In 814 A.D. Johanna is condemned to life as a woman. Her life seems to be predetermined: work, have children and die young. But Johanna decides to resist - her strict father, the rules of the Church - for the sake of her conviction and her faith. Because she senses that her destiny is a different one, that God is showing her a different path. But the price she will have to pay is a high one.
Johanna attends the cathedral school in Dorstadt and meets Count Gerold, a noble man at the Bishop's court. Their friendship develops into love. When Gerold goes to war, Johanna remembers her destiny. But she cannot achieve her goal as a woman. Johanna makes a decision that will have far-reaching consequences: she joins the Benedictine Monastery at Fulda disguised as a man, calling herself Brother Johannes, and lives there as a successful and well-respected doctor. When her real identity is in danger of being revealed, she flees to Rome. She meets Gerold there again and realises that there is one thing she can no longer deny: her love.
Johanna continues to move up the church hierarchy and the danger of her being found out becomes greater and greater. She also increasingly feels the necessity to decide: does she want to give her heart to God or to a man? But then the decision is taken away from her: when Pope Sergius dies, Johanna is named as his successor. However, her feelings for Gerold are stronger than her fear of being found out - but Johanna's enemies are just waiting for a chance to remove her from the throne …
Her existence was a secret; her name removed from the history books. But the life of Johanna, who led the Catholic Church as Pope Johannes Anglicus in the ninth century, became a legend.
Sönke Wortmann ("Germany: A Summer's Fairy Tale", "The Miracle of Bern") has brought Donna Woolfolk Cross's worldwide bestseller to the big screen as a gripping historical epic. In a long forgotten era, a woman intrepidly fights against bigotry and a religious patriarchy, directed by her faith and tempted by her love. As well as Johanna Wokalek ("The Baader Meinhof Complex"), John Goodman ("Evan Almighty", "The Big Lebowski") as Pope Sergius, David Wenham ("Australia", "300", "Lord of the Rings") as Gerold and Anatole Taubman ("Quantum of Solice") as Johanna's counterpart Anastasius make up an international star cast.
POPE JOAN is a German-Italian-Spanish co-production of Constantin Film production with Medusa Film, Ikiru Films, UFA Filmproduktion und NDR / WDR / SWR / MDR / DEGETO.
The long road from the book to the film
The story of the girl Johanna, whose unique life leads her to the papal throne, has entranced millions of readers all over the world: the novel "Pope Joan", by the American author Donna Woolfolk Cross, became an international bestseller soon after its publication in 1996. It sold more than five million copies, in book and audio book format, in Germany alone; the novel is one of the ten best-selling books in Germany.
"The people here like great historical novels", says Oliver Berben, CEO of Constantin Film Produktion GmbH and producer of POPE JOAN - and counts himself among them: "I read the novel over eight years ago, and found the story so fascinating and exciting that I said straight away - people will want to see this on film!" But the road from book to film was an unusually long one for POPE JOAN - even for such major productions.
Martin Moszkowicz, divisional head of Film and Television at Constantin Film AG, CEO of Constantin Film Produktion and producer of the film: "Constantin Film has a long tradition of successful bestseller adaptations" - films such as "The Name of the Rose", "The House of the Spirits" and "Perfume - The Story of a Murderer". POPE JOAN was developed by Ufa with Volker Schlöndorff. We observed the project, although the rights had already been allocated, and went on board in 2005 when their rights were in danger of expiring."
In order to make sure that the final result would be a film about Pope Joan that the creator of the character would also agree with, Moszkowicz was the first to make contact with Donna Woolfolk Cross and went to visit her in the USA. "I had very good contact to Donna Cross right from the beginning", says Moszkowicz. "She was heavily involved in the script work - with Volker Schlöndorff and Herman Weigel at the time - right from the beginning." He describes the author as "a very intelligent woman who knows exactly what she wants and knows more about the subject matter of the novel than anyone else."
"The fact that she was so involved", Oliver Berben explains, "had absolutely nothing to do with contractual obligations; she is just a person who gave such wonderful support to the project from start to finish."
"It is rarely easy for authors to simply 'give away their baby' and see their story in another medium, but Donna Cross handled this double-edged matter very professionally", says Moszkowicz. He describes her attitude as follows: "If you need me, I'll be there, but if you want to do alone it that's fine by me too!"
Constantin Film has a long, successful history with director Sönke Wortmann, as proved by THE TURBULENT MAN, CAMPUS und THE SUPERWIFE. "Sönke has a somnambulistic instinct", says Moszkowicz. "Him and us - that's one of the most successful co operations in the history of German filmmaking. No matter what the material may be: he knows how to approach it. It's pure instinct with him."
Constantin Film has a long-term cooperation contract with Sönke Wortmann and his production company Little Shark.
After Constantin Film had parted ways with Volker Schlöndorff, Sönke Wortmann and his coauthor Heinrich Hadding took over development of the script. It was clear to them that they wanted to focus not only on Johanna's years in Rome and her time in office as Pope, but also her childhood and youth. Moszkowicz says: "They put all the previous versions of the script to one side and stuck very closely to both the book and the character."
As Oliver Berben says, it was a great bonus to them "that Donna Cross writes in a very scene like fashion", and many passages in the book already had a very cinematic effect without a nyreworking of any kind.
However, Wortmann and Hadding not only used the novel as the basis of their script. Sönke Wortmann says: "I have already researched this very alien era intensively, even though there aren't really all that many sources. There are some centuries in the early Middle Ages that have remained very obscure, but for me the focus was, of course, always on Johanna's exciting story."
