Matthew Turner spoke to Dietrich Brüggemann, director of German indie, STATIONS OF THE CROSS, which won the Berlinale 2014 SILVER BEAR for Best Script
Where did the idea come from, first of all?
Dietrich Brüggemann (DB): Well, basically out of thin air. I had made a film with a lot of long shots earlier on, it was my graduation film that I made at film school. That principle of the long, steady shot had fascinated me and I always wanted to return to that. And first of all, with Catholicism, we had this episode in my childhood where we actually went to church with this very pious community, so we knew those people. And in some way, over the last few years, religion has had this kind of comeback, like everyone talking about it and fundamentalists in America and even those strong, fierce opponents like Richard Dawkins, they’re all about religion. So that was the thin air where the idea just sprang from, one day, I thought, like, ‘There are fourteen stations of the cross, why not shape a film after that? There should be a main character who follows the main path of Jesus, but actually suffers for religion’. So that was how it happened.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in doing the single shot for those fourteen takes?
DB: Obviously it was a huge challenge for the actors to learn their lines, yes – there was more line-learning than on a usual film. On the other hand, for the actors, it was hugely liberating, because it gave them the opportunity to play out those long scenes without splicing it up into lots of set-ups or repetitions. It was a huge gift to the actors. And the main challenge was to get the writing right, to get the script right, because you can’t fix it in the editing, because you don’t have the opportunity to re-edit the scenes that don’t work [on the page]. So the script has to be in pretty good shape and you really have to know your way around what each scene is about. And yes, the whole dialogue thing, I think that was the main challenge, but that’s fun, that’s something I enjoy doing. And also, the technical process of making the film was so rewarding, in a way, because on a normal film, you’re always in a hurry and you’re always late, because you keep setting up shots and breaking them down and moving on, and it was basically very, very different on a film like this.
What was the highest number of retakes you had to do on any single scene?
DB: I think the highest figure on the slate we had was something like 20. Other scenes were more like 15. With the scenes that were so very, very long, we didn’t do that many takes on those, because they were just too long, you’d get exhausted after a few times. And those scenes where the two kids are acting with each other without any other actors, they required a bit more work, because I had to work more technically on them, telling them where to stand and how to do timing, so these typically required a few more takes, but shooting is actually a bit like constant rehearsal, you do it over and over again and you have the camera rolling each time and it’s technically a take, but on the other hand it’s just a rehearsal and each one is a step to perfection and then at some point you get the perfect take, which is very often actually the last one and then you know it and then you can stop.
Am I right in thinking the camera only moves twice in the entire film?
DB: No, actually, it’s three times. It moves from left to right twice and there’s a crane shot that goes up at the end.
I wanted to ask what the significance was of moving the camera from left to right in those two shots?
DB: It could have been from right to left, it was more due to the nature of the locations we shot in. Maybe from left to right is just a more basic way of moving in our culture – it’s the direction we write in, it’s the direction the sun moves in the sky, you always have left-right movements there, so that is the normal way you tend to unfold a story. Like in [inaudible], the character always runs from left to right, so we didn’t want to go against that. Hey, you’ve never seen [inaudible] run from right to left, have you?
Who were your key influences as a director? I’m guessing maybe Dreyer…
DB: Well, Dreyer was an obvious reference for this film. Actually, funnily enough, the films that really influenced me are hugely different from this. So, the one film that really blew me away when I was 20 was Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. That made me want to make films. And then a strong influence for this particular film is the works of Roy Andersson, the Swedish director, who’s not as famous as he deserves to be. I absolutely adore his films, I watch them on my knees and that’s maybe the main tipping point reference for Stations of the Cross. On the other hand, of course, we try to kind of outdo him, by telling an actual story and having even longer shots, you know?
What’s your own relationship with religion?
DB: Well, I’m not really against it. Apart from all the theological stuff and all the voodoo and all the ‘Does God really exist?’ questions, the basic thing I see that are the reasons for people going to church are singing hymns and playing the organ and gathering together, flocking together and supporting each other in a basic, everyday way and what’s wrong with that?
I really liked the complexity of the ending in terms of whether or not you’re religious, the fact that the miracle works, if you like?
DB: Or is it a miracle to start with? I wanted it to be that complex – it’s not even being complex, it’s about encouraging difference and maybe even contradicting expectations.
I wondered if you’d seen a film called Lourdes?
DB: Yeah, I saw that. It’s by Jessica Hausner, an Austrian director. Yeah, of course, I had to watch it before making this one. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, I thought it was okay. I don’t have any strong feelings, at any rate, towards that film.
It just seemed to be playing around in similar ideas with quote-unquote miracles and religious bases for those miracles.
DB: Yeah, it plays around with the same ideas, but it treats its characters in entirely different ways, it’s more like that cold, distant, arthouse stance it takes towards its characters and I’m just not fond of that, you know?
Can we talk briefly about the casting? How did you come to cast Lea van Acken as Maria?
DB: Actually just by following the usual path. When you set out to do a film like this you hear all these stories that people tell you from other films, you know, like, ‘We looked at 5000 people and went to every school in the country’ and I was prepared to do that, of course, but then what you do first is approach the usual agencies and just ask who they have and they had Lea van Acken. She just wanted to act and had left her previous agency and they put her into their files – she hadn’t done anything at that point, it was her first film. And so we ran the first day of casting and we had seven girls to try out that one scene and she was really, really good and she was one of those seven. So in the evening, I was like, ‘This is too easy, now I’m supposed to look at 5000 people and go to every school in the country…’ But it was that easy, actually.
Do you have a favourite scene or moment in the film?
DB: Not really, I like them all. I have a favourite set. All these sets were built on a stage, you know, and my favourite set is the undertaker’s office, because it’s so intimidating. It’s like a nightmare version of an undertaker’s place where all these coffins approach you like the guns of a battleship. And that’s my favourite set and that’s why we didn’t put a picture of that in the publicity stills, because I didn’t want anybody to see that before.
Normally at this point I would ask if you cut anything out that you hated to lose, but I suppose with the structure of the film and the continuous takes, you couldn’t really cut anything out at all?
DB: That undertaker scene I think started maybe two or three lines earlier, there was some kind of exchange that we actually cut and that’s the only cut we made in the film.
What’s your next project?
DB: Oh, well, it’s very very different. It’s probably going to be a comedy about neo-Nazis in Germany. We had this case that went all over the news, maybe not that internationally. It was a huge farce that was going on and someone had to put this in a film. A strong reference for that film is Four Lions, but on the other hand we have a wider scope, so it’s not completely about some neo-Nazi idiots, it’s about a whole country that is too stupid to come to terms with a bunch of stupid neo-Nazis. It’s a bold attempt at doing a 360-degree comedy about all aspects of German society. Well, we’ll try.
And have you left behind the attraction to fixed longshots or will it be similar?
DB: Ah, well, I think I’ll always return to that every once in a while!
STATIONS OF THE CROSS is out on general release on 28 November 2014