This paper was written by Shabanah Fazal
Dietrich Brüggemann ’s arresting fourth film about Catholic fundamentalism was a departure from his previous major features Renn wenn du Kannst (Run if you Can, 2010), 3 Zimmer, Küche Bad (Move, 2012). And Heil (2015), the wild satire on neo-Nazis he followed it with, looks like a determined over-reaction to it. Yet what links them all is self-aware comedy and a concern with darker aspects of contemporary German culture. All his films are available on DVD but take note that Neun Szenen and Heil do not have English subtitles. Brüggemann studied Directing at Potsdam Film and Television Academy and his interest in formal composition is also evident in his work as photographer, musician and producer of music videos. His short films are critically acclaimed and Stations of the Cross was widely feted at international film festivals. It is his first film to be screened on British television and I saw it late night on BBC4. I was deeply affected by it, perhaps because its small-scale but shocking narrative is served well by the intimacy of the television screen.
Brüggemann tells the story of 14 year-old Maria, who is preparing for her confirmation with Father Weber. She belongs to the Society of St Paul (based on the real Society of St Pius X), a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Catholic Church that rejects the reforms of Vatican II. With dwindling numbers, they see themselves as the embattled guardians of the Church’s original, pure teachings. Father Weber enjoins his young flock to fight a daily battle in their hearts against the ‘satanic temptations’ of the world and to sacrifice simple pleasures such as music, films, provocative clothes and even food. These restrictions are strictly reinforced at home by Maria’s domineering mother, who struggles to bring up her mute four-year old son. Caught between these twin pressures and eager to please both adults, Maria decides to sacrifice her life for the sake of her brother. She becomes anorexic and so begins the self-destructive journey of martyrdom signalled by the title. Brüggemann structures the film in chapters matching the 14 stations of the cross, which in Catholic tradition mark the stages of Christ’s suffering on the way to crucifixion.
Brüggemann wrote Stations of the Cross with his sister and regular collaborator Anna, who has also starred in many of his films. They were justly awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin Film Festival, a fact many reviewers seem to overlook in their focus on the film’s visual stillness. On the first viewing, it is the dense script – the power of the Word, especially in the long but compelling opening catechism scene – that drives the narrative forward. The intertitles also intensify the impact of a narrative that takes place over just seven days. They create a sense of inevitable doom (‘Jesus is condemned to death’ – in the first scene, by Father Weber’s indoctrination), comment ironically on the action (‘Jesus falls the first time’ – Maria’s chaste attraction to a fellow Christian boy) and point to a metaphorical purpose (‘Jesus is nailed to the cross’ – Maria is a victim of Catholic ideology). Above all, their sheer incongruity underscores the tragi-comedy of a vulnerable teenage girl sacrificing her whole life for so little. And Brüggemann’s choice of names seems to support this: the comically tautological ‘Maria Göttler’ (evoking a divine Virgin Mary), and ‘Christian’, the innocent evangelical boy she befriends.
Unlike other films about the Catholic Church such as The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015), Brüggemann’s film does not set out to expose direct physical and sexual abuse. Rather, his focus is the deeper psychological and emotional abuse that results from indoctrination into any kind of ideology. The film is devastating because of what church and family make Maria do to herself through mind control. The director’s stated motivation for making the film was concern about the 21st century global upsurge in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. He does not object to benign forms of religion and understands how the sense of community it offers for many fulfils a human need. For Maria it becomes part of the surrogate family she creates around herself: Father Weber and Bernadette replace her own ineffectual father and unloving mother, and she herself plays surrogate mother to her young brother. Some reviewers see the film as a savage criticism of those who live by religion. But it is clear to me that the director draws a distinction between the teachings of the Church and the central characters: Maria, Bernadette (her family’s au pair) and Christian are entirely sympathetic. The deeply vulnerable, naturalistic performance he draws out of 14 year old Leah van Acken in her first film role made me feel the desperation of a parent powerless to help. Even Father Weber (played by a young, attractive Florian Stetter) is a skilled, fair-minded teacher whose quiet charisma would cast a subtle spell over any impressionable teenage girl. I had no trouble understanding why Maria would be seated at the right hand of her god and be so eager to tell him what he wants to hear.
