Film & TV

“I think film is for forming a connection with people. It’s a spiritual thing” – Talking With Director Dietrich Brüggemann

German-born director Dietrich Brüggemann’s fourth feature, Stations of the Cross, is currently on limited release nationwide. Impact Film & TV spoke to Brüggemann about filming such an unusual structure, casting the brilliant Lea Van Acken and shocking mothers…

(Contains Mild Spoilers)

How would you describe the film?

It’s hard to say. I guess you could describe it in many ways. On the one hand, it’s a story about religion and coming of age. It’s about a young girl growing up and dealing with her own individuality. In her particular case, she not only struggles with the usual difficulties of adolescence, but also a very strict religious background. On the other hand, it’s also a story about family itself. It raises questions about what demons we have and how we raise our kids. On a technical level, of course, we use the 14 stations of the cross as an allegory for what happens to Maria, how she follows the path of Jesus.

What was your inspiration for the film?

In the 90s, our approach as a culture was very self-centred and hedonistic, and religion wasn’t talked about much. But then, in the twenty-first century, we had 9/11, and radical atheists like Richard Dawkins, and a very conservative pope, and stories of evangelicalism across America, so religion and fundamentalism were being talked about again and didn’t seem as dead as I thought back in the 90s. Also, I had some childhood experience of religion. When I was a kid, my father took me to a very traditional Catholic congregational church. And all these things went around in my head and led to the idea for the film.


Picture Credit: Stations of the Cross / UFA Fiction

Lea Van Acken’s performance as Maria is extraordinary. How did you find working with her?

The main task was finding her! After that it was actually very easy. I mean, at first we saw it as the traditional story of casting calls with thousands of kids, like Preminger’s casting calls on Joan of Arc or something, but we also went through all the usual agencies and there she was. On the first day of casting, she walked in and she was amazing, and I thought ‘This is way too easy! It should be harder than this!’ but we watched the footage back that night and we had the right person for the part. And then, once we cast her, we just had all the usual stuff of the technicalities of building the scene and directing actors, but once we’d got through that we found ourselves able to let Lea (and the other actors) loose and really feel natural and find their way within the scenes.

“[Lea] walked in and she was amazing, and I thought ‘This is way too easy! It should be harder than this!’”

You decided to shoot the film in 14 single-shot takes. Why did you make this decision and how did it affect filming?

That was actually the first idea I had for the film. I wanted it be almost like a painting so the audience could watch the action freely and decide for themselves where they want to look. This does mean, of course, that my duty as a filmmaker is to make sure everything is there in the shot and that everything works, because there is no cheating – no cutting away or anything that you might usually rely on in the editing process. It forces you to find a truth within what you’re doing and it’s so much different from shooting a film in the more normal way – it’s almost like a completely different art form.

I couldn’t have made the film without taking this decision. If I hadn’t had that idea, I wouldn’t have made this film! Shooting a film like this is actually the most relaxed way to do so. Shooting a normal film, you’re always running late or in a hurry, trying to catch up with the schedule, you never really have the time to explore the scenes. On this film, you just set the camera up and get it rolling and you can enjoy working with the actors. The shoot lasted five or six weeks and we would spend a few days rehearsing a scene, a day filming it, then a few days off for the child actors to rest, and some time in between for dressing the sets, and that made up the shoot.

“It forces you to find a truth within what you’re doing…”

Is there something specific about German culture or identity within the film?

There’s always a national aspect you don’t notice because you’re part of that culture yourself. I do have some distance as I spent some of my childhood in South Africa. I think some classically German characteristics that are present in the film have died out a bit for some people – in terms of the strictness and the particularly German brand of radicalism. German child-rearing is actually very liberal, especially in comparison to France. Having said that, religion does play more of a part in family life in Germany and maybe that’s why the French character in the film finds it hard to grasp the family’s insistence on their religion and their strictness because of that.

Kreuzweg 6-1

Picture Credit: Stations of the Cross / UFA Fiction

There has been much discussion of the film presenting the possibility that Maria is suffering from anorexia, but also that she may be choosing to sacrifice herself to God and that something much more mystical is going on. What are your thoughts?

We tried to invite several explanations for what happens in the film. We didn’t want Maria’s sacrifice and her belief to be in vain. I think there is enough in the film for people to side with Maria whether they believe in her sacrifice and her relationship with God or whether they believe she is suffering with anorexia. But it’s very personal to Maria and her mindset and how the audience interprets that. I think we tried to capture the way Catholicism relies upon people believing that they must always improve and better themselves. It’s almost like we’re not good enough, we don’t have a chance at salvation. To combat this, Maria and her family are stricter and more radical to try to perfect themselves. And Maria absorbs all this. She really sucks it in and listens to all this stuff about sacrifice and giving yourself to God that the priest talks about in the first scene. Maria is, however, stricter with herself than she needs to be and follows this line of Catholicism a bit too much. And we side with her as an audience and as filmmakers. We wanted to give her some triumph within that, though. As much as there is a critique of it, we didn’t want to make a film against religion and blame it for the suffering Maria goes through. Religion can benefit people and give people hope and happiness so why should I disparage that?

What do you want the audience to take away from this film?

Well, that’s a tricky question. It kind of asks for a message and there is a habit among filmmakers to say their films don’t have messages. Michael Haneke said his films raise questions rather than give messages and I think that’s good. But we always have messages, we can’t help it, we just don’t always do a good job of conveying them! I think film is for forming a connection with people. It’s a spiritual thing. It lets us see the world through another person’s eyes and try to make the world make sense. I think film is a great way of addressing our demons. I like the idea of people connecting with the film in this way and seeing themselves in the characters. I overheard someone leaving the film saying they saw themselves in the character of the mother and being a bit shocked by that and so they had to go for a walk and talk to their daughter and say they loved her. So, in a way, they shared a demon with the character of Maria’s mother and they addressed it, which I liked. I think that’s what film is for so I hope people will take that away from this film. I think there’s much joy in it, though, so I hope people do enjoy it, too.

Kreuzweg 11-2

Picture Credit: Stations of the Cross / UFA Fiction

What’s next for you?

I’m actually in the middle of shooting a comedy about Neo-Nazis called Heil!, which is obviously very different to this film! Hopefully that will hit the UK next year. It’s very different but it’s nice to do different things and it should be fun. Hopefully you’ll get to see it.

Jake Leonard

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