From The Vault: 2008


by Bettina C. Palomino

Movie Jacket for Luther

Through Luther, writers Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan try to convey the idea that reformation(s) will be neither brought about nor accepted with eager willingness. However; reformation(s) must be sought after through all expenses no matter how large or difficult in order for the human psyche to be at peace.

The film opens in the first decade of the 16th century, when Martin Luther dedicates himself to the Church after he is saved from a severe thunderstorm. In Rome, Luther is witness to the corruption that has become the Church, and after purchasing an Indulgence (a pardon from time spent in purgatory) for his grandfather he is struck with the realization that the Church has deviated from the original path. Upon his return to Germany, Luther is sent to Wittenberg to further his ideas on theology, and he quickly finds favor with Prince Frederick. The Prince’s favoritism of Luther would later be Luther’s saving grace against the Church which wanted nothing more than to burn him for heresy. It is at this moment that Luther begins his questioning of the current practices of the Church and openly rebukes them. Luther spreads his message at Mass, on the streets, and even in the classroom, eventually nailing the 95 Theses to a church door. News of the theses quickly spreads, even as far as Rome, thanks to the printing press. Initially Rome does not take Luther seriously, though; later, threatened with excommunication, Luther and his supporters all but quietly battle Rome for Luther' life and teachings. Through the chaos Luther is able to find love, with Katharina Von Bora, a former nun; together they preach to any willing audience, both young and old. While in hiding, Luther is able to translate the New Testament into German – a task that Rome was desperately trying to avoid. This action alone is the torch that leads the princes of Germany to break openly with Emperor Charles and therefore with the Church - marking the official beginning of the Christian Reformation.

In this 2003 film, the significant events that led to the Christian Reformation of the 16th century are presented in an especially fast paced fashion. Though some might argue that the lack of detail hinders the religious ides that Luther was trying to convey, religious doctrine was not the point of the film; instead it is to guide the audience on a historically accurate sequential journey that led not only to the development of the ideas, but to their acting out as well. Thomasson and Gavigan decided to incorporate a scene in which Luther nails the 95 Theses to a church door. Although this is commonly accepted as fact, some of today’s historians believe that this incident never took place and only survives to romanticize the birth of the Reformation. Whether the nailing did or did not take place is irrelevant; what is important is that the translation of the 95 Theses, and the ideas that it brought with it, made its way across the German empire by December, 1517. The writers also included actual quotations in the film. John Tetzel's (portrayed by Alfred Molina), most infamous quotation made it through the final editing "As soon as coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Luther appears to be an especially accurate film, and while some films compromise between historical accuracy and entertainment, this film achieves success in both fields.

While the movie primarily focuses on historical events, the film does portray the distinct society of the 16th century fairly accurately. The costumes are of the utmost importance in the film. They serve not only to depict a character’s status, but also to indicate occupation as well. Scenery also plays a role in setting the mood and location of events, together creating a believable portrayal of 16th century Germany. One great example of the two complementing each other is the scene entitled “Papal Politics.” In this scene the audience sees the dissimilarity in those attending mass - the nobility, merchants, church pupils, clergy and the lower class are all gathered together in the lavishness of a Catholic Church. Luther’s pristine robe contrasts with the torn and rugged rags of Hanna and Greta. The upper classes are also there, showcasing their lush fabrics, colors, and adornments of gold and silver. Luther fails, however, to show that not all clergy lived in wealth or even in what modern standards would consider to be middle – class. One of the reasons for the call for reformation was the uneducated priests, who were in fact peasants and poor (McKay, Hill, and Buckler 458). Ignoring the numerous examples of illiterate church leaders was an option favored by the Church, and a problem critics quickly noticed. The question then becomes quite clear: How could an uneducated, illiterate man know the Gospels, and be expected to lead and preach to his parish? He could not. Writers Thomasson and Gavigan never once mentioned this in their film, perhaps to further emphasize the Church as the leading antagonist of the film and its power during the 16th century.

The actors selected by casting directors Brigitte Rochow and Lila Trapani, had an especially difficult task of portraying characters that a great percentage of the world community has at least some knowledge about. Director Eric Till envisioned the film to depict two contrasting characters – Luther, as the protagonist and The Church, as the antagonist.

Martin Luther played by Joseph Fiennes, an actor who has been nominated for several awards, most notably for the film Shakespeare in Love, 1999. The film presents Luther as a man who is searching for something to fill a void left by his all but neglectful merchant father. Luther is continually plagued by self destructive thoughts brought on by a fear of God (as presented by the Church). It is during his searching that Luther discovers/realizes his own interpretations of the Word and begins his quest for reformation. Fiennes plays the character so that the audience can actually see the two distinct personalities of Luther. On one hand Luther has to be extremely bold, fervent, and practically fearless. On the other hand, he is frightened, timid, and at times he displays psychological uncertainties. The film itself does not highlight the contrasting personalities, but Fiennes begins the exploration of the subject for the audience to further develop on their own. The Church is presented as being corrupted by money, greed, and the need for a lavish presentation of itself. Martin Luther, theologian, battles what he sees as corruption within the Catholic Church and paves the path for the Christian Reformation. The Church has several characters that it uses as tools to carry out its dealings.

