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"The Passion" Stirs Heated Debate in Germany

DW Staff (nda)
March 17, 2004

The controversial biblical film epic The Passion of the Christ opens in Germany this week. Debate has already begun raging on its violence and message even before the first showing on Thursday.

The film is under fire for being too graphic.Image: Presse

Mel Gibson's controversial film "The Passion of the Christ," the actor-director's blood-soaked account of the last hours of Jesus Christ, opens in Germany on March 18 to audiences above the age of 16. While the German censors have approved the movie for young adults, the content of the film is already beginning to create controversy similar to that generated elsewhere.

The usual suspects have taken up their places on the side of the opposition, just as they have wherever Gibson's religious rollercoaster has rolled into town: church groups, Jewish organizations and concerned social elders in Germany have all started to voice their objections. But while the familiar accusations of anti-Semitism and misinterpretation begin to circulate, one factor that may cause equal debate in Germany is the level of violence, guts and gore.

Germany has strict laws controlling scenes of violence in everything from television shows and films to computer games. Therefore, the question should be: will "The Passion" be too bloody for Germans?

Blood may distract from message

Filmszene Die Passion Christi
Jim Caviezel as Jesus Christ.Image: AP

Representatives of the Catholic Church and the Jewish faith have already criticized the film for its orgiastic blood-letting and the gory representation of the crucifixion in particular. Werner Thissen, the Archbishop of Hamburg, recently went on German morning television to claim that the two-hour long film is so violent that it presents a danger that the spectator who is unfamiliar with the account in the four gospels will "see only the blood while missing the message of redemption."

Thissen said the film was "full of blood and wounds," adding that the cruel and bloody sequences were heavy to endure and had had a profoundly unpleasant effect on him. The Archbishop added that film-goers should not only see "The Passion", but also take time to view the film by the Catholic Church that will accompany it in the cinema program.

On-screen gore accused of pushing boundaries

Filmszene Die Passion Christi
Image: AP

Others have complained that the flagellation and crucifixion of Christ is shown in such gratuitous detail as to set new levels of on-screen brutality, surpassing the scenes of carnage set on the beaches of Normandy seen in Steven Spielberg's World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan" and the seemingly endless, stylized murder in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies.

Jewish author Rafael Seligmann said in on ARD television that he was shaken by the power and inhumanity of the film. Seligmann added that he thought Gibson's film used the biblical message as "an alibi for violence."

However, many viewers, and Mel Gibson himself unsurprisingly, contend that the portrayal is as close to the reality of the events as could possibly be achieved, done so out of authenticity rather than titillation. "I want the audience to feel, to understand what the man Christ went through for us," the director has been quoted as saying.

Jewish argument set for German arena

Filmszene Die Passion Christi Miniquiz 2004
Image: AP

"The Passion" is unlikely to escape the accusations of anti-Semitism when it opens this week in Germany. The charges have been dogging the film since long before it was even released. Jewish groups the worlds over have protested against the film, accusing it of entirely blaming the Jews for the death of Christ.

Michel Friedman, the former vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, made his feelings clear in the Bild Zeitung tabloid recently: "Anti-Semitism in the disguise of a film."

"If young people see this film and take the message from it that the Jews are responsible for the death of Christ then this will have an explosive effect, one that we cannot accept," Friedman said. "This film is an irresponsible step backwards to the Middle Ages."

The Protestant Church in Germany has also criticized "The Passion of the Christ". Peter Steinacker, president of the Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau, said that the film fails to adequately explain the hatred directed at Jesus by the people around him and that indirect anti-Semitic sentiments are contained within the text.

Archbishop refutes anti-Semitism claims

Image: Presse

But Archbishop Thissen does not hold with the critics who claim the film is the anti-Semitic, saying that he was unable to see any anti-Semitic agenda in Gibson's representation of the biblical story. "This is completely incorrect," said the archbishop.

Gibson himself has explained that, through the physical and mental torment experienced by all the characters in the story, it can be clearly seen that everyone is to blame: "The message is not that the Jews or the Romans killed Jesus but we are all responsible."