Reflections of a Frustrated Film Consultant

By Scott Hendrix

Princeton Theological Seminary

Originally published in the Sixteenth Century Journal XXXV/3 2004, pp. 811-814. Reprinted with permission.

Luther: Rebel, Genius, Liberator.
Bart Gavigan, Camille Thomasson; directed by Eric Till.
Frankfurt a/M: NFP Teleart with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, 2003; distributed by R. S. Entertainment. Runtime: Germany, 121 min.; U.S., 113 min.


On 26 September 2003, the film Luther: Rebel, Genius, Liberator opened in selected theaters across the United States. Directed by Eric Till, whose credits include Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, the European-based production was shot on location in Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic, and it featured prominent actors like Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick of Saxony. The film attempts to portray Luther's role in the early Reformation in a way that is historically dependable and sufficiently entertaining to compete in the movie marketplace. On the first point it did not satisfy (for details, see the review by Hans Hillerbrand in the 1 November 2003 issue of the Christian Century). On the second, even though the movie entertained most of the people with whom I spoke, its reception has been mixed both in theaters and in the review columns. In Germany, I am told, Luther was the third largest grossing theatrical film of 2003, behind only Finding Nemo and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. In the United States, where postproduction delays and a tight budget limited advance marketing, distribution and audience size varied widely from one region of the country to the other. According to Dennis Clauss, the corporate projects leader at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which sponsored the film, attendance was strong in some markets that are hardly bastions of Lutheranism. At an afternoon showing in New Jersey, however, only five of us were in the theater.

When planning for the film began in 1999, Mr. Clauss contacted Hans Hillerbrand, Robert Kolb, and me and asked us to consult with the scriptwriter about early versions of the screenplay. We agreed to the request and our active involvement, in meetings and individual responses, continued until 2001 when all three of us decided not to continue. We also turned down the offer to appear in the on-screen credits and were not informed about the role played by those scholars whose names did appear. Although we were active consultants in the beginning of the process, we were unwilling to take credit for the script when our criticisms and suggestions for improving it, as far as I could tell (these are my reflections alone), were not taken seriously and not being implemented.

For me the process began early in 2000 when I met the scriptwriter in Princeton and discussed her concept of the story. She emphasized the importance of lively scenes, believable characters, a simple narrative, and dramatic tension. I cautioned against a heroic portrayal of Luther and tried to explain the ways in which historians over the last several decades have enriched our perception of the reformer and of the Reformation. Luther's work as a university teacher and his colleagues in Wittenberg should receive their due. The pope and the Roman theologians should not suffer from caricature. Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther should not dominate the portrayal of Luther's personality or the motives behind his conflict with Rome. Luther's appearance at the Diet of Worms should not be transformed into a courageous stand for individual freedom of conscience. The complexity of Luther's character should become evident but not overshadow the social and political context. Finally, Luther should be set in the larger story of reform and his life after 1530 should not be ignored. I suggested there was plenty of dramatic tension in the fact that the outcome of the German Reformation was very much in doubt when Luther died.

When I read the first draft of the screenplay, I found that little of what I had said seemed to be heard. Like a responsible advisor, I tried harder. I reiterated my points in detail and concluded that if the goal was to present an appealing but still honest and well-rounded picture of Luther, then more of his story and life would have to be told, and a positive concept had to replace what still read like one man's desperate quest for religious certainty and reform. I concentrated on the presentation of Luther because, from the beginning, I agreed that the most important factor to consider was the overall impression left by the film and not the details. To get the impression right, however, I insisted the story should be historically reliable and based on recent research. Four months later, I discussed the screenplay again with the writer and with a veteran of religious films who was also present and remembered the production of the popular 1954 film about Luther. We agreed the new film should be more than an updated version of that heroic tale, and I anticipated the next draft of the script with curiosity and a flicker of optimism.

All this time, Professors Hillerbrand and Kolb had been evaluating the script as well, and in November 2000, Hans Hillerbrand and I met in New York with the writers, Mr. Clauss, and several other people whose exact relationship to the film was unclear to us. At this meeting the veil of politeness was finally lifted and the historians clashed openly with the others over the image of Luther and the concept of reform the film should project. The daylong discussion ended with frustration on all sides and a vague plan to reevaluate the script. Suddenly, in May 2002, after deciding not to continue, we were notified that shooting was underway in Germany and that award-winning figures were acting in the film and responsible for its direction and production. A London-based screenwriter had been hired to embellish the script; he inserted a morality play performed by a troupe of forty professional mimes who were accompanied by symphonic professionals from Berlin using authentic period instruments.

By this time it appeared that the script had completely escaped the influence of historians and I anticipated the opening of the film with dread. Students, colleagues, even church and family members would ask my opinion, and I could think of no reply that would not make me a spoilsport. Even worse, with all its flaws, people already in the know seemed to like the film. Some of the acting was good, at the Diet of Worms Luther said more than "here I stand," the sets were impressive, and the story, even though it broke down after Worms, conveyed some of what was politically at stake. Joseph Fiennes captured Luther's intensity, but while he undermined one stereotype of Luther (my sister-in-law said Luther had to be fat!), he reinforced the other persistent Luther type: the anxious and impulsive reformer. The subtitle of the film, "Rebel, Genius, Liberator," presumably indicates why audiences should care about Luther in the first place, but instead it gives away the main problem with the film that Roger Ebert saw immediately: "Martin Luther's world is ... sanitized, converted into a picturesque movie setting where everyone is a type. The movie follows the movie hat rule: the more corrupt the character, the more absurd his hat. Of course Luther has the monk's shaven tonsure. He's one of those wise guys you find in every class, who knows more than the teacher" (Chicago Sun-Times, 13 September 2003).