Maria (Lea van Acken) in the car with her mother (Franziska Weisz)
Brüggemann plays out the conflict created by the imposition of ideology chiefly through family melodrama, the aspect of the film that resonated most with me. In interviews, he urges the viewer to ask themselves “What are we doing to our kids?” when we use any ideology – whether that be religion, socialism or feminism – to torture our children. Brüggemann’s friend Franziska Weiz, a seasoned professional actor, gives an indelible performance as Maria’s controlling mother. Some reviewers have described her as a caricature with her near-hysterical imprecations against the dangers of “gospel and jazz!” However, to anyone brought up by a strict religious parent, she is frighteningly familiar and convincing. Brüggemann says he based her on his own father during a fundamentalist phase of his life when he made his children attend a Society of Pius X church. Maria’s mother is arguably portrayed less as a Carrie-style demon mother but as a woman struggling to cope with a young autistic son, and an adolescent daughter whose sexuality she has been taught it is her duty to monitor at all times. She can also be read as a tragic victim of a patriarchal ideology that limits her role in life to home and motherhood. It warps her energies into control of her daughter, so that in the domestic realm at least she has some power. She repeatedly grinds Maria down and forces her to bend to her will, rewarding her with approval and affection. In turn, like so many intelligent but powerless young women growing up in a patriarchal system, Maria comes to realise her only means of resistance to her mother is to outdo her in religious devotion. Her method is self-mortification, her body now being the only thing she still has any control over. We see their power struggle being played out painfully in Station 2, where Maria’s mother forces her to put on her cardigan and pose smiling for a family photo, and the car scene, which acts as a visual metaphor for their entrapment in a destructive power-dynamic.
Brüggemann first experimented with a fixed camera and long static shots in his 2006 feature Neun Szenen (Nine Scenes). In Stations of the Cross, he works with long-time collaborator Alexander Sass to take it to another level: in the whole film, the camera moves only three times. The effect is to create a series of carefully composed painterly tableaux that evoke the traditional Christian iconography of the 14 stations of the cross. On second and repeat viewings we are reminded of the original contemplative purpose of these images, but I feel Brüggemann’s aim is less spiritual than ironic. The opening tableau for example, reminds us of da Vinci’s Last Supper, foregrounding Father Weber as a false prophet whose ‘meal’ is a perversion of Christ’s. Credit should also go to production designer Klaus Peter-Platten for mise en scène decisions that intensify what Brüggemann calls ‘locked-in’ shots. In the first and the later confessional scenes, dim lighting and austere stage sets with tiny windows, severe horizontal and vertical lines signify the imprisonment of vulnerable minds like Maria. Through the confessional grille, Father Weber even admonishes her for ‘sins’ of her innocent imagination: pride in hoping that a boy would find her attractive and conceit for knowing the truth – that she would be a better mother to her brother. Time and again, she is presented as powerless and invisible, pushed to the edges of the frame. For example in Station 2 and 7, when she battles with her mother and then her gym teacher, she is forced to the other side of the frame, underscoring the futility of her resistance. In Station 9, as she awaits confirmation, her pale profile is lost amongst those of other children, and at the critical moment she even disappears below the frame.
Maria is isolated in the gym
For some, this kind of framing (not forgetting publicity material portraying Maria as Christ on the cross) make her too simply a victim to be truly interesting. And arguably Brüggemann’s film is less subversive than either Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) or Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009). Both provide a more obvious sociological/political insight into the attraction that ‘exotic’ fundamentalist ways of life might have for rebellious young women alienated by the shallow materialism and dysfunctional family structures of the west. However I believe the aesthetic Brüggemann outlines in an interview with Indie Outlook is political in the best sense: his distancing of Maria and choice of wide shots in particular “liberate the spectator’s gaze . . . to observe the whole system” and find for themselves truths about ideology and power. We see an intriguing example of this in Station 7, where Maria is confronted with the demands of the world, having to dance to ‘satanic’ music during a mixed-sex gym class. In Stations 1 and 2, Brüggemann opts for planimetric shots (see Catherine Wheatley’s 2016 paper) to depict the rigid order of church confirmation class and family life. In ironic contrast, in the gym scene a line of classmates in the background of the shot rebel against their well-meaning teacher’s efforts to integrate Maria into the lesson by running in all directions. They then mock and insult her, leaving her isolated. Their comments reveal as much disdain for her indigenous brand of religious conservatism as for the head-scarfed Muslim girls who are exempted from PE. Brüggemann seems to suggest both are seen as alien and his visually disruptive shot perhaps represents the wider cultural conflicts of contemporary secular Germany.
