Somewhere amidst the congregation of masterworks that openly criticise religious dogma – a pitiless party attended by Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills – Dietrich Brüggemann’s debut film Stations of the Cross (or Kreuzweg, in its Germanic provenance) sits like a seemingly milquetoast member of the artful crowd, quietly and unassumingly unfolding its provocations not through big, bold auteurist strokes, but through its small yet no less profound observations. It’s not very often a first-time filmmaker gets mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned European maestros, but every frame, every long-take scene and cinematic rigour present in Brüggemann’s work begs comparison and reference to its forebears. Yet this is no mere pastiche – this is perhaps one of the finest recent examples of technically rigorous filmmaking, using form and content to often stunning purpose, simmering with intelligence and fury, questioning the outmoded practices of religious fundamentalism and the effects of indoctrination to young, malleable minds.
Like a keen, watchful observer, Brüggemann allows us to carefully perceive all the fourteen tableaux-like scenes that make up the entire film with a (mostly) fixed camera, scarcely moving the vantage point except for three crucial moments, intensely charting a fourteen-year old girl’s predicament between humanly, modern-life pleasures and antiquated martyrdom through fourteen chapters (as mirrored in the New Testament’s holier-than-thou walk from Via Dolorosa to Golgotha hill where some guy named Jesus was crucified). If that sounds sanctimonious, unsubtle and stuffy on paper, Stations of the Cross is anything but. It unfurls unhurriedly, each ten-minute-or-so length per take portraying the various nuances in our protagonist Maria’s life as a student, daughter, adolescent and scripture-worshiper of Roman Catholic’s über-conservative sect, Society of St. Pius X. Unexpected satirical humour filters through its exceptionally written first scenes where Maria and other fledgling contemporaries are indoctrinated up to the eyeballs by a staunch, moralistic priest, who sees children as future ecclesiastical warriors for Christ, battling the Internet, human progress and sex at the expense of personal freedom and choice and laughably justifies human sickness as a blessing from the almighty god.
The laughs to be had here come from the bitter irony writ large across the film’s perceptive script, which sharply scrutinises puritanical religion’s ludicrous function in a teenager’s daily, practical life – where everything is a sin, including longing glances from a pubescent male classmate, watching TV, indulging in soul and gospel music (this is a doctrine that staunchly believes that any music with a beat is basically satanic). This adolescent suffocation is both painful and painfully funny to watch, specifically in the scenes where Maria’s stern mother, a deeply repressed, bible-bashing virago, berates her daughter for her gospel-choir yearnings and a P.E. class that goes disrupted by Maria’s refusal to jog to a rock-n’-roll Roxette track to the uproar of her more culturally-inclined classmates. But just like Emily Watson’s spiritually conflicted heroine Bess in von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, Lea van Acken’s Maria genuinely believes that transcendence is achieved through personal sacrifice and suffering, her face becoming an emblem of beatific martyrdom a la The Passion of Joan of Arc, an acting coup that the young actress Acken achieves heartrendingly. Maria ultimately gives up worldly pleasures, which is deemed pious and saintly to her church mentors but profoundly ruinous to anyone with a rational mind. If the shuddering sobs of a remorseful mother is enough to paint a picture of the monumental damage done to children such as Maria.
*Stations of the Cross is being shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 23 June, and will be released in UK cinemas later this year, courtesy of Arrow Films.