Pope Joan (2009)
"Die Päpstin" (original title)

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A woman of English extraction born in the German city of Ingelheim in the ninth century disguises herself as a man and rises through the Vatican ranks.



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Edward Petherbridge ...
Lotte Flack ...
Tigerlily Hutchinson ...
Jördis Triebel ...
Joan's mother


German village Igelheim's backward priest hopes his sons to succeed him after education in the bishop's cathedral school, but the elder succumbs to disease and the youngest lacks any intellectual drive. Traveling teacher Aesculapius arranges for the inquisitive daughter Johanna to be enrolled too, against their father's wishes. Unfit for the boys-only dorm, she gets to stay with count Gerold, incurring his wife's due jealousy. She's to be dismissed, but survives a Viking pillaging slaughter and assumes brother Johannes's identity to join a monastery, where she becomes the infirmary's trainee. Fleeing exposure as female, she arrives in Rome. As a protégée of rivals in the viper nest-like papal court, she ends up elected as pope, but carries count Gerold's baby, guaranteeing exposure. Written by KGF Vissers

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Drama | Romance


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Release Date:

22 October 2009 (Germany)  »

Also Known As:

Pope Joan  »

Box Office


€22,000,000 (estimated)

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Did You Know?


Franka Potente was set to play the title character but had to leave due to scheduling conflicts shortly before filming began. See more »


Johanna von Ingelheim: As for strength of will, women can be viewed as superior to man. Eve ate from the apple out of love of knowledge and learning. Adam ate it only because Eve asked him to.
See more »


Featured in De wereld draait door: Episode #5.139 (2010) See more »

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User Reviews

Boasting a virtuoso lead performance by German actress Johanna Wokalek, this historical epic is engrossing from start to finish
9 August 2010 | by (Singapore) – See all my reviews

This legendary tale of a woman who briefly ascended to the papal throne may be set in the ninth century, but its themes and its subject matter is as relevant now as it was before. In fact, the German-made, English-language "Pope Joan" arrives at a time when the Catholic Church is once again facing calls to allow women to be ordained priests- especially since in the wake of the recent paedophilia scandal in Europe, some point the cause to the Church's insistence on a male, celibate priesthood.

Adapted from the bestseller by Donna Woolfolk Cross, the legend of Pope Joan goes that said woman posed as a man to enter the Benedictine monastery and rose to the favour of the previous pope due to her great intellect and learning. Yet after a reign of a few years, she gave birth to a baby during a papal procession and was torn apart by an angry mob. Whether this is fact or fiction is up to you to decide, though this adaptation which begins with a French bishop arriving in Rome to enter Joan's story in the papal archives wants you to believe its authenticity.

The bishop's dictation frames the flow of the movie, which attempts to chronicle the life of Joan right from the time of her difficult birth to a fundamentalist village priest (Iain Glen) and his Saxon wife (Joerdis Triebel) to the time of her death in front of the Roman crowds. Even from a young age, we learn that Joan possessed extraordinary wisdom and an insatiable crave for knowledge. So despite her misogynistic father's opposition to girls receiving any form of education, she picks up reading and writing and even Scripture itself.

These early years are presented with a bleakness and austerity that effectively, if manipulatively, gets the audience's sympathies firmly with Joan. As her father makes Joan watch him physically abuse her mother for not objecting to Joan's learning of Scripture, and then whips her severely for what he perceives as a grievous offence, it's hard not to root for the brilliant and bright Joan to break free from the chains of her father's misogyny.

But that liberation is not to come till much later, even as the chance visit of a religious teacher marks her initiation into the religious life. Together with her brother Johannes, Joan is sent to study under the bishop of Dorstadt where she meets Gerold (David Wenham), a knight whom the teenage Joan slowly falls in love with. After the invading Norse army ambushes their village while Gerold is away, Joan binds her breasts and trims her hair, beginning her impersonation as her brother Johannes by joining the Fulda Abbey.

Unfolding at a brisk pace, director Soenke Wortmann (of the German hit "The Miracle of Bern") deftly keeps the proceedings taut and the tension palpable, as Joan takes care to conceal her identity. When at the brink of being discovered, Joan journeys to Rome where she is first appointed as a physician to Pope Sergius (John Goodman) and slowly grows to become his personal adviser. After he is murdered by his own courtiers, Joan is chosen by the people of Rome as his successor, her election as Pope a carefully calculated sweet triumph for its audience.

Yet it's not nearly enough for Joan to be Pope, her chance meeting with Gerold igniting her feelings for him and their eventual coupling resulting in her pregnancy. This reviewer must admit first and foremost that this turn of events didn't sit with his personal convictions too well- not for the fact that Pope Joan was female, but for her blatant disregard of the Church's understanding of celibacy. Bearing in mind she was firstly ordained and secondly unwed, should Pope Joan have given in to her feelings and consummated with Gerold? Would such an intelligent woman have acted so callously with little regard of the inevitable consequences? Where art thou would she command any moral authority as the head of the Church? Of course, such is the controversial nature of the legend that has remained hugely debated over the years, but it is inevitable that some audiences will find the material troubling. Nonetheless, it isn't less of a film just because it has chosen to tackle a topic of such divisive nature. Rather, lead actress Johanna Wokalek anchors the movie with an emotionally rousing performance portraying Joan's steeliness and vulnerability in equal measure. Best known for her roles in Til Schweiger's Barfuss and Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex, Wokalek not only looks the part, but plays it with gusto and aplomb.

Yet it's easy to overlook Wokalek's brilliant acting in the film because of its subject matter which, as this reviewer has pointed out, remains as relevant today and therefore disputatious. It's best therefore that one approaches this with an open mind, and if necessary, a piece of fiction- for you will discover that this handsomely mounted historical epic is riveting and rousing from start to finish.

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As a Catholic, I LOVED this book and Catholics need to CHILL OUT hsullivan
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