“The Passion of the Christ” may have dominated the box office for its first three weeks on American screens, but in Germany the Mel Gibson flick was flattened by a bear.
A mega-hit in the United States, “The Passion” sold less than half as many tickets as the Disney animated film “Brother Bear” during its opening weekend in Germany, with cinema owners complaining about empty seats. The low turnout follows a decision by the German distributor to move up the film’s release there by three weeks in order to capitalize on the box office success in America, where it has pulled in $295 million so far.
The film was also greeted with a decidedly negative joint statement from the leaders of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Germany, the Central Council of German Jews and the Protestant Church of Germany. The statement marked the first official criticism of the movie by a national Catholic bishops conference and the first joint statement of a Jewish community and a national Christian community condemning the film.
Though the film has not been released yet in France, the early response there has been similarly tepid, with the film struggling to even find a distributor until a Tunisian businessman stepped up last week. A representative for the bishops’ conference in France said the organization is waiting to comment until their leaders have had a chance to see the movie.
In both France and Germany, the media have been overwhelmingly negative toward Gibson and his cinematic depiction of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. The relatively inhospitable welcome in those two countries — which have two of the largest Jewish populations in Europe — comes after Jewish communal leaders in various parts of the world expressed fears that the religious epic would incite antisemitism when it was released overseas. But, several observers said, the lackluster European response in those two countries has relatively little to do with attitudes there about Jews, and instead should be understood as a sign of the broader differences between religious and public cultures in America and parts of Europe.
“Europeans are not buying into the religious hype that the film got in America,” said Ed Meza, the Berlin correspondent for Variety Magazine. “It was clear to me from before the film ever came out that the expectations for success here were misplaced.”
For Meza, the prime explanation for the lackluster box office returns in Germany is the film’s graphic violence in depicting the march to Calvary Hill. Whereas Americans have a sensitivity toward nudity that seems prudish in Europe, Meza said, “most Europeans are not going to be as accepting of violence as American viewers, who are more used to the violence on cinema and television.”
The German film board generally pays very close attention to a film’s violent content, and “The Passion” was rated unsuitable for children under 16. Even with parents, children will not be able to get into the film, and a government official for the Christian Social Union party said the age limit for “The Passion” should be “taken very seriously.”
One of the most successful films in Germany last year was Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” which leveled a harsh critique against the culture of violence in American media and entertainment. Reading the early German and French newspaper reviews of “The Passion,” it is hard to escape the impression that Europeans see the film as a sign that Americans want even their religious stories told in the form of violent bloodfests.
Even the German religious leaders turned in a stinging media critique that would have been right at home in Moore’s work. “If the constant presentation of violence in the media continues to go further,” the statement read, “it will end in an unstoppable spiral of barbarity.”
Compounding objections about violence in the film was Gibson’s enlistment of this violence in the name of a devout religiosity that further offends the sensibilities of many in increasingly secular northern Europe — a point that came across in most early press coverage in both Germany and France. One review in the German daily Stuttgarter Zeitung, titled “Mel Gibson’s Fundamentalist Jesus Film,” opened by mockingly declaring, “There is only one truth, there is only one religion, there is only one God.”
The skepticism toward religious zealotry in Germany was the primary explanation for the film’s disappointing performance offered by Peter von der Osten-Sacken, the director of the Center for Christian Jewish Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
“There are not as many evangelical or fanatical religious groups in Germany as there are in America,” von der Osten-Sacken said, “and you see that in those empty seats on the first days.”
The array of criticisms that the film drew in Germany, though, did not drown out concerns about antisemitism. The German religious leaders called the presentation of Jews in the film “dangerous,” and one daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, devoted a lengthy essay to debunking Gibson’s claim that one of his sources for the film – a 19th-century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich — was not antisemitic.
The questions about antisemitism in the film were a natural concern for Germany’s religious groups to tackle because of the country’s World War II-era history. But observers say the joint agreement was only made possible by the differing religious structures in Europe, which are more centralized and hierarchical than the diffuse American system.
“The single institution representing each religion in European countries allows leadership to emerge and take positions and join coalitions,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Eckstein, whose Chicago-based organization has raised money for Israel from evangelical Christians, said the conflict in the United States over “The Passion” highlights an American system that puts an emphasis on allowing every voice to be heard — and loudly — while the relative restraint of German religious leaders reflects their institutional hierarchy.
The Central Council for German Jews did not make a single official remark about the film until the release of the joint statement, on the day of the film’s release in Germany. When the German religious communities did come together, they focused on the easy points of agreement, like their discomfort with the film’s high level of violence and their concern over the movie’s alleged potential to incite antisemitism.
Among European Jewish leaders, there is a widespread perception that the squabbling among American Jewish and Christian groups over the movie helped propel the film’s success in the United States.
“We did not want Gibson to use our disagreement for free advertising,” said Patrick Desbois, the secretary for Jewish-Catholic relations with the French bishops’ conference. “Our strategy has been to stay quiet.”