Ebert said he did not know what kind of Luther he expected and frankly neither did I. Indeed, it is a complex task to tell the story of a major historical figure in a way that entertains, reliably informs, and convinces viewers that it is important to stay to the end. But I am not a filmmaker. Good films about religious and historical subjects have been made, even though making a movie, like writing history, is an act of interpretation. The process of consulting (frustrating as it was) sharpened that awareness and transferred familiar questions to a larger canvas in a different medium. How much historical detail has to be included in a presentation of the past that serves the purpose of informing and entertaining a public that is largely unacquainted with the story? How many characters and changes of scene can viewers keep track of when they cannot reread a chapter or immediately find information on the web? To what extent can one change or compress the details of a story without distorting the meaning and message that scholarly digging has brought to light? Is historical accuracy the same as historical reliability? These questions confront every historian in the classroom and in the study, but they are much keener when the answers are displayed on the big screen.

In retrospect there appear to be two reasons why we three historians had little impact on the script and its eventual transference onto film. One reason was identified by Mr. Clauss in a reaction to the film that he sent at my request and allowed to be used in these reflections. In spite of his enthusiasm for the production team, he acknowledged that the film was less than first-class and attributed its flaws to the fact that no one was in complete control of the project. In his opinion, the failure "to age and fatten Luther" was an obvious mistake, and important historical scenes that had been scripted were dropped on location owing to cost overruns. Those decisions were made by the production team alone, and Clauss conceded that "control by a production team is frustratingly onerous" because, to sum up his thinking, too many cooks spoil the stew. It may be true, as he suggested, that a process which depends on group consensus does not make the best films and that a single person has to be ruthless about upholding the film's particular vision. Luther, in his opinion, "was less than it could have been" because contracts allowed too many people to have a say and robbed the process of leadership that could have maintained the overall vision. Even if our advice had been well received, its effectiveness may well have been blunted by the complex political and financial undertaking that films become and over which, unlike their own books, historical consultants have no control.

In the case of Luther, however, the vision was unclear or wrong to begin with, and we historians were unable to alter it. The second reason for our lack of influence could have been our own lack of persuasiveness, but I believe the team in New York was unable to understand our objections because they thought the script, and hence the vision of Luther to be presented, were fine from the beginning and that we were clouding a good, clear-cut story (i.e, rebel, genius, liberator) by quibbling about details and calling attention to the complexity of events like the Peasants' Revolt. In reference to the Revolt, one person said to us that it would be easy to portray Luther's role and motivation. By arguing that it was not easy, we were trying to be responsible historians, but either they did not want us to function as professional historians or they did not understand our critical approach to the past. Both were probably true. Instead of questioning the story line and its presentation of Luther on the basis of recent research, they apparently wanted us to affirm their vision and recommend only minor adjustments that would correct or improve their script. In his reaction Mr. Clauss suggested as much when he said he was dismayed to read reviewers' criticism of the story line or acting performances using inaccurate historical perceptions of Luther. To portray Luther as a rebel, genius, and liberator through the particular story line of this film was the accurate historical perception in the minds of the team, and that basic perception, or preconception, was impossible for us to modify.

In the last analysis, we failed to have an impact on the film because we were always responding to someone else's work. Even though we were individually consulted at the beginning, we were not invited to develop a vision for the film based on recent Luther research and our historical perception. I did not expect such an invitation and I am guessing that consultants are never asked to work that way, but now it seems to make more sense to have the writers and production team react to historians than the other way round. Instead of historians reacting to a script in which the writers and the team have become invested, historians could be most useful for proposing what the vision of a particular film should be and then hearing from scriptwriters and producers how feasible it is and how it would have to be modified to make a good film. The primary role of historians should not be to monitor the historical accuracy of a production, although it is essential that distortions be minimized. There is room for creativity in the popular presentation of history since history itself is storytelling that mixes reliable information with interpretation. Since historians themselves are interpreters and shapers of visions of the past, they can consult effectively only if they are engaged in the creation of the vision transmitted by the film.

In the case of Luther, the process has increased my sympathy for writers and producers of historical films and the challenges they face. It would not be easy for three historians to craft the vision for a film about Martin Luther and to sketch the initial storyboard for its realization. At the same time, the experience with this Luther was so frustrating and ineffective that I see no other way for historians, once invited, to exercise worthwhile influence. Certainly, this Luther movie, for all its ability to entertain and bring the era alive, is a missed opportunity to present Luther as the complex religious reformer, thinker, and human being that he was instead of touting him as a rebel, genius, and liberator. Since the new movie was not available as a DVD, I showed part of the 1954 film to my class and found its presentation of Luther at some points more convincing and accurate. Perhaps historians will be able to shape the vision of the next Luther film before another fifty years of Reformation scholarship are wasted.


Dr. Scott H. Hendrix is James Hastings Nichols Professor of Reformation History and Doctrine at Princeton Theological Seminary. His research on the German Reformation has produced articles and books on Martin Luther and the Lutheran confessions.