A sense of humor is the last thing one expects in a dour German drama about the dangers of fanatical Catholicism, but thankfully helmer Dietrich Brueggemann and his sister Anna inject a touch of deliberate silliness into their script for “Stations of the Cross,” somewhat lightening the heavy load. Otherwise, this rigorously reproving pic is as preachy as the alarming tenets it rather too easily explodes. Divided into the 14 Stations of the Cross, all but three consisting of a single fixed shot, the film plays into the expectations of religiophobes who will praise its stiffness while ignoring its obviousness. A sanctified fest life is assured, along with decent arthouse biz.
A cold, pale light filters into the room where Father Weber (Florian Stetter) instructs his pupils in their last class before their First Communion. The scene is a gem of writing and exactitude, with the friendly priest coaxing his charges through increasingly hidebound doctrine, urging them to become warriors of Christ in their daily lives. How? By finding the devil not just in themselves, but in the sinful temptations around them. In a brilliantly measured sequence, Father Weber’s earnest lesson illustrates for the viewer (not the kids) just how tremendous a leap is required for faith to bridge the gap between logic and improbability.
The clergy here are members of the Society of St. Paul, which the Brueggemanns base on the Society of St. Pius X, an ultra-conservative offshoot of Catholicism that was marginalized for its condemnation of the Second Vatican Council, not to mention its rabid anti-Semitism, and then welcomed back by Pope Benedict XVI (fortunately, Pope Francis seems less keen). Fourteen-year-old Maria (Lea van Acken) stays behind to ask Father Weber to explain God’s purpose in allowing children to be sick, to which the priest remarks that illness can be a sign of the Almighty’s love.
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The second scene — each generally lasts around 10 minutes, with some slightly shorter — establishes Maria’s family life. Mom (Franziska Weisz) is a stern-faced harridan, while Dad (Klaus Michael Kamp) is an emasculated weakling who never gets involved when his wife constantly berates Maria, the eldest of their four kids. The youngest, Johannes (Linus Fluhr), is 4 yet still hasn’t spoken, causing Maria excessive worry. Rounding off the unhappy group is Bernadette (Lucie Aron), the French au pair with whom Maria has a special bond, as the only adult offering warmth and encouragement.
Chapter three — Jesus falls the first time — sees Maria in the school library, where she’s asked for help by Christian (Moritz Knapp), a student in another class. They clearly like each other in a normal adolescent way, and he suggests she join him at choir practice. What kind of music do you perform, Maria asks. Bach, he replies, and sometimes soul and gospel. Uh-oh. Such devilish rhythms may be OK at the liberal church of Don Bosco, but at St. Athanasius (a famously anti-heretical figure), they know that rock and such are part of Satan’s designs.
In the car with her mother, Maria lies, claiming a new female friend has invited her to choir practice. Mom goes ballistic when she hears that soul and gospel are part of the program, reminding her daughter where such music leads. Later, Maria confesses her lie to Father Weber, and the priest, always in an encouraging way, manipulates her confession to make it seem as if she projected lustful glances onto Christian. With each scene, poor, pale Maria visibly wastes away, denying herself food and warm clothing in the belief that mortification can purge impure thoughts and brings her closer to the Supreme Being. If she can sacrifice herself to the Lord in exchange for a miracle — giving Johannes a voice — then self-denial won’t be too difficult, and the rewards of sainthood are legion.
This community’s fanaticism, though real, does seem ridiculous, which is why Dietrich Brueggemann (“Run, If You Can”) keeps driving home the satanic music discussion, making clear how these kinds of ludicrous obsessions, drilled into a vulnerable teen, can cause untold damage. The problem is that the repetition grows tiresome, as does the monolithic extremism. Fortunately the screenplay occasionally mixes in a little humor, such as the silly mathematical problems Maria and Christian try to solve, but later on it’s unclear whether a tilt into absurdity is meant to be funny or whether the scripters are in dead earnestness. With Ulrich Seidl it’s easy to tell, but here there’s more than a sneaking suspicion that the rush to preach against religious excess — a worthy pursuit — has merely resulted in another form of sanctimonious sermonizing.
The director doesn’t help his case by painting the mother as a one-note monster, often seen either in a fixed frontal view or in rigid profile; she dominates the frame as well as every space she enters. Far more successful are the other figures, from side characters like a perplexed gym teacher (Birge Schade) to Maria herself, movingly realized by newcomer van Acken. Her shift from desperate confusion to beatific sacrifice, instigated by an unwavering doctrine of fear that would wreak havoc on any impressionable child, is painful to watch. That similar stories pepper the officially sanctioned lives of the saints make it even more disturbing.
The fixed gaze of each “station” is an appropriate choice for illustrating unbending dogma, and helmer Brueggemann always makes interesting use of the frame, with figures often moving from some distance away to practically the front of the picture plane. Some may complain that moving the camera — during First Communion, in the hospital, and in the final scene — spoils the pic’s formalism, though such grievances are themselves another form of doctrinal rigidity.