Leading German producer-distributor Constantin Film has fired the Oscar-winning director Volker Schloendorff from the adaptation of the Donna Cross bestseller Pope Joan.

In a letter to Schloendorff, Martin Moszkowicz, member of the Constantin board, wrote that 'it is unfortunately no longer possible for us to make the film together. I have discussed the situation and we unfortunately see ourselves forced to end the collaboration on this project. It is a shame that it had to come to this point - we had tried for a long time to get this difficult project done together.'

Moszkowicz informed Schloendorff that he would receive an 'official letter of termination' from Constantin's legal department shortly.

According to Schloendorff, Constantin's action was the result of an article he had written a week ago in the Munich-based daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the need to have a strict separation between large-scale feature films and TV mini-series. He described it as 'a slap in the face of film history to maintain that by its nature there is no difference between a big feature film and TV mini-series.'

Constantin had been planning Pope Joan in cooperation with UFA Filmproduktion as a theatrical feature film and at the same time was intending to make a two-part version to be shown on television later.

Schloendorff's comments subsequently provoked a public riposte by Constantin defending its two-track production strategy which is also being adopted for two of its other current productions Anonyma - A Woman In Berlin and Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.

Several days later, another article appeared in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, this time from veteran producer Guenter Rohrbach, who is on Constantin Film's supervisory board and is overseeing the production of Anonyma, attacking Schloendorff for his views and claiming that the article had damaged Constantin's reputation.

'I wasn't aware myself how much my comment on a film political issue would be used against me on the level of employment law. Courts should decide whether this is legally correct,' Schloendorff noted at the weekend.

Schloendorff had cast Franka Potente in the lead role as Johanna von Ingelheim, the woman who succeeded in entering the highest ranks of the Roman clergy disguised as a man and was elected Pope in 853. Originally, the project - which has been gestating for the past seven years - had been set to beginning shooting in Bulgaria in May, but was then postponed until next year.