Stations of the Cross begins with one of the most fascinating and alienating opening pieces of dialogue put to film of recent memory. A priest (Florian Stettern) is preaching to his youthful church group of pre-pubescent children. Gazing through the peep hole into his church’s radical indoctrination process leaves the viewer in a certain perverse and uncomfortable state. The groups Q&A session presents an innocent façade with slight ominous undertones. After the group discussion Maria (Lea van Acken) stays back to ask why god imposes illness and suffering on seemingly innocent children, hinting at personal problems, and has a provoking discussion on the nature of self-sacrifice with her priest. This engrossing dialogue sets the tone for this film. Stations of the Cross analyses and plays with the consumptive power of church on individuals and hones in on the struggles a young girl faces trying to navigate and define herself spiritually.
Coherently told in 14 scenes, each act is titled by each Station of the Cross Jesus underwent for his crucifixion. Each scene is metaphorically reflective of its titular bearing. Director Dietrich Bruggemann has taken a minimalistic approach to his film. There is no score and each act is often shot in just one cut often within rather plain back drops. This results in a performance akin to a theatrical production where the focus is at all times on the actors and the script itself. The film requires undivided attention and asks the viewer to contemplate and critique the faith Maria has in her god and the lack of it she has in herself.
16 year old Lea van Acken is a revelation in her first time on camera. She articulates so clearly the internal and external turmoil she faces against an extremely hidebound branch of Catholicism domineering her life. She both embraces and struggles with her self-imposed ascetic lifestyle. This is exemplified when Maria asks her mother’s permission to join a local choir, to sing Bach, soul and gospel. Her devout mother unhinges at her request, scalding and chastising her. Soul and jazz and dance music are satanic influences she harpies to her fragile daughter.
Stations of the Cross is full of heavy ideas. The film is perhaps, a bit too stripped backed. It offers little in the way of entertainment. Bruggermann fails to accentuate anything in particular. It is a risky and bold approach to filmmaking and the film tends to lag in places resting on the weight of it’s performances and script alone. Nonetheless it is a divisive and interesting production overall. Is Maria a martyr capable of miracles and worthy of beatification or is she a young innocent wrongly caught in the web of her parents and church’s rigidity and demands of her devotion to their higher power? A young girl too impressionable and too easily sculpted? The film offers a compelling case for both.
Stations of the Cross is screening as part of the 2015 Audi Festival of German Films.