The high point of many university courses on Christian history occurs with the story of Martin Luther—students are riveted by the intrigue. A reluctant reformer perhaps, Luther accepted the responsibilities thrust upon him when events surrounding his protests veered out of control. As a result, this reluctant priest’s mission led him to take a brave stance at a crucial moment in Christian and Protestant history. Luther’s reluctance did not prevent him from becoming heroic, it propelled him toward greatness. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the movie, Luther—the movie’s reluctance to fully embrace and explore the uncertainties surrounding Luther’s life prevents it from achieving greatness, but only barely. Given the monumental task of portraying the life of Luther; the tumultuous political struggles involving Empire, nation, and church; and the lofty yet corrupt ideals of the sixteenth-century church in a mere two hours, director Eric Till has managed a fine and entertaining movie about Martin Luther, disproving the age-old student protest that history is boring.
Always with films about historical figures, one of the most pressing questions concerns how true the film is to the events as history understands them. Similarly with this film, one could debate, question, and analyze the historicity of the story, but this would be largely fruitless. One could debate whether Luther actually posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Church in Wittenberg or whether he really said, “Here I stand” at Worms. But such elements have to be part of the filmic telling of Luther’s story whether they are historical or legendary, because these and other episodes are so much part of the myth that defines Luther that they are indispensable to the story. Like good myth, these dramatic elements define the truth of Luther’s story whether they are historical or not. One could also debate the historicity of elements of the story such as Luther’s relationship to Hanna, the peasant, or to the events surrounding his relationship to Katharina von Bora. Suffice it to say that Till and the screenplay are largely faithful to the recognized biography of Martin Luther, and the small liberties taken with the story are of little consequence to the plot. The movie faithfully represents the life of Luther up to the point of his marriage and the Augsburg Confession. Because this period covers some twenty five years of the most tumultuous history in Europe, the film by necessity omits too many crucial contextual scenes and events. Thus, its historicity is impaired more from omission than misrepresentation. Finally, perhaps the greatest nod to historical importance comes with the film’s visual sophistication. Beautifully filmed with impressive on-location sites, settings, and intricate costuming, this movie is visually gratifying and educational.
The plot highlights include some of the major events in Luther’s early life. The film opens with Luther cowering in an open field, terrified by the lightning storm that turned his life toward God. The scene is not only effective in setting the biographical context, but also in setting the stage for the life of Luther, a life filled with lightning strikes, near misses, and thunderous upheaval. Luther’s demanding father, tormented confessions, struggles with Satan, and trip to Rome are likewise treated early in the film as seminal moments in Luther’s character and development. However, virtually all of these scenes gloss over the importance these moments had in shaping Luther, and the viewer gets only a bare hint at Luther as a struggling young man, who is unsure, anxiety laden, and depressed. As the movie continues, the familiar elements of the history unfold: Pope Leo X and his effort to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica; John Tetzel’s indulgence peddling; Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses; Luther’s summons to Augsburg; the role of Prince Frederick the Wise; the climatic clash of empire, nation, and church at Worms; Luther’s exile and his translation of the New Testament into German; the Peasant Revolt; Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora; and the Augsburg Confession. It’s all there, more or less where it should be, but for viewers without a pretty solid grounding in the history of the period, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the personal, religious, socio-economic, and political turmoil that gave the Lutheran episode its world-altering impetus. Rather than depth, the movie settles for synopsis, stringing together a series of important events hoping the viewer does not notice crucial omissions and concluding that the Luther story paved the way for religious freedom with scarcely a critical thought allowed for the role of Luther and the events surrounding him.
