The 15-minute take that opens Stations of the Cross is a stable shot that effectively restages the Last Supper within a small, Bible-study classroom. Father Weber (Florian Stetter) sits in the middle, discussing the sacrifices he expects from his young students, who are all soon to be confirmed by their Catholic church. He speaks of the “demonic rhythms” of pop and rock music, while explaining that teen mags idolize beauty and wealth. Among the recruits is Maria (Lea Van Acken), a 14-year-old who immediately takes Weber’s words to heart; she even stays behind, to ponder with the father if she might be able to make enough sacrifices to get her mute younger brother to speak. The priest unflinchingly commends her for such dedication before leaving the room.
These are virtuoso minutes from director Dietrich Brüggemann’s film, where exposition serves the aesthetic mode and doubles as its dramatic thesis. Brüggemann invites curiosity as to what lies beyond the frame, where strictly dogmatic forms of indoctrination could reach the ear of less impressionable minds. Weber’s logic and rhetoric are convincing, but only in the way that certain ideas ring true when all possible rebuttals have been eliminated from the conversation. Defenseless to such overpowering claims, Maria sees no choice but to take the priest’s words to heart—which she agonizingly dedicates herself to over the film’s remaining runtime.
That agony also manifests in the film’s form. Featuring 14 long takes, Stations of the Cross duplicates its titular reference points, following Maria from condemnation to death to her burial. As an idea, the film is lucid, recasting Christ as a girl belonging to a conservative family in contemporary, southern Germany. Each of the 14 stations finds footing with relation to modern temptations, anchored by a disapproving Mother (Franziska Weisz), who lambasts Maria for her interest in attending a Protestant choir practice that features “demonic basslines.” Mother is also critical of Christian (Moritz Knapp), a young boy who tries to court Maria on seemingly innocent terms. Despite these perceptually harmless pursuits, Maria feels sickened, flustered, and derailed from her path by even entertaining the possibility that she could compromise any of her religion.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about Stations of the Cross is that it isn’t wholly clear whether the film is meant as an allegory for questions of tolerance or should be read straightforwardly as an ascetic parable of Old Testament dedication. By the film’s end, it’s clear that Brüggemann is wholly suspicious of Maria’s deeds as an act of selflessness, despite the fact that she seems to have achieved her desired ends. What’s more interesting to ponder is the former track, especially in a scene where Maria instructs her gym teacher that the music she’s using during class is against her religion. Initially adamant that the music is harmless, the teacher recants once Maria threatens to have her mother speak with the principal, apparently fearing reprimand for triggering Maria. Although the film never uses the word “trigger,” the film’s sense of tolerance based on censorship and restriction inevitably overlaps with such discussions.
Stations of the Cross corrects the errors of Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie remake, primarily because it understands that fitting in, for many contemporary youth, means standing out by attaching oneself to ideological tenets. In essence, Brüggemann ponders whether poststructuralist theory, especially with regard to Roland Barthes’s proclaimed “death of the author,” isn’t ultimately a replication of the imprisoning methodologies it seeks to deconstruct. That is, if meaning is wholly given to Maria in a quest to individuate herself, then how can anyone really criticize her death wish? In other words, Stations of the Cross acknowledges that putting theoretical behaviors and mindsets into practice can have unwieldy consequences if context and intent are wholly ignored. But, Brüggemann seems to ask, how does one determine anything amid claims that nothing can be determined? That question haunts the film, especially the final take, as it’s not certain whether a life has been taken or reclaimed.