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Much like the traditional fourteen vignettes that inspire the film’s name and structure, Stations of the Cross is no easy story. Stations of the Cross is a German film from 2014 about a young girl seeking union with Christ as she approaches Confirmation in a fundamentalist Catholic church. When I featured the film among others in a piece in 2016, I mentioned, “I’ve been puzzling over this stark German-language film and trying to decide what I think since I watched it,” and two years later, I’m still trying to decide what I think about it. As was the case then: “That ongoing ambivalence is a good sign in my book.”
I grew up in a Christian tradition that took the Passion narrative seriously. We recited the story in a variety of ways and explored its theological significance in a variety of conversations, but we also rented out theaters to view Passion of the Christ. Nevertheless, we did not engage the Stations of the Cross as a tradition. I don’t remember when I discovered the Stations. I imagine I met them in the Episcopal church I attended on holy days during graduate school, my eyes sliding past their constant presence in the nave until we were instructed to reflect on them during Holy Week. I noticed them, I pondered them, I encountered moments that were unfamiliar to my knowledge of the biblical account.
As some critics have pointed out, watching the film Stations of the Cross is not unlike the experience of walking through a sanctuary to view paintings or images of the fourteen stations. The film consists of fourteen scenes corresponding to the fourteen stations, each a single shot introduced by a title card, each involving little or no camera movement. Although some sequences are more obvious parallels than others, that stationary form invites reflection, surrounding you (or trapping you, depending on the sequence) in a moment and inviting your eyes to wander about the screen. One consists of a group of students sitting with a priest in a Confirmation class; another involves a boy hitting on a girl in a library; another chronicles a tense doctor’s appointment. All of them center on Maria, a fourteen-year-old who knows little beyond her Catholic church, her hostile, overbearing mother, her gentle and kind au pair Bernadette, and her four-year-old brother Thomas, who is unable to speak. Maria’s love for God and her love for her younger brother compel her to make a certain commitment to God, and the tragic consequences of that commitment are only a spoiler until you recognize how quickly the film posits Maria as the film’s Christ figure. (As a friend pointed out: She’s literally sitting at the right hand of a Father, her priest, in the opening sequence, titled “Jesus is Condemned to Death.”)
As a piece of cinema, Stations of the Cross is extraordinary. It features a breakthrough performance from Lea van Acken, along with stirring performances from Franziska Weisz, who plays her mother with distressing intensity, and Lucie Aron, who plays Bernadette with a kind of healing grace. The film is stark and somewhat unforgiving—remember that no matter how unpleasant a scene becomes, the camera won’t soon move away, and there’s no soundtrack to ease the silences between characters—but no line of dialogue is wasted, no staging careless. Though the film’s marketing imagery is heavy-handed (i.e., Maria’s face in ceramic white wearing a crown of thorns), the film itself is anything but.
As a piece of religious art for reflection, though, the film is much more complicated, and I believe the material supports a few different readings. The most straightforward reading of the film finds it to be a brutal criticism of religious fundamentalism, one that (particularly in its portrayal of Maria’s mother) might provoke discomfort for anyone with a history with or proximity to similar Christian fundamentalism. The film’s director and co-writer, Dietrich Brüggemann, has described his disdain for fundamentalism and fundamentalists in interviews, and the Catholic sect to which Maria’s church belongs is loosely based on the real-life sect in which Brüggemann was raised. His experience brings a personal touch to the proceedings, a subtle onscreen world-building that depends on his intimate knowledge of the world he’s building. After Maria passes out late in the film, her mother takes her to a doctor, and the levelheaded doctor’s profound suspicion of her mother’s treatment of her might be a surrogate for the director’s own mistrust. (At one point the doctor asks her mother to leave the room so he can speak with Maria privately, and the implications are not lost on the mother.) At the same time, characters like Bernadette and Christian, Maria’s romantic interest, suggest the Catholic tent is larger (and, possibly, more palatable) than Maria’s small sect.
Through another lens, though—and possibly in spite of the film itself—Maria is nothing less than a saint, and at least one surprising twist near the end of the film supports this reading, too. From the moment we meet her, Maria is presented as pure-hearted, pure-hearted in the sense of someone who genuinely and unequivocally desires one thing. For Maria, that one thing is God: At the end of the first scene in which the young priest teaches the Confirmation class about the ways Christians make sacrifices for God, Maria asks, “What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life?” The priest affirms her love for God and encourages her to consider the ways one can “give your life to God” on earth. But after he leaves Maria alone in the room, the framing of the shot leaves little question that her heart has already determined what exactly she wants to give to God: Maria sits at the table, her head bowed toward her hands, a crucifix hanging on the wall only a few feet away. Maria’s fledgling flirtations with a boy her age whose church is more liberal provoke conflict with her mother and guilt for Maria; with the camera close to her face in a confessional booth, Maria confesses, “I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.” “Impurity is the major sin of our time,” the priest responds, subtly affirming her guilt, “from which many other sins ensue.”
Stations of the Cross is a painful and provocative film, then, and I posit it as a particularly timely film for Lent and Holy Week: It raises complex questions about asceticism (How much sacrifice is too much, if love for God motivates it?) and about the saints (In what ways is Maria different from some of the saints we revere, and what do those differences say about our reverence?). For many of us, I think, it might provoke reflection on our own backgrounds—backgrounds involving genuine, even pure-hearted, pursuit of God in imperfect (to say the least, in Maria’s case) faith communities. And in the right setting, the film might prompt us to reflect on the true Stations of the Cross, on Jesus dying for all us Marias and mothers and au pairs and flirty teenage classmates.
If you’re a Christian, your tradition may or may not find you, a few days from now, walking through a nave, pondering the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Whether it does or not—and if you can stomach it—I’d encourage you to incorporate the film that shares the name into your Holy Week reflections: Let it surprise you, chill you, humble you, move you. The film is not for the faint of heart, but then again, Holy Week might not be, either.
[Stations of the Cross is available to rent or purchase from most major streaming services, including Amazon Prime and iTunes.]