The festival scheduling Gods work in mysterious ways, and so it wasn’t until the last Sunday of the Berlinale that we got to see the German-language “Stations of the Cross,” from director Dieter Brüggemann, by which stage it had already won the Silver Bear for Best Script, on which Brüggemann shared writing duties with his sister Anna. That gong, however, simply confirmed a great deal of the buzz that the film’s premiere had fostered days before — with only a few dissenting voices the consensus seemed to be that this parable about religious extremism was a provocative, confident and original piece of work that featured an eyecatching performance from its young lead actress Lea Van Acken. About Van Acken perhaps that’s true, but otherwise the only thing it “provoked” in this writer was frustration, and a dull rage at its deterioration from an intriguing, well-crafted premise to a manipulative, sanctimonious, woolly-minded muddle.
Formal rigor does not necessarily go hand in hand with intellectual rigor, and while the film has plenty of the former, the latter is in short supply. But the structure is interesting and, in a thematically appropriate way, quite ascetic: divided into 14 segments, each titled after one of the Stations (14 scenes from Christ’s last journey to Calvary, his crucifixion, death and entombment, in case you’re not au fait with the Roman Catholic tradition), most scenes play out as single, locked-off shots in which the dialogue-heavy action is staged as a tableau or a short play. Each shows a moment in the life of Maria (Van Acken) a devout teenager whose family belong to the (fictional) Society of St. Paul, an extraordinarily conservative and restrictive church that identifies as Catholic, but pre-Second Vatican Council Catholic, so masses are said in Latin, parents believe that the bass lines of popular music (everything, apparently that’s not Bach or Gregorian chanting) will inspire their children to depraved immorality, and it is regarded as the members’ responsibility to try and save the souls of others (i.e. stop them listening to music that isn’t Bach).
A lot of this context is provided in the opening Station, during which an impassioned young priest preaches the Society of St. Paul doctrine to a small group of young people, including Maria. And this scene is actually pretty terrific, establishing the barmy parameters of this repressive and regressive-seeming group in a clever, arch way that invites us to laugh at some of its excesses while also gaining some knowledge of Maria, the teacher’s pet who knows the answers to all the dogmatic questions. Well, nearly all, as she stays behind afterward to ask him why God would make a small child ill, and what she could do to make such a child better. Over the subsequent scenes we discover the child is Maria’s younger brother who is four years old and has never uttered a word, much to the pain of the family, including her hideously strict and pious mother (Fransizka Weisz), and her beloved au pair Bernadette (Lucie Aron). Maria then takes shine to a boy at school, but, entirely indoctrinated by her severe faith, she is simultaneously drawn toward the idea of self-denial and self-abnegation as a means to winning God’s favor on her brother’s behalf.
To this point, the film has been tight and focussed and we’re compelled by a coming-of-age story playing out against such a rarefied backdrop. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here as the film begins to repeat itself, with Maria oscillating between her normal teenage impulses and her extreme piety, while even the humor goes over old ground (though a scene in the school gym when Maria protests the “demon” music made us laugh in agreement — it was a Roxette track). And it’s not just that the jibes at fundamentalist excess get stale, but the ironic condescension, the constant laughing-at, begins to take on a sour taste as we realize that essentially we’re watching the progressive psychological crippling of a child.
Furthermore, the serious points the Brüggemanns want to make about the dangers of religious extremism are screamingly obvious, but then undermined by narratively convenient, unexplained or inexplicable elements: the cruel, monstrously rigid mother; the apparently castrated school, hospital and state apparatus; Maria’s own certainty that despite what authority figures (before whom she trembles) say, her drive toward self-destruction is sanctioned by God. Of course perhaps a lot of this takes place during the ellipses, sometimes of days or even weeks, between “Stations” but if so it’s simply another case of the film’s self-serving nature: the messy fallout gets swept under the rug of the gaps between scenes, which is expedient but dishonest.
Still nothing prepared us for the reversal(s) of the ending which had the gall to pull a kind of narrative “gotcha!” on the audience, and turn the film’s preachy eye outward. It’s the kind of trick that Michael Haneke maybe can get away with, but underlying his didacticism there’s always a throughline of cold, utterly consistent intelligence. But “Stations of the Cross” hiding behind its neat formalism, is all over the place in terms of who and what it’s contemptuous of: first the filmmakers condemn the fictionalized religion they’ve created, then the mother whose monstrousness they wrote and finally they turn that judgmental instinct on the audience, seemingly condemning us for having the very reactions the film was designed to provoke, and which the film, to that point seemed to share. Devolving into clodhopping heavyhandedness (a character actually choking on a communion wafer and a rare camera move that wheels up skyward were two moments where we strained our eye muscles with rolling) “Stations of the Cross” tackles a weighty, complex subject in simple-minded fashion. Which would be bad enough if we didn’t get the distinct feeling it also thinks it’s smarter not just than all its characters, whom it largely despises, but than the audience too. Ours is clearly the minority opinion, but while the film’s craftsmanship and experimental form go some way toward mitigating the convenient plotting and confused point of view, wrapping the whole in craw-sticking sanctimony is a sin too far for forgiveness. [C]