maria’s will and latent sovereignty of her spirit, the triumph of the individual over her oppressor, and a hope — or maybe a belief? — that such archaic structures can be dismantled one brick at a time.

The third act is ambiguous in the way that only deeply felt and searching cinema can be — less triumphant than Ordet yet more hopeful than Through a Glass Darkly; think, perhaps, of the bells in Breaking the Waves — and it will be up to the individual viewer’s temperament whether he or she finds it moving or hollow. For my part, I’m in the former camp, partly because Brüggemann, never missing a beat, uses the penultimate chapter to take one last swipe at the church of appearances and to more finely nuance the distinction between religion and spirituality while still withholding any finite sense of causality or substantiation. If there is a God, how withering to the flock that he should choose to work through their black sheep. If there isn’t? How damning the disparity between intention and result.

Most Read