How do you solve a problem like Maria’s? She’s a good-hearted girl who only wants to please her domineering mother, her church and, above all, her Lord. Yet Maria has been brought up in the traditions of fanatical fundamentalism, requiring her to carry a cross too heavy for her slender 14-year-old shoulders to bear. When she’s told by her priest that illness is a punishment from God, she decides to live a life of sacrifice in order to heal her mute, possibly autistic brother. What follows is a brilliantly crafted, ultimately shattering portrait of misguided faith in German director Dietrich Brüggemann’s “Stations of the Cross,” the best film I’ve seen at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Filled with uniformly sublime performances, led by Lea van Acken as Maria and Franziska Weisz as her mother, this picture deservedly won the Best Screenplay prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, and is guaranteed to move and provoke audiences wherever it is screened.
Brüggemann spoke with Indie Outlook via e-mail about his film’s audacious structure, unforgettable characters and his own beliefs regarding what constitutes a healthy spiritual life.
Where did the inspiration for this film come from?
My life, basically. When I was 11 years old, we started going to church in a community of the society of St. Pius X. It’s a long story of how it came so far, and after a few years, it faded out the way it had faded in, but I attended confirmation class and served as an altar boy there. Then, growing up, I noticed the whole subject of religion having a big comeback after the largely religion-free nineties. Radical Islam, Christian talk radio all over America, radical atheism, all that made me think: I have a story to tell here.
How did you come up with the idea to stage the film as 14 shots? What sort of challenges did that present?
I had already made my first feature in that way, back in 2006, and a short [embedded below] that went on to some success. Those long, locked-off shots had always been fascinating to me. It’s a way of liberating the spectator’s gaze. The film doesn’t tell you where to look at. You can decide for yourself. The people in the scene form a system of interaction, and you can always observe the whole system. And it’s a merciless way of increasing pressure within the scene. It forces you to get the script not just right, but perfect, as you won’t be able to fix anything in the editing. Shooting a film like this is entirely different from shooting a normal film, to an extent that it nearly feels like a different art form. There’s none of the usual hassle, noise and hurry you get on a normal film set. You just set up the camera and the lights in the morning, technicians can take three hours if they want, then you start shooting, doing the scene again and again, and at some point, everyone joins in that meditational flow—not only the actors, but everybody. It’s like singing in a choir. But of course, there’s also challenges. Each day, you know you’ll have to get an entire chunk of the film right. And working with that three-year old boy was maybe the most challenging thing I ever did, because technically, you just can’t direct a three-year old to act in ten-minute scenes, again and again, without talking. It’s not possible. But somehow, we found the right kid, and it worked.
What was the writing process like with your sister, Anna? Was it your intention to add shades of dark humor to the drama?
Writing a film has two rather distinct elements, at least as it appears to me. The characters and the story are one thing, the dialogue is a different one. When we write together, we do the first part together, then I go off and do the dialogue on my own. And every bit of humour in the film is intentional. I guess we’d all agree that things can be viewed at different perspectives. There’s always a tragic angle, a dramatic angle, a banal angle, a comic angle and probably many more. Most films that want to be taken seriously go to great lengths to avoid the comic angle, which can lead to great films, but always makes me a tad suspicious. I feel that as a filmmaker, it’s your duty to be aware of all those angles. Anyway, my favourite writing handbook (which happens to be a comedy writers’ guide called “The Comic Toolbox”) gives a brilliant definition of comedy as “truth and pain.” I couldn’t agree more.
I think your film warrants comparison to other masterworks such as “Breaking the Waves” and “The White Ribbon.” What films or filmmakers have inspired you throughout your life?
It may sound strange and there might not be a trace of it in “Stations,” but if I had to point my finger at my number one favourite film, that would be Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” Which is actually a textbook example of being aware of all those angles mentioned above. Same goes for my favourite filmmaker right now, which is Roy Andersson from Sweden, who just won the Golden Lion in Venice. I adore all of his recent feature films. I watched them on my knees. Not literally, but spiritually. There is so much wisdom in there, so much humanity and so much brutal honesty. I do adore the sadomodernist masters such as von Trier and Haneke (“sadomodernist” being a term coined by quite an intriguing article in N+1 magazine that I found online), but on the other hand, they are also textbook examples of ruling out the comic angle. I saw “Breaking the Waves” when it came out, didn’t watch it again, but I guess it’s sunken into all our collective cinema DNA and always rings a bell when we make a film like this. I also loved “The White Ribbon,” but I guess it has a much more sociological approach than “Stations,” which is very much the portrait of a family.
How did you go about casting the extraordinary young actress Lea van Acken?
We all know the stories of Preminger finding Jean Seberg among 17.000 candidates, so when you set out to do a film like this, you know the folklore and you’re perfectly prepared to screen-test thousands of actors. But first, of course, you ask the usual agencies. So on the first day of casting, seven girls came, two were remarkable, one of them was Lea, and at night, going through the footage, I felt like: This is way too easy. I’m supposed to go through every school drama group across the nation. But there she was. She hadn’t done any previous film work, she was just perfect.
