Stations of the Cross Review

Stations of the Cross, dir. Dietrich Brüggemann, Germany 2014. 107 mins, cert. 15

Regular worshippers at the church of Haneke, Seidl, Schleinzer, Dumont et al will likely receive Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) as manna from heaven. Certainly this reviewer eagerly bounded up the altar steps of the ICA earlier this week. The fourth film from Dietrich Brüggemann, written with his sister and regular collaborator Anna Brüggemann, Stations won the Silver Bear for best script at the Berlinale earlier this year. Whether the film was a deserving winner I can’t tell, since I wasn’t at the festival. But without wishing to sermonise, I have full faith in the piety of their choice. Using its title mimetically, the film cleaves into fourteen minutely intertitled chapters corresponding to the eponymous Via Crucis. As a formal conceit, which seemed to draw forth in equal part admiration and frustration from early reviewers, these scenes are shot in single takes, all but three of which, moreover, are static shots. Such a dogmatic, tableau-like approach is undoubtedly likely to recall the work of Ulrich Seidl, especially his most recent film, the impish documentary of anomic Österreicher, In the Basement. However, the cool, meticulously symmetrical constructions of that director’s work are not on display here, whilst any arthouse mannerisms that could have resulted from adopting such a schema are dissipated for something more theatrical and direct, and ultimately affecting.

The film’s narrative concerns fourteen year old Maria’s preparation for her imminent confirmation. Yet Maria’s faith is not your regular Lutheran zeal, but one inculcated by the pernicious proselytising of the fictitious Society of St. Pius XII, to which her parents belong. (The faith is particularly strong in her matriarchal mother). This near-sect of latter day Catholics eschews the liberal mandates of the second Vatican council. Thematised throughout the film is their fervent belief that any non-classical music is the tune of the devil, especially the satanic basslines. It’s all about that bass, as Meghan Trainor sang. Bach, Palestrina and Gregorian chant, on the other hand, are the order of the day, a nod perhaps to the children’s choirs in Haneke’s films (Benny’s Video and The White Ribbon). These tyrannical music tastes induce a crisis of sorts in Maria’s school gym class where she must endure the jeers of fellow classmates and the confusion of her teacher, for asking that Roxette’s ‘The Look’ be turned off. Safe to say, things quickly go from bad to worse after that.

Early reviews of Stations were quick to offer cautious praise for the film’s aesthetic stance, but also doled out damnation for its preachy and manipulative construction of the intensely traditionalist, and imaginary, Society. With the film’s general release the balance evened out a little. Other critics have instead batted back against claims of didacticism and, more perspicaciously, have situated the film in contemporary narratives about the (mis)treatment of children in Austria, and across Europe more broadly. Arguably the film does dip its toes into the ink of caricature, but it remains believable and refrains from entering any dramatic dead ends. Indeed, as it progresses Stations becomes almost like a glacial thriller with the viewer’s anticipation mounting till the last ‘station’. In the film’s very final moments the camera breaks free from its observing static position, and, in a hair-raising moment, glides and swoops into a celestial crane shot straight out of a Gaspar Noé film, almost like the prowling camera that rushes through the streets of Tokyo in Enter the Void. Don’t take my word as gospel, but that ethereal moment alone is worth the price of admission.

Stations of the Cross continues at The Institue of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and Rio Cinema in London, and is available on VoD