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Actress Johanna Wokalek as Joan
Joan's character conveys a message of female emancipationImage: Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

Pope Joan

October 22, 2009

Released this week, the hotly discussed film "Pope Joan" depicts the life of a German woman who disguises herself as a man and rises through the ranks of the Vatican.


Based on a bestselling novel by American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross, "Pope Joan" (German title: "Die Paepstin") is a film that brings a historical legend to life.

The lead character, Joan, is born to a poor family in the German city of Ingelheim in the early ninth century. Already as a child she rebels against the patriarchal values of her time and learns to read and write against her father's will.

Thirsty for knowledge and for a life beyond traditional gender roles, she decides to pursue an education and, with a bit of luck, manages to secure a place for herself at a cathedral school.

Later on, after the Normans invade her region, she disguises herself as a man in order to seek refuge at a monastery in the town of Fulda, where her talents and knowledge earn her praise and recognition.

Actor John Goodman as Pope Sergius
The movie features Hollywood stars like John GoodmanImage: Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

At this point, the most extraordinary chapter of her life beings to unfold, and she manages to rise through the ranks of the Vatican to become the only female pope in history.

Directed by German director Soenke Wortmann, the film was shot in various locations around Germany and Morocco, which depicts medieval Rome. It features an international cast, including German actress Johanna Wokalek in the role of Joan, and Hollywood star John Goodman as Pope Sergius.

Fact or fiction?

Known mainly from a legend that circulated in the Middle Ages, Joan is a figure whose existence is doubted by many historians and religious scholars. However, actress Johanna Wokalek does not see this as a big issue.

"I don't think it's important if the story is true or not," said Wokalek. "The great thing about a legend is that we'll never find out."

A battle scene from the film
The film is said to not be perfectly historically accurateImage: Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

Despite this legendary status, the film has received some criticism for being not being believable enough. Katharina Grimnitz from "epd Film," a German film magazine, wrote that the film's overt feminist message comes across as a "pure cliche" and a "product of 20th century fantasy."

A certain level of historical inaccuracy has also been noted in the story, with regard to the customs and events of ninth-cetury Europe.

Grimnitz wrote, "Whoever judges the film on historical accuracy won't be able to stop shaking their head." However, she also pointed out that if this aspect is disregarded, the film makes for two and a half hours of good entertainment.


Editor: Kate Bowen

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