“Do you think it would be a good idea if Michael Haneke made a film based on a concept by Lars von Trier?”

So writes Michael Sicinski, one of my most reliable sources of discernment and insight on cinema, on Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross.

And I can see his point: Like so many of Haneke’s films, Stations casts us into an hermetically sealed hell, and its impressive long-take scenes turn up the tension to “11.” And, like so many of Von Trier’s films, everything is framed to amplify our sense of the tortures suffered by the central female figure. This whole thing is rigged to make traditionalist Catholic fundamentalism look like a death trap, so that in each scene an icon of innocence and vulnerability is suffocated by the constricting python of the legalistic religiosity in which she is being indoctrinated by her tyrannical Nosferatu of a mother. So yes, there is something extreme and merciless about this script.

Other critics have faulted this film for being preachy and sanctimonious in its attack on religion.

But here’s the thing:

I grew up in a very strict Christian community that preached the satanic influence of secular music’s rhythms; instilled terror in young people over the ways in which hand-holding, short skirts, and dancing could lead to wild sexual abandon; and warned me of the dangers of fraternizing with unbelievers. These were Protestant forms of the same extremism manifested by the Society of St. Pius X here. But all of the pressures applied to poor Maria in this film feel familiar and real to me. My family found a way to embrace Christian faith within that community without adopting the aggressive “condemn the world” stance that many of our fundamentalist neighbors held. But I saw children suffering from the same kinds of extreme tyranny we see here.

The performances ring true to me, even if they are pushed all the way to the edge of parody. Lea van Acken seems born to this play this part: Maria reminds me of more than one girl I knew in school. I remember seeing them strain to distance themselves from more “worldly” girls in our private religious school, and ultimately hating themselves for wishing that they could the freedoms and pleasures that “reckless” girls enjoyed. (Boys had versions of the same conflict, of course; but our patriarchal culture wasn’t as inclined to hold them accountable or punish them.)

While the character of Maria’s mother is depicted as a black hole sucking light and life from her children and then intimidating and bullying those around her (her husband moves like a traumatized resident of a concentration camp), I can testify that I’ve met people just like her. (Franziska Weisz’s performance is effectively terrifying.)

To be honest, I understand her a little too well. I have some experience in drawing stark lines around my own ideas as good and others ideas as evil. As an early teen, I was quick to embrace conservative Christian legalism myself so that I could enjoy the unhealthy but exhilarating energy of exalting my own perceived “rightness” and “goodness” by vigorously condemning anything that offended my strict code. It was a way to mask and repress the alarms going off within me (the voice of conscience, a gift of God) telling me that I was building myself a prison, disobeying Christ’s call to love my enemies, and, worst of all, cutting myself off from the rewards and revelation alive in my neighbors and the world around me.

Having said that, I can’t agree with those who perceive this film to be anti-religious. There are a variety of religious characters in the film, some of whom have found a healthier integration of faith and culture. And viewers need to understand that they are not seeing a representation of contemporary Catholicism (as eloquently expressed by Evan Cogswell, one of my favorite Catholic film critics). What’s more, each image is carefully composed in a painterly manner clearly intended to remind us of great religious art. Consider this image, in which the dynamic between the suffering Maria and her intimidating mother are sized up by a priestly doctor — and note the diagram of an ear on the wall, which seems to be shouting about how much Maria’s troubles needs to be heard.

stations of the cross scene

Now, what to make of the title’s bearing on this film’s ambitious structure, which tries to match Maria’s sufferings with those of Christ? Does it overreach in painting Maria’s responses as the stuff of a saint?

I don’t think it adds anything to the film except to make us even more aware of the artist’s outrage at the injustice being inflicted upon impressionable, insecure children. This feels like a film made in righteous anger. And that kind of anger, too, is one that I’ve experienced. I’ve thrown my share of sanctimonious tirades against legalism in the church, and what happens when Christ’s endorsement of God’s laws turns into a way for people to try and control one another’s behavior. (That impulse was so strong in my early writing about film that I received a smirking but truthful note from reader: “You might be a forceful critic someday if you learn to get over your outrage.”)

Anyway — this is a tangent, but bear with me — I’ve grown into to perceive God’s law differently because of the way that Jesus subtly transforms it, prying it out of the punishing grip of those who would wield it as a tool of judgment and oppression. There’s real relief, joy, and liberation in this: Jesus treats the law as essential, but for what? He shows how the law shines to awaken each individual conscience, expose sin the way an x-ray exposes disease, so that we can endeavor to correct our ways for the sake of becoming more fully and beautifully human. And it shines to show us how we all fall short of fulfilling it — not so that we will despair or hate ourselves, but so we will be gobsmacked by the magnitude of God’s unconditional love for us, and thus experience more joy and gratitude. What’s more, this embrace of the law for self-examination rather than judgment of others will increase our capacity for patience and compassion with one another.

Still — anger and sanctimony, when they become obvious in the design of a work, draw attention to the artist, hurt the work, and invite us to communally hate whoever has offended us. That’s true if it exists in art aimed at religion, or if it comes from religion itself. The imagination that made this film, in portraying the traditionalists the way it does, risks becoming an equal and opposite expression of condemnation. Toward such a zealous fever, I can imagine God speaking in words first imagined by the poet Scott Cairns in his poem “Possible Answers to Prayer”:

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

That sounds like the God of tenderness, forgiveness, and grace that Christ came to reveal. He’s not a tyrant requiring his servants to conform to some suffocating behavioral code. He’s a generous and merciful maker who reveals himself in all kinds of people, all kinds of music, all kinds of pleasure.

All of this is to say that I really get this movie. I know where its motivating anger comes from. It is shining a light on injustice — and rightly so. But it is a harsh and unmerciful light.

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