How Austrians Viewed the Passion of the Christ

By Hodl, Klaus | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

How Austrians Viewed the Passion of the Christ


Hodl, Klaus, Shofar


Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of the Christ hit European movie theatres six weeks after its release in the U.S. By that time, a large segment of the population was already familiar with the content, whether they read film reviews or not. This was due to the fact that all major newspapers covered the controversy in the U.S. over the movies potential antisemitism. The polemics surrounding the film were not paralleled in Europe. It may even be argued that the American reaction to the movie was of more interest to Europeans than the movie itself.

As much as research on the differences in the American and European reception of The Passion might be worthwhile, this article focuses primarily on the Austrian context, with some references to Germany. It is a descriptive study, based on an examination of printed sources, particularly the country's most important newspapers. Magazines or journals dedicated to specific religious, or ethnic groups, such as Jews or Catholics, are not included since they do not have a substantial readership outside their respective communities.

The Passion in Austria

In Austria, the running of Gibson's movie occurred in an overall calm, sedate atmosphere. No fierce debate preceded its release, and no excoriating altercations took place in the weeks it was shown all over the country. This might be explained by the absence of Christian fundamentalists promoting the Passion and, conversely, of decisive attempts by critics of the film to dissuade people from watching it. Minor conflicts, such as a dispute between Klaus Küng, the ultra-orthodox bishop of the Austrian diocese Feldkirch, who recommended the movie, and the director of the Jewish museum in Hohenems, Hanno Loewy, who publicly criticized Küng for this enunciation, did occur.(44) But they were more of local interest and did not have any lasting repercussions.

By and large, Austria's media coverage of the Passion was rather restrained. Although the newspapers reported on American reactions to the film and attempted to elucidate the context in which the various lines of argument were put forward, the counrry's intellectuals and opinion leaders remained largely quiet. This is surprising since the Passion displays images of Jews which correspond to the way many Austrians think. One might have expected the film to encourage a debate on the "guilt of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus." According to the Spring 2004 EUMC-Report on antisemitism in Europe, the Austrian variant is characterised by "diffused and traditional stereotypes."(45) To put it more concretely: the Austrian perception of Jews has its roots in the views found in the Gospels and revived in Gibson's movie. Interviews conducted with people who watched the movie confirm the thesis that the stereotypes of the Jews conveyed by the Passion resemble typical Austrian images of Jews. The interviewees asserted that the movie merely shows "how it happened in reality."(46) But these views were rarely made public and were only scantly reflected by Austrian newspapers. In this sense it could even be argued that most of the media played an"enlightened role" in reviewing the movie from a more complex perspective. Yet, at a closer look it, it appears as though the medias restraint in advocating or even fanning anti-Jewish views was not entirely due to enlightened or ethical motives, but rather because they did not consider antisemitism to be a central issue of the film. This stance, however, could be interpreted as a lack of sensitivity towards this topic.

In order to appraise the media coverage of Gibson's movie in Austria, one first has to understand Austria's "newspaper world." It is important to recognise that there are only two "quality" newspapers, aimed primarily at a national audience. These newspapers don't have to be considerate of foreign readers and/or worry about portraying a "nationalist" view, but may write from an "Austrian perspective. …

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