How did you go about developing the character of the mother, who emerges as quite a tragic figure in her final scene?
I couldn’t be more grateful for that remark, because when the film draws criticism, it’s mostly the mother, because some people think she’s a caricature, and I always reply: Oh no, it’s just the other way round, most films reduce the bandwidth of human behaviour in order to make it accessible within the world of a film, but if you go out there and watch real people (or documentaries), you’ll see an endless supply of real-life caricatures. It’s just about understanding them from within, and when you’ve achieved that, go ahead and put them in a film. So to me, the mother draws mainly from two sources. One being my father in his Catholic phase (which faded out the way it came, as mentioned before), and the other is a specific type of Catholic woman. We all know Catholicism is basically patriarchic, God is Our Father and in families, the father is often god. But then, there’s also those strong-willed, eloquent, intelligent women who would maybe have huge careers if their religion wouldn’t confine them to the family sphere. So they put all that energy in their families (or go and run a monastery as if it was a business). And these women are almost always married to soft, silent men.
How involved was your collaboration with cinematographer Alexander Sass, in regards to finding the perfect angle and knowing when to move the camera?
Alex has been my collaborator from the first shorts we made in film school, back in the year 2000. I sometimes work with other cinematographers on music videos and smaller stuff, but in feature films, we’re basically married. I love his work because it is so subtle and always blends in perfectly with the overall voice of the film. He’s not the kind of cameraman whose work yells, “look at me, I’m great, give me awards,” he just quietly does the right thing. And he’s very involved in staging and blocking the scenes. Those three camera movements, however, were already written in the script, and they just represent three very basic moments of transition.
What are your thoughts regarding fanatical fundamentalism and its impact on the world today?
My thoughts on that are not very original, I’m afraid, and they probably won’t differ much from what you or most of the sensible people in the world think about this. I know that in America, stuff is a bit rougher than over here in Europe, you guys have all these bible-tossing fanatics, and maybe that goes back to America’s birth defect, having been founded by Puritans who thought their country of origin was too liberal. It makes you sick when you think of it, but on the other hand, I do have respect for religious thinking, or the basic idea that there’s Something Out There. Nobody knows if God exists, but church does, and church just means people gathering on a Sunday, singing songs, forming a community, supporting each other. I can’t find anything wrong about that. I guess there’s really only one fundamentalism in the world, it just takes different shapes. Maybe it’s a streak in our nature. All those fundamentalists have similar agendas, ISIS isn’t so far away from what Calvin did in Genève in the 16th century, even if Calvin didn’t chop off that many heads. Anyway, I guess film is not the best medium for delivering messages, it’s more about sharing people’s lives, getting into somebody else’s mind, and touching their heart, even if it’s a fundamentalist mother.
In America, we are currently being inundated with evangelical propaganda films such as “God’s Not Dead” and “Persecuted” depicting conservative Christians being persecuted for their beliefs, which are often less than tolerant of others (particularly their opposition to gay rights).
I haven’t even heard of these films, but maybe I should throw a party and watch them with all my liberal/gay/art-bum/expat/Berlin-underground friends! Sounds like fun! I’m not quite sure if the film represents something that’s actually going on right here, right now. Of course everything always exists everywhere, but we were more interested in a certain basic way of thinking and interacting. I also wouldn’t claim that all strict Christian families are like [the one] in my film. Of course there are also happy ones (but on the other hand, lots of older people, 50 or above, tell me “this film is an exact account of my childhood and youth”). And maybe, that mother touches a side we all have—some people told me after the film that they were horrified of seeing themselves in her. Which was the best compliment I could have thought of. And of course goes back to that “connection” thing I said earlier.
What would you consider to be a healthy spiritual life and what would your advice be to the many Marias of the world?
That would be simple: Run away as fast as you can. But life isn’t that simple. Those many Marias of the world don’t have independent egos that would enable them to leave the family. They don’t exist, they’re anonymous, so to speak. And I guess that’s the real tragedy. So to me, a healthy spiritual life should include some elements that we might just steal from religious communities. Forming a group, a kind of surrogate family, playing music together, singing in a choir, supporting each other, raise kids, see them grow, let them go and go with the flow. That might sound dreadfully hippy, but I believe in it. We have an idiom in German: “Den lieben Gott einen guten Mann sein lassen,” which translates to “let God be a nice guy.” And I think there’s profound wisdom hidden in there. Maybe the only way to win over all those evangelical radicals is showing them that we’re the ones who have more fun. So we should set that in motion and stop being those miserable, depressed, lonely, post-modern Facebook victims. Anyway, when we’ve gotten rid of the fundamentalists, there’ll still be rogue capitalism, corporations suing countries for billions and buying the rights to gravity and the air we breathe. Maybe that’s even the more important frontline. I’ll try to find out and get back to you.