The Woman Who Sat In Saint Peter’s Chair

Sönke Wortmann’s historical movie Pope Joan deals with the legend of Pope Johannes Anglicus, who allegedly was a woman

David Wenham and Johanna Wokalek in the German production, Pope Joan | Photo: 2009 Constantin Film

After the worldwide success of the Da Vinci Code it was perhaps not surprising that some two million people went to see Sönke Wortmann’s Pope Joan, the story of a woman who may have been the head of the Catholic Church in 9th century. It’s clearly fun to poke holes in the façade of ecclesiastical rectitude.

And with a conservative German pope alienating believers by the thousands, with a tightening of dogma on birth control and the role of women in the church and breathtaking incompetence in the face of the growing sexual abuse scandal, the film’s success seems to sound the retreat of a public going the other way.

Based on Donna Woolfolk Cross’ well-researched novel, the film had been a longtime project of director Volker Schlöndorff. “Actually, it’s a post-feminist Count of Monte Cristo,” he said in 2002. However, after a dispute with the German production company Constantin Film over the movie’s aesthetics, he was replaced by Wortmann, who brought along Burgtheater actress Johanna Wokalek to replace Franka Potente in the leading role.

The opening sequence of the film shows Ancient Rome in 887, as a well-dressed, overly-painted French bishop arrives in the city to enter Joan’s records in the papal archives. This is the frame for a story told in flashback, with the bishop’s voice accompanying the viewer throughout the film. It is a tale we are told, rather than one we witness ourselves, allowing for myth as much as history.

Pope Joan’s story begins in 814 with the birth of a daughter named Johanna to a sadistic and God-fearing village priest (Iain Glen) and his wife (Joerdis Triebel) near Ingelheim, in Franconia, in what is now Bavaria.

Her father teaches his two older sons how to read and write, but bars his daughter, so Johanna convinces her oldest brother to teach her in secret. From her mother, she learns about the medicinal qualities of herbs. A Greek scholar notices her gifts and helps her; later she is allowed to enter school along with her less-talented brother Johannes (Jan-Hendrik Kiefer).

As the only girl, she is not allowed to sit with the boys, but is nonetheless abused, subjected, among other things, to the agony of tar and feathering. Desperate, she finds shelter at the palace of a knight named Gerold (David Wenham) who becomes her close friend and later her lover. When Gerold departs for war against the invading Normans, his jealous wife tries to marry her off, but the wedding is interrupted by the arrival of Norman army, and Johanna is one of the few who survive.

Now she is completely on her own. She binds her breasts and cuts her hair, and is accepted into Fulda Abbey, where her knowledge of medicine earns her respect. Fearful of being discovered, she flees the Abbey and journeys with a group of pilgrims to Rome. Still in disguise, a night spent at the sickbed of Pope Sergius (John Goodman) changes her life again.

It is here, after an hour and a half of what feels like background information, that the film begins to develop some heft: Johanna becomes the Pope’s personal physician and later his confidant.

Luminous throughout, German actress Wokalek, 35, is the anchor of the film. Known for her performances as the female lead in Til Schweiger’s barfuss  (Barefoot) and her role as RAF terrorist Gudrun Ensslin in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex), she’s the one who captures and holds the audience. Her acting alone is worth a trip to the cinema. Her performance is engrossing, powerful, and at times almost overwhelming, yet still charming, subtle and modest at the right moments.

Much in the portrayal is surprising; in contrast to her role in Baader Meinhof portraying a full-blooded, out-spoken revolutionary, here everything is contained. She never raises her voice, for example, remaining soothingly silent, using wise words to solve a problem. Her “Joan,” already Pope Johannes Anglicus, speaks ironically against the argument that the uterus of a curious woman shrinks; the male hubris, at the root of Catholic Church practice, is exposed, and it’s not only the women in the audience who laugh.

Wokalek is also able to create a breathtaking chemistry between characters that makes the insensitivity of other actors less noticeable. David Wenham acquits himself adequately, but the intensity coming from Wokalek only goes one way. Every gesture of physical closeness from Wenham appears unnatural, almost embarrassing. The first kiss in a creek bed is touching because of Wokalek’s emotions, Wenham is as cold as ice.

Wokalek in short, is perfectly cast, fully human with an iron self-control that makes the story credible. Her face – her eyes, particularly – and emotionality carry the movie. Many almost wordless scenes rely on her expressions alone. This is shown perhaps most clearly in a scene where Johanna is forced to face her father again after years in the abbey.

When he realizes he is talking not to his son, but to his “depraved” daughter, he suffers a heart attack. Johanna holds his hand as she watches the man who never believed in her dying, and the relief, sadness and apathy are apparent in her face. It is a masterful performance, one that makes it hard to imagine another actress in the German-speaking world who could equal her.

The jury is still out as to whether John Goodman as Pope Sergius was a refreshing character choice or triumphantly miscast, especially when he throws out lines like, “The pain! I can’t bear it! More wine!” However, the scenes in Rome are more inventive, visually independent and appealing. The make-up and costumes are successfully authentic, though Joan as the Pope would have looked less intrusive without the white paint on her face. But in the past, paleness used to imply aristocracy, so the choice was justified.

Voice-over narrators help ease transitions in a movie, bridging gaps the director was unable to show. However, it is difficult to transform 500 pages of a book into a movie without putting the audience to sleep.

The narration here is spliced with dramatic scenes, like the powerful birth sequence, a now familiar element, but nonetheless valid; a midwife saving the lives of a child and its mother in a dark, small hut.

Afterwards the father can be seen in the foreground – his character, although central to the story, stays one-dimensional. He is simply a villain and the viewer concentrates all hate on him. But he never becomes human – just a conservative village pastor who supports his sons; his daughter isn’t worth any effort.

When she is caught reading a Greek book by her father, he forces her to destroy it. When she refuses, her father lashes her with a whip, a pain she accepts. She flees; he can’t harm her anymore.

Pope Joan is the story of an emancipated woman in the Middle Ages. More importantly, perhaps, it is also a story of the Catholic Church, and the masks and denial that have been central to its power – still relatively new territory for western audiences.

There are tawdry moments a blockbuster can’t resist – but that would be giving it all away. You’ll have to go see for yourself.

Ultimately, Sönke Wortmann has succeeded in making the legend of a woman in the Chair of Saint Peter believable, largely due to an extraordinary performance by Johanna Wokalek. The mass scenes are old-fashioned but lovely, the intrigues in Rome possibly less malicious and the Middle Ages tidier that they really were.


Pope Joan (2009) directed by Sönke Wortmann with Johanna Wokalek, David Wenham and John Goodman is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

For an accompanying book review of Pope Joan, see TVR May 2010 here.

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