Films don’t win Silver Bears at the Berlinale for nothing. Even in the recently-inaugurated screenplay category, a statuette is a good indicator of a work of merit – it’s probably fair to say, too, that the major European festivals give higher credence to striking visual, cinematographic or otherwise authorial content than they do to documentarians and social realism. Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross1 slides neatly into the festival award-winner mould; a powerful, stripped-back series of one-shot tableaux, much of its effectiveness comes from its style rather than its substance, which, while thoughtful, feels like well-trodden ground. Maybe it’s cynical to consider there to be such a thing as ‘festival cinematography’, but if there was ever a film to utilise it, this is it. Appraising Stations of the Cross on its merits comes with a warning: works so tangibly critically relevant are also often heavily indebted to contemporary, better films, and as such fade away when held up against true radicalism. Brüggemann’s work often rings somehow hollow, as a too-easy and never intimate faux-exploration of religious indoctrination. It is, however, impossible to deride, exactingly photographed and unerringly gripping. As hard to like as its characters, it eventually comes to mimic through its ascetic style the themes it depicts, working finally as an intense study of sacrifice and death.
Everything about this film encapsulates both its serious-minded evocative power and its frequent drabness at once. Its central character, 14-year-old Maria (of course), an anxious Bavarian Catholic becoming obsessed with sainthood and sin, is played by Lea van Acken in a rare child performance that relies on something other than unaffected charm. Instead, Maria is cold, prudish, judgemental, and basically unlikeable. The screenwriter, director Dietrich’s sister Anna, has to take credit for the tenacity to write her like this rather than as the old-beyond-her-years curious rebel we’d usually see entwined in the Church.2 Maria’s characterisation as an adherent whose suffering pushes her deeper into both faith and self-loathing is a more honest depiction of fundamentalism than most would care to admit, and one the film’s strongest points.
It’s disappointing, then, that the development of a narrative to support this character is hampered, rather than aided, by the ‘stations of the cross’ allegory used to structure the film. Each long shot is introduced by a white-text subtitle dryly giving a number and naming the stage of Christ’s ascent of Calvary it purports to match. Viewers familiar with Catholicism will be familiar with the spectrum of human emotion this path explores, with Christ (/Maria) falling under the weight of the cross three times, finding solace in others’ kindness, and eventually meeting his end. But Brüggemann’s insistence on a dialogue-heavy, intensive over expansive scenarism ends up selling this clever structure short. We are intended to read the intransigence of the one-shot, episodic format as a metaphor for Maria’s black-and-white understanding of faith as a series of precarious stepping stones to reaching God, all the while tempted by the devil and gospel music. Depicting her mother (Franziska Weisz) as a heartless Bible-basher, and devoting far more screen time to her venal tirades than to more effective characters like the young, handsome, and somehow slimy priest luring in the Sunday school kids with talk of becoming ‘warriors of Christ’, seems to give over real incisiveness to instead become at times a knock-off modern-life fable. Many scenes are spent waiting for Maria’s mother to explode over a perceived infraction against God in the same way that we spend Haneke or Kieslowski films waiting for a moment of obscenity, violence, or pure id. Here, though, it doesn’t quite work.
The other reference point for Stations of the Cross must be Roy Andersson, whose absurdist anthologies tend to employ similar shot duration, lighting and colour palettes, and dialogic stiltedness.3 In this regard, Brüggemann does have the nous to pull off a few formalist flourishes which put the crowd-pleasing long-shot style to good use. When Maria becomes unexpectedly ill and collapses at her Confirmation ceremony, a gilded and frosty cathedral setting is quickly replaced by an exaggeratedly sterile doctor’s office – the association with the evocative visual power of real Via Crucis tableaux4 is a breathtaking piece of film grammar. The final third of the film, depicting Maria’s comedown from her apex of faith, to what was supposed to be her Christlike ascension, hits harder than the rest in total. The indoctrination which causes her to wish to waste away to die free from sin fails to deliver Maria the saintliness it promised, but ends with an indelible image of a school friend watching sod dumped unceremoniously on her grave. For all its faults – many of which appear to be motivated by the critical vogue for a style by which Stations of the Cross would otherwise have come honestly – the film is more than capable of providing moments of profundity, as well as a visual inventiveness which overcomes its strictures to deliver a stark but determined film.