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EIFF 2014: ‘Stations of the Cross’ is an outstanding formal achievement

Stations of the Cross Lea van Acken Michael Kamp

Stations of the Cross
Written by Dietrich Brüggemann and Anna Brüggemann
Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann
Germany, 2014

Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross is both an indictment of fundamentalist Catholicism and a testament to the enduring value of faith. The title comes from the traditional Christian devotion, which involves meditating upon the key scenes of Christ’s suffering and death. Structured rigorously around this concept, the film is divided in 14 self-contained chapters, each representing a different station and filmed in a continuous long take. It follows its teenage protagonist Maria (Lea van Acken) as she progresses through the stations, gaining an increasingly fanatical perspective on what it means to follow Christ.

The opening scene, titled ‘Jesus is condemned to death’, is an extended conversation between a priest (Michael Kamp) and his students. It’s a necessary and engaging exposition, establishing the key tenets of Maria’s faith and the spiritual contradictions that will shape her story. Even though the camera gives her no special treatment until the end of the scene, Maria stands out as a precocious young woman, too intelligent for the class and with more important questions in her mind. Her ability to process the information and apply it to her own situation is impressive but her sensibility leads her into a spiritual struggle that ends in both rebellion and grace.

Like the rest of the film, the opening scene is shot with a fixed camera, creating an ironic distance and inviting the viewer to scrutinise everything within the frame. Brüggemann’s direction is sparse and astute, designed to build complex ideas through simple words and gestures. The priest is highly persuasive, not because of his words, which we are forced to condemn, but in his inclusivity and movement, the way he appears to flow around the room. Brüggemann establishes a conflict between what we think and what we feel, questioning whether we can deny faith through logic and ridiculing the idea that we can spread it by force.

Stations of the Cross Dietrich Bruggeman

The next chapter sees Maria out on a walk with her family, wondering how she can sacrifice the beautiful view. She removes her jacket so she can feel the cold and is reluctant to take part in a family photo in case she takes pride in her appearance. It’s clear that Maria’s strict adherence to dogma makes her life very difficult in the real world but her willingness to put her faith before her happiness sets her apart from her parents’ strained hypocrisy. Her mother mother (Franziska Weisz), in particular, is very hard on her, while her only sources of comfort are her mute younger brother and the au pair Bernadette (Lucie Aron).

School is equally problematic, especially when Maria develops a relationship with Christian (Moritz Knapp), a boy in her class (the chapter is titled ‘Jesus falls the first time’). He too is religious and invites her to sing in his church choir, but he belongs to a different strain of Catholicism, one which embraces the ‘Satanic rhythms’ of gospel and soul. Maria and her family’s attitude towards music is constantly derided, mainly for comic effect; Maria’s mother is particularly hostile towards jazz despite it never being mentioned by any of the other characters. Music is the key theme through which the film explores tolerance but it’s also one of the areas in which it undermines its own message. Brüggemann’s direction shows much needed restraint, despite the controversial subject matter, so it’s disappointing that the script gets overwrought in places.

The humour is welcome and often on the mark, but the ironic treatment prevents Stations of the Cross from being as powerful as it should be. There’s a knowing scepticism that makes it impossible to sympathise with the radical perspectives, even when they might be justified to an extent. Maria is genuine, loving and pure in her motives but when it becomes apparent that her devotions might have led to something truly remarkable, it’s difficult to take the suggestion too seriously. While there’s nothing concrete to confirm that her faith is misguided, the manner in which the film reaches its climax can only provoke incredulity and sadness.

Despite this flaw, Stations of the Cross is an outstanding formal achievement, filmed with assurance and technical skill. The fixed camera and long takes fully expose the dangers associated with fundamentalist dogma and the damage it can do to a receptive mind. Even in isolation, each of the 14 chapters is an interesting meditation on the nature of faith and the role of religious doctrine. However, with greater daring and balance, it would have been more provocative and could have raised more intricate questions about how we treat religion in the modern world.

Rob Dickie

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