Religion and faith is not a new theme in cinema. Many notable directors have tussled with this concept over the decades from old masters such as Ingmar Bergman to modern day directors like Michael Haneke. Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross looks at faith in the modern world, doing so using a distinct, austere filmmaking style that is both the source of its many strengths as well as its notable weaknesses.
Brüggemann’s film takes the stations of the cross which chart the crucifixion of Jesus and segments the story into 14 scenes using only 14 shots. The stations of the cross are placed in a modern context, following young teenager, Maria, as she is lectured on the virtues of sacrifice by her priest at church and kept under the punitive thumb of her mother at home, all the while struggling to consolidate her love – or is that fear? – of god with various social pressures at school.
Stations of the Cross’ peculiar narrative structure means that invariably some scenes are more engaging than others. The film opens strongly with a long sequence in which a group of children preparing for the sacrament of confirmation listen on as their priest decries the morally corrupt society that lay beyond the confines of the church.
The static camera often forces the viewer to watch and observe from a distance but Brüggemann’s deftly uses the same directing style to achieve moments of real intimacy in other sequences. Such as a scene in which Maria takes confession – the camera sits in a cramped booth next to Maria as she vocalises, heartbreakingly so, her innermost thoughts.
There are in fact only three instances in which the camera moves at all and each one is well judged. The camera rising with a congregation at a mass and then tracking down the aisle, for instance, is a genuinely thrilling moment.
Regrettably, there are ‘stations’ that fail to compellingly drive the narrative forward and due to Brüggemann’s decision to shoot each section in one single take, the weaker sequences often outstay their welcome.
Undoubtedly the strongest element of Stations of the Cross is the central performance of Lea van Acken (Maria). She gainfully carries the film with a grace and maturity beyond her years.
Maria’s mother (played by Franziska Weisz) is the other dominant presence in Stations of the Cross (if we aren’t counting god, that is). While generally well acted by Weisz, the character feels a somewhat one-dimensional and trite portrayal of an oppressive, domineering mother.
Stations of the Cross lacks a subtlety that would perhaps warrant repeat visits. What you see and gain on a first viewing is most likely everything you are going to get. Nonetheless, Stations of the Cross is an interesting take on faith and the dangers of religious fanaticism in which Dietrich Brüggemann’s decision to shoot in such a unique, economical style is certainly admiral, ultimately working more often than not. (7)