This lack of depth extends to Luther’s own characterization and leads to the greatest flaw of the movie. While Fiennes does an admirable job of portraying the doubt Luther felt, he is constrained by the screenplay that does not allow him to plumb the depth of pain—emotional and physical—that beset Luther. What made Luther great was not his heroism or his genius; rather, it was his ability to overcome the great depth of depression and anxiety that defined his life and to adopt a public persona that captivated thousands, instilled faith, and was strong enough to stand alone before, nay against, Emperor and Church. Fiennes is perhaps at his best when he portrays Luther lecturing to a class with the charismatic humor and irreverence that added to the reformer’s popularity. But he has little opportunity to develop Luther’s pain—besides a singular mention of his “bowels” and another of being “depressed,” the best glimpse we get of the man’s turmoil comes with a couple of scenes where Luther argues with Satan. One of these scenes, the evening between his successive public appearances at Worms, is particularly successful and is the closest Fiennes comes to portraying Luther’s angst. But the performance falls flat in the next scene when Fiennes delivers the climatic speech of Luther at Worms. When Fiennes quotes the defining words, whether legendary or historical, “Here I stand. I can do no other,” his Luther seems to be saying these words more from resignation of his fate than from the obsessive conviction that defined the man. The scene disappoints; it is anti-climatic and anti-heroic.
This avoidance of Luther’s psychological and physical pain as seminal to his development is symptomatic of the film’s deficient treatment of Luther’s complexity. The film avoids Luther’s possible shortcomings, obsessive behavior, crude language, and sometimes blunt assessments of others. Luther’s harsh words against the peasant rebels is avoided; his egoism unexplored; his equivocations about domestic life not even hinted at in his relationship with Katharina. His weaknesses removed, Luther appears all redeeming. In contrast, Luther’s enemies have no redeeming qualities—they are reduced to evil foils to prop up Luther’s virtue. As a result, Luther comes off too “good looking,” even appearing twentyish as a forty-two-year-old bridegroom. The film borders on hagiography through its characterization of Luther and by reducing most other characters to play the villain or a supportive role to the great reformer. An example here is the sentimental appearance of the peasant Hanna and her child who Luther befriends and supports. His sympathetic demeanor toward the pair contrasts sharply to other church officials who exploit the peasants, as dramatized when Hanna purchases an indulgence for her child. When Luther finds the child’s abandoned crutches in the rubbish following the massacre of peasants, he is moved by the tragedy. The whole episode magnifies Luther’s virtue in contrast to the unscrupulous ecclesia and the murderous civil authorities. However, the film does not explore Luther’s own vituperative works in support of the civil authorities’ efforts to suppress the peasant revolt.
Characterization in the movie then is flawed, reducing Luther’s humanity by focusing only on his virtuous qualities, and diminishing other characters by making them props or foils or by focusing only on their sordid character. Pope Leo X is portrayed as a one-dimensional, delusional power broker intent on slaying the “wild boar” of the church. There is one exception here. Sir Peter Ustinov masterfully portrays Prince Frederick. Ustinov brings humanity, believability, and humor to the role of Frederick. Ustinov’s Frederick is the only one of the protagonists who grasps fully the political realities of the drama, and Ustinov brings this to the forefront with brilliance.
Criticisms of the film aside, this is still a fine movie worth seeing, both for its entertainment and educational value. From an educational standpoint, the film’s decision to settle for breadth at the cost of depth serves viewers well by informing them about Luther’s biography and the Lutheran phase of the Protestant reformation movements.. The politics and human drama are there but submerged, and the theological and ideological intricacies are largely ignored, so it is incumbent to come to the movie armed with some awareness of the history. With this preparation, the film can give visual and aural bones to this important moment in Western history. From an entertainment standpoint, the movie is strong. While the plot is episodic, it is nonetheless clear. And while characters are a bit one dimensional (except for Frederick), the acting is seasoned and sometimes stellar (especially Ustinov, who is brilliant). The staging and costuming are intricate and beautifully done. And although I cannot vouch for the period authenticity, the costuming and appearance of the characters add realism to the film. The result is a beautifully filmed feature that is a visual treat.
The final scrolling appendix to the film before the credits roll references Luther as the champion of religious freedom, one more troubling, uncritical, and hagiographical plug for Luther and the Protestant Reformation in general. There exists little here to suggest that Luther was the reluctant reformer that he appears to have been—and this movie’s reluctance to take up that point prevents it from being the great movie it appears it might have been.
Conrad Ostwalt is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University and Professor of Religion and Culture.