Nominated for his portrayals in Frieda, 2002, Magnolia, 1991, but most notably Spider-Man 2, 2004, Alfred Molina is the most recognizable face in Luther, playing the role of Dominican friar John Tetzel. The corruption of the Church in human form, Tetzel is unapologetic for his selling of Indulgences, stating “as soon a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” The movie implies that he is one of the primary reasons for Luther’s quest. A pioneer of his practice, Tetzel even developed a diagram which depicted the sin and prices for the specific indulgence that would free the sinner (McKay, Hill, and Buckler 458). Uwe Ochsenknecht, of foreign fame, played Pope Leo X. An extravagant man of expensive taste, Pope Leo X originally dismissed the on-goings in Germany. It is his lack of interest in Luther and increasing demand of monetary compensation from the faithful that perpetuate the reformation. Ochsenknecht does a fair job of showcasing the blue blood of Pope Leo X, who came from the Medici family, a Florentine ruling family. Emperor Charles, (Torben Liebrecht,) is played as strong and faithful, who finds himself between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes, when his own country is torn apart by religious fervor. Not much screen time is dedicated to the character, but the audience receives the idea that the emperor is actually a mere puppet of the papacy.

On the other side of the Reformation stand several important characters. Claire Cox is Katharina Von Bora, a “runaway nun,” who sheds her habit in the aftermath of the rebellion against the Roman Church, and marries Luther. Her portrayal is weak in the movie, but her character is important to further define the growing separation between Luther, his followers, and the Church. The marriage between the two is a clear disgrace to the Church. A woman of strong character and not inclined to back down, Von Bora was a devoted wife and mother who reprimanded Luther for his “excessive generosity” (McKay, Hill, and Buckler 458). Peter Ustinov plays Prince Frederick as a dedicated man of God, and a keen, strong minded leader. He was a man who in his years has come to know the monarchy and the Church, and how to manipulate or handle them. Frederick the Wise, as he is referred to, appears to be just that. He is at times the only person of nobility who supports and protects Luther and his ideas. After years of solitude, Luther finally finishes his translation of the Bible and dedicates it to his refuge, Prince Frederick. Ustinov is probably best known to American audiences for his role in Spartacus, for which he won an Oscar in 1961. Georg Spalatin, played by Benjamin Sadler, is secretary to Prince Frederick. Spalatin is a young scholar of great poise and eloquence. He is the Prince’s representative and voice between Luther and Rome. Though he seems to agree with Luther, Spalatin is bound by his devotion to his duty to keep Luther in line and warn him of the consequences to his actions. Later he would be essential to the Luther’s cause, winning over people through his distinguished character traits.

Maria Simon, as Hanna is a poor faithful representing the whole of society. Her lack of education and money is common of 16th century Germany. She is completely vulnerable to the Church and is taken in by its worst aspects. Luther sympathizes with the young mother, and guides her to a new path of devotion. Grete, Hanna’s daughter, can be thought of as a victim of the injustices of society. Here is a defenseless child who instead of being taken in by those who should, is instead shunned, forgotten and murdered. Feeling at least partly responsible, Luther is troubled by her death and she becomes a symbol and a martyr for the Reformation. Simon’s portrayal of Hanna, alongside Doris Prusova, Grete, persuades the audience into believing that they are the Hannas and Gretes of the 21st century; their family is our own family – most of society is not of noble descent.

Released in 2003, Luther has been received quietly by the Christian community. The film has won several awards in the European community, including Best Production Design at the 2004 Bavarian Film Festival (IMDb). The primary problem critics seem to have is the depth of theology that the movie seems to lack. Moira Macdonald of The Seattle Times called Luther “wildly ambitious,” stating that a two hour movie could not capture the revolutionary ideas of the time. Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle, writes that Fiennes as Luther “never quite seems to live and breathe in a world he’s so radically changing.” One must argue, however, that this is a Hollywood film, and although not a blockbuster on any account, it is simply for entertainment purposes only. The mainstream audience will not sit through a three hour movie for a history and theology/doctrine lesson. After all Luther was not nailed to the cross; therefore, Christians might feel no obligation to sit through or spend money on a movie based on his life and teachings. Luther, as presented by writers Thomasson and Gavigan and director Eric Till, is meant to be a “biopic” for the average moviegoer, even if it is “superficial,” as Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times suggests. The movie serves its purpose as proposed by its theme: reformation always has a price, and quite often the price is a human life. The basics of Martin Luther’s career are covered, and historical events are presented with lavish adornments and quotations. If the writers wanted to serve the audience a plate full of “Reformation” they would have done that . However, in doing so, they would have lost over half of the movie going audience. If the viewers would like to know precise details about the Reformation or Martin Luther, they should not be looking towards Hollywood films for educational purposes, but looking instead to their local library – or their child’s history books. Luther presents historical fact after fact in a time-line that is easy to follow while maintaining the audience’s interest, never overwhelming the audience by the theological ideas being argued.

Works Cited

Luther. Prod. Dennis A. Clauss. DVD. Metro Goldwyn Mayer. 2003.

McKay, John P., Hill, Bennett D., Buckler, John. A History of Western Society. 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006.

McDonald, Moira, “’Luther’ compresses reformation in 2 hours.” September 26, 2003. May 9, 2007

Turan, Kenneth. “Luther.” September 26, 2003. May 9, 2007.,2,198968.story?coll=cl-mreview

Winn, Steven. “Luther.” September 26, 2003. May 10, 2007.

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