Review: Stations of the Cross

       Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) 
        Dir. Dietrich Bruggemann

 "Did you turn your eyes away from impure billboards?"

 This quote, taken from the German religious drama Stations of the Cross, is so outrageous that it might teeter on the verge of parody - but it exemplifies the twisted ideology of its characters. The formally innovative Silver Bear winner opens with an continuous static shot of a Catholic priest and his Sunday School students. It takes a few moments, absorbed as we are in what the priest is saying, to realise that the fixed image before us is a shadowy recreation of The Last Supper. As the scene unfolds, the priest lies out the thinking of a particularly cultish sect of extreme Catholicism - one that bans 'Satanic' films and music, and encourages puritanical sacrifices in its followers. One of the most eagerly devout of those followers is Maria (Lea Van Acken), a girl from an equally fanatical religious family.

With her young autistic brother Johann on her mind, Maria takes it upon herself to live life as an ascetic - hoping to curry God's favour for a cure. She magnifies traditional Catholic values by denying herself all but the most basic of needs. Piously avoiding perceived gluttony or lust at all costs, Maria grows wan and frail -- and her bids for martyrdom become imminent. Maria's mother (a terrifyingly dogmatic Franziska Weisz) is the driving force in the household, shrilly berating her daughter even as the young girl wastes away. In one memorable chapter, Maria timidly asks to join a "gospel and soul" church choir where a school friend of hers sings. What begins as friendly motherly chatter explodes into an outburst against all the evils of the modern world.

The "stations of the cross" are, in Catholic doctrine, the fourteen steps that Jesus Christ took to his crucifixion, from his condemnation to his being laid in the tomb. Accordingly, Bruggemann uses this structure to divide the film by fourteen titled chapters, each made up of mostly unbroken wide-angle shots. Many are completely static, forcing the director to devise carefully arranged, unexpected framing techniques.

The effect is rigorous, but not austere; the tableaux allows for  life and movement within the frame. It's almost as if Bruggemann has placed the camera in certain positions just to challenge himself; yet the effect is never precious. And there is, in spite of the deeply serious subject matter, a twinkly-eyed, knowing humour. Bruggemann seems to be occasionally saying, with a spritely wink, 'Can you actually believe these people?' If I was to level one criticism at Stations of the Cross, it would be that - quite deliberately - it lays its cards on the table very early on. It literally spells out its intention with each titled chapter, very broadly making a comparison between Maria's and Christ's suffering.

Stations of the Cross is a saddening exploration of inherited extremism, and the tragic inability for personal choice that it breeds. Maria lacks the hypocrisy of her seniors; she accepts Catholicism with the purity of faith and sees it through to the finish. The problem for Maria's family, ultimately, is not that she is defying their poisonous dogma - but that they have trained her too well.

Stations of the Cross will be released in UK cinemas on the 28th November.



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