Three Johannas and a lot of big names: the cast
The question lurking at the back of the heads of everyone involved since the start had been: Who's going to play Johanna? This character who is so strong yet so contradictory: a woman who summons up the discipline and strength of will to live for years unrecognised as a man and who still has to bow to the power of her love for Count Gerold; a woman whose highest goal is proximity to God and yet learns how to achieve her goals in a most secular way. Such a character requires an actress who can portray both big emotions and fine nuances credibly and who is simultaneously able to carry a film like this. Read more
Make it dirtier! - How the Middle Ages came to life during the shoot
With such an international cast it was clear from the start that the film would have to be made entirely in English. But the difficulties Wortmann had outlined before the shooting started turned out to be minimal: "I always used to say I prefer filming in German because I can try out a whole different line in nuances with the actors; but I have since realised that they understand very well what I want this way too." The actors and the crew had a total of 60 days to negotiate, which took place in Saxony-Anhalt, the Eifel and for a large part of the Rome scenes in Ouarzazate, Morocco.Read more
After the final take
The clapper was closed on POPE JOAN for the last time on 30 November 2008. This then ushered in the post-production period - frequently an extremely long work phase in productions of this magnitude. But this was not the case with POPE JOAN, as Oliver Berben says: "On the contrary, it was really quick. Sönke is a director who 'shoots for the cut', in other words, he has a pretty precise idea of how he would like to have a scene cut - and for a project like this, this is an absolute gift, of course!" Read more
Pope Joan - Legend or Truth?
Pope Joan is a fascinating "mystery of history"-- a story, like King Arthur's, lost in the shrouds of time. Did a woman actually sit on the Throne of St. Peter in the ninth century? It is impossible to prove or refute her existence more than a millennium later. But we can examine some of the evidence for and against her historical existence. Read more
Pope Joan - A legend with longevity
Most people have never heard of Joan the Pope--and those who do believe her story to be legend. Yet her papacy is recorded in over 500 ancient chronicles, including those of such well-known writers as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Platina, the famed papal librarian. Joan's story was included in the Mirabilia Urbis--the official church guidebook used by every pilgrim who visited Rome for hundreds of years. Her statue stood undisputed alongside those of the other Popes in the Cathedral of Siena until 1601, when it was removed by command of Pope Clement VIII.Read more
The Forbidden Street
PRO: In medieval times, papal processions took the shortest and most direct road between the Lateran palace (where Popes resided until the 14th century) and St. Peter's Cathedral. It is on this road (then called the Via Sacra, now called Via San Giovanni) that Joan is said to have died during a papal procession, giving birth to a child. Read more
The Chair Exam
CON: For more than four centuries during the Middle Ages, two chairs with a recess in the seat played a central role in the inauguration of a new Pope. During the ceremony, the Pope received a staff and the keys to the Lateran Palace on the first chair; he would then put them down on the second chair. The chairs still exist - one in the Vatican, one in the Louvre - and the remarkable holes in the seats led to the assumption that these chairs were used to test the new Popes' manhood so that a mishap like the one with Joan would not happen again and neither eunuchs nor women would be able to mount the papal throne. These two chairs were mentioned in the description of the enthronement of Paschalis II in 1099 but not by the later chroniclers, who date Johanna's term of office at exactly this year. Not until the rule of Hadrian VI, from 1522 onwards, was this part of the ritual abolished; and clerics had long before been denying his interpretation as an anatomy test. But the legend that there was always a test for male sexual organs with a new Pope continued long after Hadrian's time in office and was particularly widespread in Protestant writings, whose motives are of course questionable.Read more
Sönke Wortmann (director, script)
Sönke Wortmann, born in Marl in 1959, is one of the most famous and successful German film directors. His most recent films THE MIRACLE OF BERN (2003) and GERMANY: A SUMMER'S FAIRY TALE (2006) were major movie events, each notching up almost four million viewers, and were the talk of the whole country. Wortmann, who graduated from the Münchner Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film and the Royal College of Art in London, had already become well-known with his first film productions ALONE AMONG WOMEN (1991) and LITTLE SHARKS (1992); he then made his ultimate breakthrough with the massive success of the relationship comedy THE TURBULENT MAN with Til Schweiger, Joachim Król and Katja Riemann, which got more than 6.5 million people into cinemas in 1994.
Starting with the Förderpreis Deutscher Film 1991 for his movie debut ALONE AMONG WOMEN, Wortmann has received numerous awards for his work, including German Film Awards for LITTLE SHARKS and THE TURBULENT MAN, Bavarian Film Awards for CAMPUS (1997) and THE MIRACLE OF BERN, and an Adolf Grimme Award for GERMANY: A SUMMER'S FAIRY TALE.
Wortmann is also active as a producer of cinema and TV films with his company Little Shark Entertainment; his productions include Christian Zübert's LAMMBOCK (2001), Isabel Kleefeld's TV drama "Arnies Welt" (2005) and Wolfgang Groos's HANGTIME - KEIN LEICHTES SPIEL, which is coming to cinemas in October 2009.
Heinrich Hadding (script)
Heinrich Hadding, born in Kassel in 1972, went to the USA after finishing school to study film.
He graduated with top grades from Ithaca College in 1997. His final film, "Breaking Dawn", was shown at several film festivals. He has been involved in various functions with Sönke Wortmann's production company Little Shark Entertainment since 2000 and worked on the production team in Wortmann's THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN (2001), THE MIRACLE OF BERN (2003) and GERMANY: A SUMMER'S FAIRY TALE (2006). Hadding wrote scripts for the TV series "Freunde für immer - Das Leben ist rund" (2006) amongst others; he also directed three episodes of the series. In October 2009, HANGTIME - KEIN LEICHTES SPIEL, written by Hadding and Christian Zübert and directed by Wolfgang Groos, is coming to the cinemas. In addition to scriptwriting, Hadding was also Second Unit Director of POPE JOAN.
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