The thing about film festivals is that, sometimes, you do end up missing the forest for the trees; there's always "the one that gets away" despite all your best attempts. Such was the case with German director Dietrich Brüggemann's fourth feature: I just couldn't fit it into my Berlin schedule in 2014 despite good words from friends and colleagues, so it's only belatedly, and for what seems to be a confidential local release, that I get to approach it.
The fact that Kreuzweg won the best screenplay prize seems to be one of those bewilderingly diplomatic jury decisions - there's so much more about the film that calls attention to itself before the script, to be honest - and I can understand that the film can seem a bit redundant. I was instantly reminded of two other films about impressionable young girls and their reliance on religion: Camino, Spaniard Javier Fesser's 2008 scathing if sprawling tragic satire about a teenager seeking martyrdom, and 2005's Requiem, German Hans-Joachim Schmid's more measured and affecting exploration of a mentally unstable young woman teetering on the brink of womanhood.
Despite these obvious connections, Mr. Brüggemann's film, inspired apparently by the director's own experience growing up in a purist-conservative Catholic sect, is its own, very impressive beast; it's the film's crisply formalist structure that gives its strength, simultaneously bringing it closer and further to Bruno Dumont territory. Transported by the incredible performance of Lea van Acken, as its title suggests Kreuzweg stages the "Way of the Cross" run by Maria, a high schooler raised in a conservative Catholic sect, as her confirmation ceremony approaches. The oldest of the four Göttler children living in rural Germany, Maria is also usually in the crosshairs of her strict mother's; Mrs. Göttler (an imperious Franziska Weisz) has raised the bar of devotion impossibly high for the 14-year old to be able to clear it, while nobody around will stand up to the mother's unwitting bullying (let alone the ineffectual father).
Aware that the unbalanced family dynamics will never tilt in her favour, Maria realises that only in devoting herself blindly to an idea of sacrifice can she find herself - and the "stations of the cross" meticulously constructed by Mr. Brüggemann render it implacably inexorable. The director, who also scripted with his sister, treats the religious core of the story with enough respect that it does not come across as shrill denunciation or score-setting, but approaches the issue with a light enough touch that religion can be a stand-in for many other things - coming of age is the obvious comparison, as Maria's exacerbated feelings towards religion are the sublimated equivalent of a young head-strong girl's wide-eyed discovery of puppy love or individual rebeliousness.
Constructing Maria's via crucis in tableaux that deliberately invoke religious iconography and underline the way that it has influenced Western imagery over the centuries, Mr. Brüggemann shoots it as long single takes. Kreuzweg is composed of 14 long-take one-shots, one for each "station of the cross", with the camera in a stationary position (only in three of the 14 shots does the camera move), creating not only an alluring formal effect but also underlining in greater ways the film's core message: how can a teenager find her way in a society that fails to recognise her individuality and strives to have her conform to a pre-determined image? Kreuzweg may be dour, wry, demanding, but it's an exceedingly smart, thoughtful, accomplished work, a little gem of a film that neither forces itself intrusively nor calls attention to itself.
Cast Lea van Acken, Franziska Weisz, Florian Stetter, Lucie Aron, Moritz Knapp
Director Dietrich Brüggemann; screenwriters Mr. Brüggemann and Anna Brüggemann; cinematographer Alexander Sass (widescreen, colour); designer Klaus-Peter Platten; costumes Bettina Marx; editor Vincent Assmann; producers Jochen Laube, Leif Alexis and Fabian Maubach; production companies UFA Fiction in co-production with SWR, ARTE and Cine Plus Filmproduktion
screened May 31st 2015, DVD, Lisbon