Director Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross (2014) finally arrives on UK cinema screens this week after premiering in the competition strand of this year’s Berlinale where it won a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. It certainly a formally audacious and impressive work that rewards repeat viewings in the awakening of black humour within the rigid tale of a teenage girl whose family are disciples of the fictional Society of St. Paul (which is based on the very much real Society of St. Pius X). Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann and co-scripted with his sister Anna, Stations Of The Cross is the director’s fourth feature film and takes the 12 Stations Of The Cross as the formal questioning of the whole idea of religious fanaticism and familial super structures.
Each station is viewed as a locked off camera shot, with no camera movement. “It was a return to something I had done very early on (Nine Scene), which was hard logistically because at that time in 2005-6 everything was handheld, and the gritty shit video thing was in full swing.” he explained to me when I talked to him around the time of the film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in August. “So I thought why don’t I set the camera up to 10 minutes and get the acting right so it is not boring and all I have to do is the math. So it wasn’t just a logistical decision but an artistic one also because I was always fascinated by that long shot thing, not by the Steadicam show off thing that you always have in American cinema that has been criticised as the ‘macho’ shot. I wanted to explore the still image with people moving inside it. I have no idea where this fascination comes from but it has always been there, this idea of giving the audience the opportunity to decide for themselves where they want to look.”
With that in mind Brüggemann continued, “I always wanted to return to that principle, and after I made two other films in a different way it was time, especially as Cinema is breaking apart into two different continents. There is the art/festival thing and then this commercial/Hollywood thing and those films are getting more and more stupid. So I decided to make a film (which became Stations Of The Cross) that fitted into that art/festival market but without being boring and perpetuating those art house clichés” Obviously religion is always the elephant in the room here and when I mentioned that I had asked Bruno Dumont whether religious fanaticism was a mental illness, I didn’t quite get the answer I was expecting. “That would make it too easy. Sadness is now being called depression that is clinical and an illness.
Brüggemann continues; “Which I think is crap. Religious fanaticism is one of the basic things people apparently do everywhere all the time and I would not define it as being an illness. We need to look at workings of how the mind and human society works and explores that.” The very idea of being understood is perplexing when you strive for complexity though, “It’s a complex phenomenon. Complex means there are several layers of meaning and explanations that might even contradict each other, like in physics when you are addressing the nature of light on the one hand it’s a particle and a wave at the same time, even though that is not supposed to be possible”, Brüggemann explained. How does that relate to your concept of cinema and society? “I think a good film should be complex. Talking about religion and whether there is a God and what is the nature of good and evil in the world is all voodoo. When I see religion I see people going to church, singing hymns and carols, playing the organ, gathering in flocks and supporting each other; so who am I to protest against that? Religion’s basic meaning is community, gathering in a Parish and helping each other out. That is something that is lost in our big city society.”
As he continued I realised that the next question would be one he might not answer but vis-à-vis Station Of The Cross it had to be asked: Are you a believer? There is a pause and then the silence is broken by a sly chuckle. “The best way to answer this is like those jokes where you say: I’m an atheist, but of course Catholic. No, I’m not a believer. Technically I do not believe in God but I do believe in the Holy Spirit”. One of the surprising elements of Stations Of The Cross is the black humour that resides beneath the surface. “That was vital for the film. One of the things I don’t like about contemporary art cinema is it always goes to great lengths to avoid anything that might be funny. I think these films make huge mistakes in doing that because basic acts of human love often have a funny side.
The life of a director of course means you have to act as travelling salesman. On his website Brüggemann writes that his next projects include a comedy about neo-Nazis entitled “Heil” and “Lovely Old Days”, which features three old men catching up on drug abuse. So which is it to be? He takes up my slack and in a laid back manner expands on the premise, “They are both active but we are actively pushing forward with the Nazi thing. In Germany you always have this in the back of your mind and there was this criminal case of Nazis assassinating migrants and the police never getting them. There was so much satire and black comedy in that case that I decided someone should make a film like that. It won’t just be laughing at these people because that will be boring, it will have a wider scope and deal with a 360 degree look at German society where everyone is kind of an idiot.”
I replied that it reminded me of Chris Morris’ Four Lions. “Yes, exactly” he exclaimed. “I saw Four Lions and loved it apart from the camera work, I couldn’t understand why it had to be so shaky. That is one of my top references for the film, one difference is that we are looking at a whole society that is too stupid to deal with a group of Neo-Nazis.” Like his film, Dietrich Brüggemann had been funny, intelligent and what Lars von Trier says all good cinema should be: “like a stone in your shoe.”