“Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross),” which won the 2014 Best Script Silver Bear at Berlinale, is a well-designed and constructed portrait of a young, devout Catholic girl trying to make her way through a maze of satanically influenced culture (i.e., normality) and sin (e.g., attraction to a boy) while meeting the absurdly high personal standards demanded by her overbearing mother, her priest and her God. Directed by Dietrich Brueggemann, the German-language “Stations” is a sly look at religious conservatism, period – sly because it could just as easily be about Islam but is in many ways more thought provoking as a study of an otherwise typical white German family.
Made up of 14 titled segments, Brueggemann’s reworking of the stations of the cross, the film begins in Maria’s confirmation class, in which her Society of St. Pius XII priest teaches a traditionalist interpretation of Catholicism, encouraging his young students to become warriors for Christ – by not just turning away from popular (read: satanic) culture and influences but standing up to them as well. Opportunities for personal sacrifice are everywhere – from clothing to food — and when Maria picks up a cookie from the plate at the end of class, the priest says to the already wan Maria, “There’s a possible sacrifice right there.”
In all respects, Maria, played with understated but very real intensity by Lea van Acken, is a sweet, smart, normal young girl of 14. An autistic brother, 4, has never spoken a word and already Maria is contemplating ways in which her sacrifice might help him. In the way is her mother, played with overstated anger by Franziska Weisz, who seems to be channeling a concentration-camp guard. She wears the pants in the family and how, while her weak husband is largely silent.
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Maria’s French nanny, Bernadette, who is herself devout but also at one with the world at large, is a kinder and ultimately stronger parental figure. And then there is Christian, a boy in Maria’s school who likes her; although she feels the same, Maria sublimates her feelings under the weight of her mother’s suspicious, unfair oversight. Deeply unhappy, Maria begins to see an out through the ultimate sacrifice for her brother, and things begin to spiral out of control.
Though Brueggemann remains firmly behind Maria and her beliefs, he has some fun with the absurdity of her sad situation. A scene in a doctor’s office pitting reasonable doctor against unreasonable mother is particularly rich, even as it moves the narrative forward to its inevitable tragic conclusion. Remarkably, Acken makes no false moves, while Weisz’s extreme acting finally works to her – and our – advantage when the religious fantasy life her character has constructed for Maria finally crashes to earth, destroying the mother’s steely composure along with it.