STATIONS OF THE CROSS (Kreuzweg) D
Germany (107 mi) 2014 d: Dietrich Brüggemann
I do adore the sadomodernist masters such as von Trier and Haneke.
—Dietrich Brüggemann interview, Dietrich Brüggemann on “Stations of the Cross”, by Matt Fagerholm from Indie Outlook, October 20, 2014
This highly acclaimed film, co-written by the director and his sister Anna, winner of a Silver Bear for Best Script as well as the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Berlin, has produced the most negative reaction of the year, right alongside Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014), which was so incredibly dull and painstakingly pretentious that there was simply no desire to ever see Pt. 2. The common theme in both is the sheer manipulation factor, where the film’s fixated obsessions are revealed through such a narrow prism that both directors literally force you to accept the movie on their terms, which for some creates an instinctive rebellion against what’s being forced down your throat. In this case, the film is wrapped under the cloak of religion, following the drama surrounding 14-year old Maria (Lea van Acken) on the eve of her confirmation, where the strict interpretation of her fundamentalist teachings are taken literally, where there is no room for any other point of view, becoming an expression of fanaticism and intolerance, and ultimately death, yet doing so in the name of the Lord, even going so far, as the title suggests, of paralleling the film’s fictional narrative with the final 14 stages (Traditional form) of Christ leading up to the crucifixion, using a Biblical structure in similar fashion with Kieslowski’s modern parable on the Ten Commandments in The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89). While Kieslowski’s film transcends form, Brüggemann is slavishly ruled by it, creating a brutally suffocating work that is mired in its own wretched miserablism. Simply put, this is a movie about horrible people, where Maria’s mother (Franziska Weisz) is one of the more vile creatures ever depicted, spewing her venom as God’s will, sewing the seeds of her own daughter’s destruction (while her husband slinks in cowardly silence), and then praising God after she’s dead, one of the most horrific acts of child abuse ever depicted onscreen. What’s missing in Brüggemann’s film is that extreme forms of intolerant behavior come from all walks of life both inside and outside the church, from the well educated as well as the uneducated, where extremism, not just religious extremism, is a societal epidemic. How else to explain the rise of school shootings, urban neighborhood crossfire incidents, sexual abductions, or various hate crimes, where victims are targeted for a variety of reasons, none of which make rational sense, so confining this film to such meticulous order and precision is woefully misguided, as it insists upon imposing a straitjacket of logical rationale to irrational acts.
By confining the focus of the film to a small religious sect based upon the Society of St. Pius X (where the director was confirmed and served as an altar boy ), an anti-Semitic, ultra conservative offshoot of Catholicism that adheres to its own strict rules, much like the Amish and German Mennonite communities in America that continue to abide by antiquated, old-world beliefs, Brüggemann, like Mel Gibson before him in his THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), which this film so zealously resembles, wear their mile-wide sadomasochistic streaks into the heart of the crucifixion story, playing firmly into the expectations of the ardent believers who will praise the strict formal rigidity while ignoring the obvious, where the repetitious, one-note obsessions heard throughout become another form of sanctimonious preaching. Anyone who is raised by an unwavering doctrine of fear and absolutism, dominated by a tyrannical mother and an equally unequivocal young priest, at the expense of all other widening views, and then cast into the plague that is public school is likely to find that others will find their views preposterous and at odds with the concept of higher learning, where they will soon find themselves the subject of taunting and ridicule. But it’s the somber, overly serious tone overriding every section of the film that borders on the ridiculous, becoming tiresome after awhile as the viewer is assaulted by ordinary meanness from the mother accompanied by fixated ideas of extremism. While there are more tolerant views expressed in the film, such as the well-meaning gym teacher (Birge Schade) who attempts to accommodate Maria’s views that rock, gospel, and soul music are satanical expressions of the devil’s work, or a young boy she meets in a library named Christian (Moritz Knapp) who appeals to Maria to come sing in his non-satanic church choir, they are quickly overridden by the dictatorial views of her mother, who is simply a monster whose bullying overbearing voice of unreason and intolerance is the continuous thread that dominates the film. Maria obsessively adheres to these teachings, depriving herself of all earthly pleasures with the understanding that this is how one expresses obedience to the Lord.
While the film is a portrait of a tormented family layered in religiosity, this obfuscates the film’s prime intention of being a modern era horror film, where clearly the year’s most wicked creature is at the center, further accentuated by the strict rigidity of style, where the 14 stations are expressed in 14 shots, some lasting as long as ten minutes, most from a fixed position where the camera never moves. While some will marvel at the technical precision of the film, reminiscent of the praise received for magnificent technical achievement in Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK (2002), which was a 99-minute single shot film that roamed through the Russian Hermitage Museum, but the constant chatter the viewer was forced to endure throughout from the long-winded narrator was often overlooked in all the acclaim for making a technically innovative film. Here, while tragedy abounds, the deck is also stacked, where the contrived and pretentious nature of this film is a bit too absurd to believe, as there is an odd shift that takes place in the middle of the film where Maria changes from being a confused but serious-minded teenager to suddenly finding her ultimate purpose in life, a radical shift that seems all too convenient for the storyline that requires her to be the Christ-like figure whose modern era presence would similarly be pious but completely misunderstood in contemporary society. With a seemingly inescapable fate, despite the interventions of social workers, police, priests, doctors, family and friends, much like THE EXORCIST (1973), the inevitable progression moves forward as Maria literally deprives herself of food, willing herself to die, believing her death will bring about the miracle needed to save her youngest brother Johannes who still hasn’t spoken his first words at the age of four. While there are any number of solutions to this problem where society would intervene, doing nothing while allowing a mother to manipulate and browbeat her own daughter into killing herself is not one of them, making this truly one of the ugliest and most manipulative films seen this year, a psychological version of torture porn, and the most hateful film seen since Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), where the only thing missing would be a selfie moment taken by the mother at the hour of her daughter’s death, seen beaming with delight, as she couldn’t be more proud. What rot.