Suffer the Children: Stations of the Cross

07/07/2015 7:00 AM |
photo courtesy of Film Movement

Stations of the Cross
Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann
July 10-16 at Anthology Film Archives

As narrow-minded as the religious oppression it seeks to condemn, Stations of the Cross masks a lurid fascination with martyrdom behind a façade of empathy. German director Dietrich Brüggemann (who co-wrote the 2014 Berlinale prizewinner with his sister Anna) has fashioned a well-orchestrated exercise in minimalism, but it also an airless and manipulative one which is a shame, really, considering the talent and skill on display.

In a screen debut of remarkable pathos, Lea van Acken plays Maria, an adolescent pressured by the tenets of traditionalist Catholicism and her emotionally abusive mother (Franziska Weisz) to repress all earthly desires and expressions of individuality. This means an interest in boys, popular music, and, ultimately, life. Though continually warned against the sin of suicide, Maria interiorizes Christianity’s deification of self-denial to the point of not only believing she deserves to die, but also that sacrificing herself to God will cure her four year-old brother of muteness.

In a case of thematic sledgehammering, Brüggemann compares Maria’s journey of self-annihilation through starvation to that of Christ by organizing the narrative as fourteen single-shot tableaux, most sans camera movement and each titled according to the original stations. With this conceit Brüggemann makes his film as predictable as Jurassic World. Neither Bressonian nor Bergmanesque, Cross works in a far more exploitative manner by using its structure to predetermine, rather than affect critical distance from, the morbid proceedings.

Stories like Maria’s certainly and unfortunately exist. But Cross avoids any engagement with this topic beyond a stark aesthetic (the color palette is largely desaturated grays and blues) and resigned outlook, communicating little to those already familiar with the crippling psychology of fundamentalism. Rather than study the more pernicious, poisonous manifestations of religion through complex character interactions and displays of resistance, Brüggemann seals Maria’s fate through narrative contrivances: I can excuse the protagonist’s almost complete lack of agency as befitting her character and situation, but the collective failure of her teachers and doctors’ to contact child protective services makes no sense on a legal or medical level. This betrays a desire on the part of the filmmakers to have Maria die for the sake of a pat dramatic conclusion.