Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
Berlin Film Festival
A remarkable, formally rigorous descent into hell for a German teenage girl.

Newcomer Lea van Acken impresses in German director Dietrich Brueggemann’s tale of a girl suffocated by a strict religious upbringing and her desire to do the right thing.

BERLIN  -- A German teenage girl struggles with questions of life, death and faith in Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg), director Dietrich Brueggemann’s remarkable and formally rigorous arthouse item that’s closely modeled on the Via Crucis.

Divided into 14 chapters that carry the names of the stations (Jesus is Condemned to Death, Jesus Carries His Cross…), the film chronicles the tough spot that 14-year-old protagonist Maria -- what’s in a name? -- finds herself in as she prepares for her confirmation and tries to follow the rules and live up to the impossible expectations set by her priest and her family, who belong to the extremely strict (fictitious) Society of St. Paul congregation.

Though leavened with occasional moments of acerbic humor, this Berlinale competition title is an impressive but also rather grim cinematic experience that will please arthouse purists and festival junkies but has a snowball’s chance in hell of a wider commercial breakout.

Maria (Lea van Acken) is a spindly teenage girl, withdrawn and contemplative even in the film’s opening scene, where she’s one of a small group of teenagers attending a pre-confirmation class given by Father Weber (Florian Stetter). What’s discussed doesn’t seem all that shocking, with Weber talking about constant temptations, being a warrior for Christ and how the Second Vatican Council, which modernized the Church and many of its rites, was a breach by Satan into the stronghold of the true faith (the Society of St. Paul is based on the Society of St. Pius X, which is similarly headed by a French-language bishop and insists on celebrating mass in Latin).

The studious girl tries to take in everything she’s told and, after class, remains behind to ask why a small child, still free of sin, can become gravely ill and if the concept of sacrifice is something that can be extended to a whole life. They seem innocent enough questions but taken together with the title of the chapter, "Jesus Is Condemned to Death," there’s a sense of ominous dread that pervades even this first scene, a 15-minute conversation that, like all other scenes, consists of a single take.

The second chapter, "Jesus Carries His Cross," introduces Maria’s family when they’re out for a Sunday walk in the countryside. The large clan includes her extremely controlling mother (Franziska Weisz), who seems more interested in extreme propriety than in total devotion per se, her somewhat spineless father (Klaus Michael Kamp), her three siblings that include 4-year-old Johannes, who doesn’t speak, and the family’s lovely French au pair, Bernadette (Lucie Aron).

In "Jesus Falls for the First Time," Maria talks with the cute and inquisitive Christian (Moritz Knapp) at the school library and she has to admit to herself she likes the attention and would like to go to choir practice with him, even if it’s at a different church and they sing not only Bach but also soul and gospel, music that might have "satanic influences" according to Weber and her mother (which’ll lead to a few chuckles for liberal audiences, especially during a gym-class scene later on in the film).

As the film moves from station to station, it becomes increasingly clear that the strict rules and expectations are a heavy burden for Maria, who wants to do the right thing and longs to be close to God but who cannot deny she has desires of her own. Brueggemann, who wrote the screenplay with his sister, Anna, beautifully suggests how religion can offer a crutch or comfort in hard times but at the same time can be suffocating any kind of personal growth, which is especially problematic for a teenager. The siblings’ own religious upbringing no-doubt influenced the careful and very realistic way in which the material is treated, with the film never outright condemning religion but instead coolly observing the devastating results of simply following the rules imposed by religion to the letter.

This detached quality is further reinforced by filming each chapter in a single take, something Brueggemann already experimented with in his debut film, Neun Szenen, and by not moving the camera except at just a handful of key moments. This lends a stilted quality to Alexander Sass’s photography that invites audiences to examine the images as if they were indeed Stations of the Cross on a church wall that could impart important (if not entirely unambiguous) moral lessons, which seems entirely appropriate.

Newcomer Van Acken is a phenomenal find and she’s never less than believably torn between doing the right thing and being her own person, an impossible fusion that leads her directly down the wrong path toward the last station, "Jesus Is Laid In the Tomb." Weisz and Stetter (the latter also the lead of Beloved Sisters, another Berlin competition title) offer able support, with Weisz especially impressive during a doctor’s visit, where she realizes her daughter is slipping away from her maternal grip, and in the one-but-last chapter, where, always the survivor, she has already put her own spin on what has happened so that it all makes sense and is all just fine -- though it’s hardly a consolation for her husband and, clearly, she even finds it hard to swallow herself.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: UFA Fiction, SWR, Arte, Cine Plus Media Service
Cast: Lea van Acken, Franziska Weisz, Florian Stetter, Lucie Aron, Moritz Knapp, Klaus Michael Kamp, Birge Schade, Hanns Zischler, Ramin Yazdani
Director: Dietrich Brueggemann
Screenwriters: Dietrich Brueggemann, Anna Brueggemann
Producers: Jochen Laube, Leif Alexis, Fabian Maubach
Director of photography: Alexander Sass
Production designer: Klaus-Peter Platten
Costume designer: Bettina Marx
Editor: Vincent Assmann
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 105 minutes.