Year of release: 2015 Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann. Starring Lea van Acken, Franziska Weisz, Florian Stetter, Lucie Aron, and Moritz Knapp.
The first comparison which came to my mind watching Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross was Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. Both films take their titles from a religious item (a well known Catholic devotion and a famous scripture passage, respectively) which also serves as an inspiration for a modern dramatization of the underlying concept behind the titular item. In Stations of the Cross, watching the fourteen year old Maria (Lea van Acken) go through fourteen various encounters, each reminiscent of the corresponding Station of the Cross, becomes a vehicle for a critique of fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is always an easy and deserved target for critique. It is to the credit of director Dietrich Brüggemann and his film that this critique achieves an astounding level of pain and tragedy without devolving into parody. The first scene (Jesus is condemned to death) sets the stage for the film exceedingly well. It shows Maria to be a conscientious, sensitive, and studious girl who desperately wants to devote her life to Christ. She is in a preparation class for her upcoming Confirmation, and her pastor Fr. Weber (Florian Stetter) explains to them they are becoming warriors for Christ, a regrettably overused and rather inaccurate analogy even among non-fundamentalist Catholics. As Fr. Weber encourages them to make sacrifices to attain holiness, Maria wants to go one step further: sacrifice her whole life to God for her mute four year old brother. While Fr. Weber clearly means sacrifice as a life of prayer and self-denial, Maria takes it much more literally, and the film’s remaining thirteen tableaux show her struggles to be holy as she understands it from her fundamentalist church community and family.
The fourth tableau (Jesus meets his mother) highlights the relationship between Maria and her family and the primary way in which the film dramatizes its source material. Maria asks her Mother (Franziska Weisz) if she can sing in the choir of another Catholic church, which performs mostly Bach and little soul and gospel as well. However, Maria and her family are members of a Catholic Church which not only adheres to the Tridentine Rite (pre-Vatican II Latin Mass for any non-Catholic readers), but also believes the introduction of the Novus Ordo (Mass in the vernacular) with Vatican II was when the devil entered the church and corrupted it by invalidating the Mass. Naturally, soul and gospel (as well as rock and pop music) are demonically influenced, and Maria receives a stern lecture about damning her soul for music. The episode is extremely painful to watch, but in the opposite way that Jesus’ encounter with His own mother was painful on His walk to Calvary.
Other scenes also show the subversion which this approach to faith results in. The sixth station is Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as an act of compassion. In that scene Maria’s face is wiped with her tears as she’s humiliated for apologizing to her mother. The eighth station is Jesus speaking to the women of Jerusalem to console them. That scene consists of a very upset Maria telling another student to leave her alone, because he’s an obstruction on her path to holiness.
Each one of those episodes is shot in a single take with a motionless camera, creating a long still take which adds to the tension and tragedy that encompasses Maria’s life. There are two notable exceptions to the otherwise motionless camera, and those moments remind the viewer that the austerity of Maria’s fundamentalist family and church is not the final word or an example of true religion, which becomes exceedingly clear when the camera slowly moves to a God’s point of view shot at a crucial moment.
My one miniscule complaint is that if someone knows the Stations of the Cross (and I do quite well) it becomes fairly easy to figure out where the film is going and how it is going to end, especially when the ninth tableau begins a more literal application of the stations to Maria’s life. However, Brüggemann has some surprisingly thoughtful touches which he saves until the end.
Last year’s Ida similarly explored questions of faith and doubt in a broken world, using long takes and infrequent camera movement as well. One big difference between Ida and Stations of the Cross; however, was that Ida depicted characters struggling with doubts. Here the characters are rigid in their mentalities. Both films raise challenging questions for the viewer, but if there’s one thing that keeps Stations of the Cross just short of greatness, it is the unchanging attitudes of all its characters (including Maria). Nonetheless, this is still a very, very good film about faith, fundamentalism, and loss.
Content Advisory: Very tense scenes of family discord, depictions of an emotionally abusive family.
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A-