Cross is a pointed exercise in religious polemic. Aesthetically, it borrows quite liberally from the works of Austrian auteurs like Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl, ultimately settling on a Roy Andersson style with a Seidl-lite tone. In short, it's very much a stylized, minimalist art film.
As the title suggests, the basic outline mirrors the 14 Stations of the Cross, which represent events from Jesus' passion and death. Each Station is denoted by a title card guiding the central story, wherein 14-year-old Maria (Lea van Acken), a teen living as a fundamentalist Catholic, vows to live a life of sacrifice and purity in an effort to be a saint in the kingdom of heaven. And, as expected of such a film in a modern context, it's clear from the outset that her efforts are destructive in every conceivable way.
The opening sequence, which is a roughly ten-minute static tableau of a Sunday school lesson, features a priest aggressively manipulating the mindset of a room full of teenagers. He speaks of the devil's influence and the horrors that will befall sinners, essentially threatening the children to obey his rules lest death or damnation take them. This style propels the film, save a sequence depicting a religious ceremony that features a slow tracking shot, leaving the audience to scrutinize the limited, single perspective (surely an intentional stylistic metaphor to mirror the solipsistic determination of our misguided protagonist) for minutes at a time while Maria consistently defends her stance or repents for being somewhat attracted to a male classmate.
Initially, Maria's sacrifices and decisions are minor. She refuses to "indulge" in the beauty of the landscape and won't participate in gym activities that involve the "devil's music" (essentially, generic pop), but as Maria continues to operate within the narrow allowance of her religious belief, and is bullied by her obsessive mother (Franziska Weisz), there's an impending sense of tragedy exacerbated by the obvious parallel of Jesus' crucifixion and the painful manner in which her natural teenage urges and attempts to socialize are condemned and vilified.
The primarily conflict stems from Maria's desire to join a regular church choir where they sing soul music. She tells her mother that a female friend invited her — even though it was a male classmate — and tries to justify it by noting that the church occasional sang acceptable hymns. What's devastating to watch, particularly when framed with unrelenting stillness and silence, is the manner in which her mother and church lead her to believe that this desire — a desire to fit in with her classmates and participate in normal development — is demonic. She's chastised and shamed for this basic desire, which leads to more extreme modes of sacrifice on her part.
Brüggemann isn't subtle in his implication that extreme religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse, but he also doesn't need to be. Though his basic framing device of the Stations is initially quite hyperbolic and slyly satirical (and obvious), it works quite well to expose the absurdity of holding onto antiquated beliefs in an informed, modern society. This rather impressive stylistic diversion for the director does exactly what it sets out to, methodically deconstructing the basic tenets of fundamentalism and pointing out their inherent folly.
Particularly in this era, where the desperate need to hold onto increasingly irrelevant traditions is resulting in violence and hate globally, a movie like Stations of the Cross, for all of its bluntness, is not only relevant but vital. Some of the developments could have been a tad more nuanced, sure, but in its minimalist efforts, it succeeds in its aims. It's just a shame that the people that would benefit most from a film like this might simply dismiss it and refuse to watch it.
Also included with the Film Movement DVD release is the short film One Shot, wherein the constructed reality of a short political film is perpetually challenged and modified as actors — all representing various pieties — jump out of character to find various moral reasons to argue and debate the intent of the very work on display. It's intriguing, but ultimately as pretentious and smug as it sounds.