A spare, structuralist story of a girl’s Passion as she offers herself to God, Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations Of The Cross is quickly reduced to easy finger-wagging.
The Sweet Herafter by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The road to Golgotha has become something of a cinematic staple in recent years – from Mel Gibson’s gruelling The Passion Of The Christ to John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. But there’s almost a genre now of the tortured path, which stretches from Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves to Danis Tanovic’s Silver Bear winner An Episode In The Life Of An Iron-Picker, watching characters navigate a painful (and often unremittingly bleak) path towards survival. Setting a character on the Via Dolorosa and sending all sort of unimaginable in their direction lends for an arthouse kind of horror movie, particularly popular in German cinema since Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem and more recently Edward Berger’s little-boys-lost Jack. Taking its structure from the Stations Of The Cross, Dietrich Brüggemann’s Kreuzweg lends a formalist twist to the genre, but does the Passion run high?
Maria (Lea van Acken) is a 14-year-old girl studying for her confirmation with Pater Weber (Florian Stetter). But this is no ordinary Sunday School – it’s The Society of Saint Paul – a breakaway sect from the Catholic Church that no longer recognises the Holy See following the reforms made by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Pater Weber is also no ordinary priest, urging his disciples to become warriors for Christ and live a life dedicated to God. This means waging a war on modern life – not wearing revealing (or fashionable) clothes, nor reading girls’ magazines, listening to pop music or watching films, and of course not conversing with members of the opposite sex – all of which tempt the unwitting believer into sin. Instead they should make sacrifices in their daily life, an ascetiscm which will strengthen their faith and lead them towards heaven. And in Maria’s case, quite literally.
This is only the first episode – Jesus Is Condemned To Death. And so too is Maria, her teenage mind intoxicated with ideas of religious devotion, as she tries to impress her handsome pastor with her acts of Christian resistance. Brüggemann’s camera remains fixed, as we watch Pater Weber indoctrinate his young charges, or as in the next Station (Jesus Carries His Cross), Maria walks slowly towards the camera from a distance, talking about her beliefs with her French live-in au-pair Bernadette (Lucie Aron), and mortifying her flesh with the winter chill and a coat slung over her arm. There’s an asceticism to Brüggemann’s pared back visual style too, which admittedly does allow the performances to speak for themselves, but also aligns itself with the austere, self-sacrificing sweep of Maria’s passion.
Of course, Stations Of The Cross is no defender of Catholic traditionalism, but just the opposite – picking on a rather easy (and insignificant) victim to pillory. Franziska Weisz is a revelation as the dour “Mutter”, utterly cold and unrecognisable from Jessica Hausner’s Hotel. And the film’s plot moves forward with a relentless, clockwork momentum – as each episode named after each Station – slots implacably into place. The narrative trajectory is a foregone conclusion, but conflicts come in the shape of Maria’s normal teenage desires to sing gospel or jazz with friendly classmate Christian, and as Bernadette becomes embroiled in family feuds with her modern, liberal-minded catholicism, but mostly through Maria’s disagreements with Mutter, where her guard falls and her attempts at obedience momentarily waver.
Given the overarching structure of Stations Of The Cross, it’s perhaps no surprise that Maria comes to a sticky end; Brüggemann’s film isn’t inventive enough to play with the Stations. And while the Resurrection is rather tastefully (and cinematically) interpreted with an upwards pan from Maria’s grave towards the grey clouds of heaven, the film’s most distasteful moment comes at the moment of Maria’s death – when her sacrifice is given meaning as her normally mute brother starts to speak. It aims for the metaphysical, but it comes across as maudlin and confused – beatifying Maria’s delusions rather than condemning the oppressive sinners that surround her, extinguishing her life force with promises of a joyous hereafter. Visually striking and enjoyably formalist, nevertheless Stations Of The Cross makes for a tough ride – slow, spare and irredeemably bleak. A Calvary for each and every one of us.
Stations Of the Cross is released on 28th November 2014 in the UK