The Deadly Deeds of Religious Fanaticism

in 59th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Anders Larsson

Among the illustrious names associated with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a conservative and reactionary offshoot of the Catholic Church, is the English bishop Richard Williamson. In 2009 he appeared on Swedish Television, denying the existence of the Holocaust and the gas chambers. Although he himself was expelled from the society in 2012, similar ideas with vague correspondence to modern secular reality thrive within SSPX.

Being an ultra traditionalist priestly brotherhood – they reject contemporary Catholic mass practice and oppose interreligious dialogue – Pope Benedict XVI decided to strip away SSPX’s canonical status. In other words: the society is not an official part of the Catholic Church. It is this kind of backward beliefs, strict pious discipline and unforgiving customs that Maria is up against in Dieter Brüggemann’s clinically austere, perfectly paced and executed fourth feature Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg).

In a small town in southern Germany, 14 year old Maria (a superbly bleak Lea van Acken) – who belongs to the Society of St. Paul (equivalent to the real SSPX) – makes preparations for her confirmation. In 14 fixed angle long shots Brüggemann follows Maria on her way to what she believes is the ultimate tribute: self-sacrifice in the name of Jesus. Underneath the surface of the controlled family structure and congregation gatherings, themes of fanaticism and child abuse are present, along with utter indifference to the care and guidance that parents and other grown-ups are supposed to give young people.

The film kicks off with an encapsulating sequence, almost ten minutes long (in a setting reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The last supper), where, during a lesson, the seemingly mild mannered Father Weber (Florian Stetter)  casts all sorts of exhortations upon the children. His rhetoric revolves around the children being soldiers of Jesus and that every single pleasurable thing is a sin – be it a chocolate bar or music with rhythm (the devil dwells in it) – and that you can always make one more sacrifice.

In accordance with the film’s harsh atmosphere, the soundtrack is devoid of background music. We only hear music when it appears in the story itself. One occasion takes place in the gym at school when Maria refuses to run because she deems the music being played as devilish. The presence of her lively and less devout school mates, together with the steady beat of Roxette’s The Look, makes her once again place the impossible burden of saintlike existence upon her increasingly tiny shoulders.

The second occasion on which music is heard is during the confirmation ceremony. In a tracking shot (one of only two sequences where the camera moves) we see the psalm singing congregation accompany the children on their way to receive Holy Communion. The scene ends abruptly in silence when Maria faints – anorexic and suffering from malnutrition she comes one bizarre step closer to sharing Jesus’ fate.

The acting is in perfect line with the cold, unloving environment and Franziska Weisz plays Maria’s mother with sanctimonious self-absorption and tight lips. She is a fear inducing figure that holds her daughter accountable for making the slightest mistake.

Dietrich Brüggemann and his scriptwriting sister Anna build the film around the 14 Stations of the Cross – in other words the series of artistic representations depicting Jesus carrying his cross to the crucifixion. Each of the film’s 14 tableaus lets us dig deep into the mindset of the protagonist and her convictions, and the events unfold in an almost real time manner with a sense of something that is just as inevitable as it is tragic.

What Dietrich Brüggemann first and foremost accomplishes in Stations of the Cross is a feature shaped in a form that is harmonious with its subject matter: a firm and unrelenting march into dogmatic, religious lunacy. We sense that Maria is a dead girl walking from the very first frame.

Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2014