In most catholic churches, you will find the Stations of the Cross, a series of images depicting Christ carrying the crucifix to his execution. Traditionally, there are fourteen scenes beginning with the messiah's condemnation to death and ending with his burial. Dietrich Brüggemann's film, winner of the Silver Bear for best script at this year's Berlinale, transposes the biblical tale to contemporary times and tells a heartbreaking story about faith, sacrifice and religious fundamentalism.
The structure of the inspirational source is maintained. There are exactly fourteen scenes and each station is introduced with its original title by the means of a white caption on a black screen. The individual chapters meanwhile all consist of a single shot maintained for several minutes. Each shot, with the exception of the minimal, but exhilarating camera movement in stages 9, 12 and 14, is filmed with a static set up.
Our suffering protagonist is not a 30-year-old Jewish carpenter, but Maria, a strictly catholic teenager from Germany. The original German title Kreuzweg can also be translated to "crossroad," which is exactly where, metaphorically speaking, Maria finds herself at the beginning of her ordeal. In the last week before her confirmation ceremony, she is bombarded with fundamentalist opinions. The priest brands his students as the "soldiers of Jesus Crist" in the opening scene, while her mother, a strict matriarch, rants about the satanic influences of gospel and soul music. Desperate to come closer to God and help her ill brother, Maria does her best to resist temptation before finally turning to the ultimate sacrifice.
Brüggemann makes no attempt to hide his film's allegorical nature and the symbolism is quite on the nose. The structure is more than a simple gimmick and makes the tale from being incredibly moving. We understand where the story is going at a very early stage and are then forced to watch the tragedy unfold. Newcomer Lea van Acken does a terrific job at portraying Maria's internal conflict through her body language. She is an impressive discovery who has all the tools to carve out a career in acting. Franziska Weisz is equally impressive as the determined, permanently outraged mother.
As for all allegorical texts (particularly its biblical template), the meaning of Stations of the Cross is ambiguous and open to interpretation. The stillness of the camera and the lack of editing give the film a certain neutrality. The poster shows Maria wearing a crown of thorns, but she is definitely no messiah (she's by no means a very naughty girl either though). The film observes rather than judges; asks questions rather than provides answers. It can also be read as a film about a difficult mother-daughter relationship projected onto religion by both parties. Their anxieties are expressed through statements of faith, sacrifice and sin. Stations of the Cross continues the trend of strong, thought-provoking cinema about the difficult subject of Catholicism after the recent Philomena, Noah and Calvary.