Screening at the 2015 Audi Festival of German Films. For festival tickets and session details visit the official website HERE.
Stations of the Cross is a mesmerising critique of fundamentalist Christianity. It plays like the movie bastard child of Ordet (1955) and Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), and is all the richer for offering no simple answers.
Maria (Lea van Acken) is the sensitive fourteen year-old daughter of a conservative Catholic family. They attend a splinter parish where the priest, Father Weber (Florian Stetter), denounces the Vatican II church as morbidly corrupt, and all worldly interests are malicious distractions designed by Satan to divert people from God. The children about to make their confirmation are called upon to be warriors of Christ, crusaders against the modern world. It is in this environment that Maria makes her decision. She wants her four year-old brother, Johannes, to recover from sickness, so she offers herself to God: her own life for that of Johannes.
The film that follows on from this premise is divided into fourteen parts which parallel –if not literally- the path of Christ to Golgotha which culminates in his crucifixion. Maria herself moves through fourteen “stations” towards an incremental yet inevitable conclusion.
Each of the fourteen “stations” are filmed in single, mostly static shots. Given that some of these single shot takes –all dialogue heavy- run to almost twenty minutes in length, it is an approach which ends up being not only a credit to the actors involved, but one that exceeds its technical and thematic novelty. That the scenes are allowed to play out, Warhol-esque, to their natural conclusions provides the characters room to become highly nuanced through behavioural and theological minutiae rather than more obvious exposition.
It is this pseudo-documentarian distance on the part of the filmmaker which allows the characters to become self-signifying and prevents the film from making explicit judgements.
If on one hand, Father Weber and Maria’s mother represent Christianity turned to fascism by literalist commitment to dogma, their sincerity, the integrity of their belief, if nothing else, makes it difficult to call them purely reprehensible, even as they become unknowingly Maria’s persecutors on the road to Calvary, because their intentions -however misguided- are probably well-meaning.
Maria’s dogmatism is more apparently tragic, because as a direct recipient of handed-down, drilled-in beliefs, her fate seems –rather appropriately- to be destined. But even as Maria shares the same beliefs that have been foisted on her, she carries them with a humility and a sense of fragility unapparent in her elders. You never question her devotion or commitment, even as the origin of that commitment remains questionable, especially since her motive is so selfless.
If the film is ultimately about the varying extremities and expressions of devotion, it finds a relative ideal in Bernadette, the French au pair boarding with Maria’s family. Bernadette is neither as judgemental as Maria’s mother and the priest, nor as terminally committed to martyrdom as Maria. Bernadette does not believe that faith is mutually exclusive with life and the world, and without admitting as much, it is for this reason that she becomes Maria’s only confidant, Maria’s idyllic. Christian, a boy from Maria’s school, embodies a similar paradigm, though he is ultimately rejected for being too secular.
While Bernadette and Christian may lack the fundamentalist commitment of their counterparts, the irony is that their behaviour is more Christian in itself because it contains the charity and empathy that the more devoted conservatives lack, especially Maria’s mother, who is aggressive and loveless.
In a world full of religious conflict, this film is as relevant as it could hope to be. Stations of the Cross is a psychologically fascinating, heartbreaking portrait of how that conflict can play out in a young and fragile psyche. That it can simultaneously highlight the dangers and the veracity of religious dogmatism is a testament to its layered sense of meaning. It is a lament for a Christianity commandeered by bureaucracy; equally a fête and a wake for those who would become saints.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10