DIR: Dietrich Brüggemann • WRI: Anna Brüggemann, Dietrich Brüggemann • PRO: Leif Alexis, Fabian Maubach • DOP: Jo Willems • ED: Vincent Assmann • CAST: Lucie Aron, Anna Brüggemann, Michael Kamp
Religion on film is always tricky business. On the one hand, there is always the danger of verging into the realm of clichéd iconography and caricatured acting. You know, the crazed fire-and-brimstone preacher shouting his sermon through clenched teeth while an ominous choir chants in the background. One the other hand, with a capable director, a film can inject insight, thoughtfulness and, yes, even humour into a subject that for many is fraught with controversy.
Sibling duo Dietrich and Anna Brüggemann have crafted here a skilful film that highlights the absurdity of fundamentalist belief, and the effect it can have on impressionable youth, all the while maintaining an even point-of-view that is impactful but never preachy. Much like its namesake the film is divided into fourteen chapters, each of which consists of a static camera monitoring the character’s actions from a fixed location.
Maria (van Acken) is a pious fourteen-year-old girl preparing to make her Confirmation with ambitions of becoming a martyred saint. Her family belong to a fundamentalist offshoot of the Catholic Church, the fictional Society of St Paul, which does not acknowledge the ‘progressive’ reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The first chapter begins with Maria and her fellow devotees attending a class with Father Weber (Stetter) who quickly outlines the radical beliefs of their church and the importance that the sacrament of Confirmation holds in their community. The context in which this scene is set makes Weber’s religious rhetoric come across as utterly ridiculous. The young teenagers are so eager to please their figure of spiritual authority that they will say anything to earn his approval. Watching Weber carefully manipulate his pupil’s thought process and denounce everything, from being concerned about ones appearance to modern music, as evil is horrific but oddly amusing. Yet this is achieved through words alone as the camera never moves from its position, with no music added in the background or any other visual indicator hinting at the director’s personal take on the subject- other than that the audience must interpret the words for themselves.
Throughout the film Brüggemann employs a soft grey light that conveys perfectly the reflective Maria’s co-existence between her mundane everyday life and another, almost ethereal, element that binds her more closely to the divine.
Our protagonist’s desire to transcend her earthly realm is not surprising considering her home life. The family is dominated by Maria’s mother (Weis), a no-nonsense fundamentalist who inflicts her rigorous belief onto both her meek children and even meeker husband. Any objection to her mother’s word, which is equivalent to God’s in the household, will simply not do as Maria learns the hard way. With her mother being so quick to point out her (entirely innocent) flaws, she seeks comfort in the form of their kindly au-pair Bernadette (Aron). To add to this tension Johannes, the family’s youngest child, is suffering from some unknowable affliction that prevents him from speaking or developing to the level of a normal four-year-old boy. The strain this puts on the family, and in particular Maria as the eldest, is palpable and combined with her unshakeable belief, ultimately leads Maria to the idea that she can cure her brother with God’s help in return for the ultimate sacrifice: her own life. Thus we follow Maria through a journey of suffering and soul-cleansing that only proves to confirm, rather than weaken, our young protagonist’s resolve. As the chapters progress it gets harder to watch. When we finally reach the last chapter it leaves us with an interesting visual juxtaposition between harrowing and hopeful, which also serves as an accurate summarisation of the film as a whole.
One of the strongest elements of this film is Lea van Acken’s spellbinding performance. There is a maturity and sensitivity to it that many more established actors in the industry would envy. We believe the sincerity of Maria’s thoughts and actions which is what makes her subsequent self-imposed suffering all the more difficult to witness. She is not only the victim of fundamentalism but also of her own personal drive to do good.
The film is very strong overall but there are certain elements of it that tend to rely on the clichés that dog other films of the same subject. For example, the mother is decidedly one note in her approach towards her daughter and is very much built up to be the antagonist of the film where perhaps no actual antagonist was needed. There’s also nothing redeemable to note about the priest character; he’s just as manipulative and backwards as one might predict. The religious symbolism that is reflected by Maria – starting with her very name – also errs on the side of being heavy handed now and again. For example, during the Confirmation chapter she is seen wearing the blue and white of the Virgin Mary. We get it! Another small problem, though I found it more bothersome than I would have thought, is that the use of a static camera means we are often left looking at the same mise-en-scene on screen for up to ten minutes. With no new visuals to offer this means that the chapters can become a little bit monotonous towards their final moments. If we wanted to watch actors simply sit around and talk from one angle- well, that’s what the theatre is for.
However, the film ultimately serves its purpose of examining the inherent bizarreness that lies at the heart of religious fundamentalism and the damage it can incur on others without laying it on thick. Beautifully made with interesting directorial choices and a superb lead, Stations of the Cross is almost a religious experience unto itself.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Stations of the Cross is released 28th November 2014