Jesus is condemned to death. As he dies on the cross, his army of warriors arise, ready to fight for king, country, and family. Their job in the never-ending battle of good and evil is to save souls by teaching the virtue of sacrifice; to reject modernistic sin. In rural Germany, Maria (Lee van Acken) belongs to a devout church who says a young girl like her should shun “harmful films… teen magazines… satanic, rhythmic music”. She is a willing warrior, but one carrying a great burden. Maria strives for divine intervention so her autistic brother, Thomas (Georg Wesch) can speak for the first time. She figures, since she thinks she struggles with normal teenage preoccupations like vanity and lust anyway, the ultimate sacrifice will prove her sanctity.
A perceived test arrives as she encounters a well-meaning boy named Christian (Moritz Knapp) in the school library. A man sat in the background constantly shushes them – is this God warning Maria, or just typical of the oppression she faces in her day-to-day life? Christian invites her to choir practice. Already deprived of friends as everybody at school finds her weird, she cautiously proceeds, believing it could be a wholesome way of meeting her own kind. However, when Maria talks to her mother Mother (Franziska Weisz) and mentions the choir sings gospel and soul, the scolding she receives reduces her to tears. Perhaps it was a warning from God, and this willful ignorance has cast Maria further away from the miracle she seeks.
So Maria starves herself to death. She does it subtly enough that even the viewer does not see anything wrong until she faints at the Confirmation ceremony. Take the scene in which she reveals to Mother at the kitchen table how she lied about the gender of her “new friend” Christian, and all the sinful insinuations of a boy and a girl hanging out with each other. Maria times it so she avoids eating dinner, and no one notices because her revelation deflects attention onto Mother’s dominance over the household. The film avoids Maria’s slide into anorexia by concentrating on her desire to appease Mother. It is assumed Mother’s religion – a fictional branch of Catholicism known as the Society of St Paul – has been imposed on the rest of the family. Father (Klaus Michael Kamp) stays silent and passive, while Maria’s sole source of warmth comes from her more liberal matron, Bernadette (Lucie Aron). Mother’s beliefs and the pressure of raising four kids results in her interpreting scripture in a cynical way. She readily accuses Maria’s every action as immoral, yet ridicules the suggestion God made Thomas mute for a holy purpose. Mother is not necessarily villainous, but her unblinking nature makes the viewer uncomfortable, as though we are trapped in the same box as Maria.
It is assumed Mother’s religion – a fictional branch of Catholicism known as the Society of St Paul – has been imposed on the rest of the family. Father (Klaus Michael Kamp) stays silent and passive, while Maria’s sole source of warmth comes from her more liberal matron, Bernadette (Lucie Aron). Mother’s beliefs and the pressure of raising four kids results in her interpreting scripture in a cynical way. She readily accuses Maria’s every action as immoral, yet ridicules the suggestion God made Thomas mute for a holy purpose. Mother is not necessarily villainous, but her unblinking nature makes the viewer uncomfortable, as though we are trapped in the same box as Maria.
Stations of the Cross uses a static camera and long takes as reference to the titular fourteen images depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. It also shows the claustrophobia of Maria’s world, always enclosed within confession boxes or pews or in circles of untrustworthy people. The frame tightens deeper into the film, which starkens the shot of Maria lying in a hospital bed. However, Stations of the Cross requires the patience of a saint. Its stylistic choice and average scene lengths of over ten minutes threatens to induce boredom. But like an old alternative comedy routine, Dietrich Brüggemann, deliberately loses the viewer so he can win them back near the punchline. When there is actual camera movement, tracking upwards, during the Confirmation ceremony, it feels as though Maria and the audience have ascended into another plain; rewarded for our faith.
The third act sees Maria’s swift illness and death. She suffers a cardiac arrest in the middle of Viaticum; eating sacramental bread – the body of Christ – sends her into shock. As the priest (Florian Stetter) and Mother watch the nurses fail to resuscitate her, their looks a mixture of despair and acceptance, Thomas suddenly speaks: “Maria”. Stations of the Cross then asks if a miracle took place. Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, does this apply on a spiritual level? Or has Thomas called out for his dying sister due to survival instincts? Taking heed of the earlier suggestion, Mother thinks Maria sacrificed herself for Thomas. God had a bigger plan after all.
For quite a devastating film, Stations of the Cross delivers equally brutal answers. Mother demands at the funeral parlour a white coffin and other spoils befitting of a potential saint. She praises Maria in ways unimaginable when she was alive, all while Father sits behind her saying nothing. The funeral director (Hanns Zischler) soon casts doubt on the entire episode. Mother desperately turns to Father for back-up, and he simply stands up and walks away in disgust. Can a miracle exist if just one person believes it happened?
In the final scene, Christian visits Maria’s grave plot – the ground being dug up by industrial machinery. Her resting place is among several dozen tombstones and crosses rooted to the Earth, next to a vast field and probable burial site for hundreds more. Unlike Jesus Christ, who stands central and so noble in the Stations of the Cross paintings, Maria will be forgotten; her miracle disregarded as mere coincidence. The only saving grace in dying now, apart from no longer suffering such a horrible disease, is her relationship with Christ remains immaculate. Maria left this existence before she turned into her Mother: a warrior without a cause.
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