Fr. Weber joins Maria’s mother at her bedside
The most debated aspect of the film is undoubtedly how far Brüggemann’s film aesthetic acts as an endorsement or a criticism of faith, as distinct from religion. There is no doubt that his story of martyrdom and the miraculous stands within the tradition of directors such as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Lars von Trier. It has clear parallels with von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) but he rejects what has been dubbed von Trier’s ‘sado-modernism’ – a term that could also apply to Katrin Gemme’s 2013 horror-thriller Tore Tanzt (Nothing Bad can Happen), about the abuse of a naïve male ‘Jesus freak’. He acknowledges the influence of these directors and speaks in interviews of believing in ‘Something Out There’. He also describes how his single-shot no-edit approach puts pressure on the actors to be ‘spiritually engaged in getting the scene right’. He clearly borrows elements of what Paul Schrader terms ‘transcendental style’ (distancing techniques such as slowness, long, static unedited shots, an absence of non-diegetic music etc). But ultimately does he do so in order to offer a subtle critique of it?
Firstly, we see this in the vein of black comedy running through Brüggemann’s work. He has spoken of his love of Monty Python and his early features were labelled ‘fresh comedies’ by the German press. He also clearly has a predilection for meta-cinema and his 2011 short One Shot takes mise en abîme to self-parodying extremes. Most interesting of all, he cites as his greatest influence Swedish director Roy Andersson, saying “I watched [his films] on my knees, spiritually”. Andersson’s cinema illustrates his theory of ‘trivialism’, whereby profound truths can come into focus in the most banal, absurd moments of everyday life. And by exaggerating these, the director can bring the viewer closer to those truths. Hence Brüggemann’s own definition of comedy as ‘truth and pain’. We see this played out in the tiny, absurd battles Maria is urged to fight on her way to the cross – whether persisting in taking off a cardigan to mortify her flesh, resisting a harmless Christian boy with whom she bonded over quadratic equations, or sacrificing Father Weber’s biscuit after confirmation class only to later choke on the same priest’s wafer. The idea that a biscuit can become the means by which an ideology kills a child is subtly satirical. Even the hyper-minimalist opening titles, intertitles and closing credits seem less of a reading challenge than a joke.
If all this isn’t apparent to some viewers, it is because of the director’s refusal to comment or condemn directly. For me, it is this very detachment that gives the film its paradoxical power: he appeals to the heart via the head. The viewer is held so far back in a position of helplessness from the protagonist that we are forced to see how she is caught in a larger system that will inevitably crush her. That makes it hard for us to shed the tears for her that we long to. In a TV interview Brüggemann stated: “the best way to make a comedy is with a straight face, and let the bomb explode on the audience’s side” – and the same applies to tragedy. It describes exactly how I have felt on every viewing, as if something very big I didn’t even notice being planted had imploded unseen inside me.
Here’s one of Brüggemann’s short films, One Shot (no English subtitles but you can turn on German subtitles):
The ‘miracle ending’ (spoiler warning)
Secondly, we should consider his treatment of the ‘miracle’ ending – a very small one compared to the miracles at the end of Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Is it a similar reaffirmation of faith and or a bitter mockery of the very notion of miracles that demand such an extreme sacrifice? There is an equally ambiguous ending to Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009), a film with a similarly restrained aesthetic in which a spiritual struggle is played out on a woman’s body – this time a paraplegic. Catherine Wheatley (2016) argues that both films are examples of ‘cinematic agnosticism’, that emphasise the fundamental ‘unknowability’ of spiritual experience. Brüggemann also insists his film can be viewed from many angles at once – serious or ironic. His final, most striking camera move is withheld till the final station ‘Jesus is laid in the tomb’. Unlike von Trier, he does not offer the thrilling consolation of a god’s-eye view shot and ringing of celestial bells. Instead, a sudden crane shot takes us up over the graveyard, with a final tilt up to cloudy, impenetrable skies, and then returns to silent, black closing credits. We are left to find meaning for ourselves – if there is any.
If you need an uplift after watching Stations of the Cross, I recommend Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s daring, comic short Rúbaí (2013), about an 8 year-old Irish girl preparing for confirmation. Her joyous, life-loving spirit has not yet been crushed by the Catholic Church or her mother. Not only does she question and utterly discombobulate her priest during catechism, but defiantly rejects the life they have mapped out for her.
Schrader, Paul (2017) ‘Revisiting Transcendental Style in Film’, YouTube lecture for TIFF based on his 1998 book
Wheatley, Catherine (2016) ‘Present Your Bodies: Film Style and Unknowability in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross’, Religions,Volume 7, Issue 6
Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog