I entered the theatre fearing the worst. I saw little reason to expect that a movie being distributed in the mainstream markets would be able to do justice to a character so reviled as Martin Luther. While he is a hero to many, to far more he is a villain – sectarian, racist, arrogant and divisive; a man who tore the Christian world apart and whose legacy remains to this day. I am happy to say that my fears were unfounded. Luther represents the man fairly, portraying him as a reluctant hero and one who, though plagued with doubts about his own abilities, was able to stand firm in the face of fearsome opposition.
The scope of the movie is impressive. It begins in 1505 with a young Luther running and crawling through a field, trying desperately to escape a fierce storm, all the while crying out to Saint Anne to save him. It ends twenty five years later, again with Luther in a field, though this time he is rejoicing, for he has just received the news that Emperor Charles V has given in to the German princes and has allowed Protestantism to survive. The movie ends at the beginning of religious tolerance in Germany.
The initial pace of the move is frantic. We see Luther giving his life to the service of the church and then nervously performing his first mass. We see him wrestling with his sinfulness and with his perception of an angry, vengeful God. He is assigned a task which takes him to Rome and there his disillusionment with the church grows as he sees brothels for priests and finds that the papacy is little more than a money-making institution. The poorest people in society give the little they have to the church to ransom their loved ones from purgatory. At this point the movie begins to slow its pace. After Luther returns home his Father Superior sends him to Wittenberg to study the Bible and it is there that he begins to realize that relics have no value and that indulgences have no Biblical support. He begins to form the theology that would eventually tear him away from the Catholic Church.
From this point on we see him fighting with the church and with his own desire to be an obedient son of the church, but even more to be obedient to the Scriptures which have bound his conscience. Following the Diet of Worms, his popularity explodes among the peasantry. When Luther is whisked away to a safe place by Frederick of Saxony, the Peasant Wars begin and Luther, while first supporting them, soon turns against them. He makes his translation of the Bible in German and eventually meets and marries his wife. The film ends with the meeting at Augsburg where the Princes of Germany reject the papacy and commit to dying rather than submitting again to Roman rule.
While the movie’s scope is one of its strengths, it also introduces a weakness. It is difficult to do justice to twenty five years that are so significant and so filled with tumultuous events in a mere two hours. Through the film we see most of Luther’s most famous moments – the storm that drove him to commit his life to the church, his stand before the Diet of Worms and his constant wrestling with Satan and with himself. Of course we are introduced to Johan Tetzel and his consciousless hawking of indulgences and hear Luther’s biting response. However, several significant events are left out. Strangely, we do not see one of his most well-known incidents where, in deep torment, he threw an ink bottle at Satan. The ink stain remains to this day and is quite a popular tourist attraction.
Perhaps the greatest weakness in the movie is that we see very little of Luther’s theology. This is a strange oversight as Luther was primarily a theologian. We never see him wrestling with Romans and only ever hear one vague presentation of the gospel. No one utters the word “justification.” Similarly, while we hear one of his hymns in the background, we are never introduced to Luther as musician and songwriter. After watching this movie, one would assume that Luther’s stance against Rome was based almost entirely on indulgences. This is much like saying that the U.S. Civil War was fought only over the issue of slavery – it greatly oversimplifies a complex matter. While indulgences were surely a significant factor, there were other important ones that played a critical role. So while the producers did justice to one area, they neglected to give due time to others. Time constraints would have been the determining factor in this, I am sure.
The acting, directing and cinematography are solid throughout the movie and do a great job of transporting the viewer to the sixteenth century. Joseph Fiennes with his Shakespearean training was a great choice to play Luther and does a very good job of showing the emotional torment Luther faced. While the other actors also perform their parts well, I would like to make special mention of Peter Ustinov who portrays Frederick of Saxony. It was wonderful to see his growing concern and admiration for Luther and his disappointment in learning that his massive collection of relics was little more than an idolatrous pursuit. One of the movie’s best moments was seeing his disgust at this collection of useless trinkets. What once was his pride and joy now brought him shame.
The end analysis is that Luther is a good movie and one I highly recommend. I was disappointed that the movie spent little time exploring Luther’s theology, but admittedly theology may not make for interesting movies. However, the movie’s many strengths by far outweigh its weaknesses. We see a man who was in every way human. He fought with Satan, with God, with his church and with himself, but through it all allowed the Scriptures to guide him and set in motion what would soon become the Protestant faith that we so love. All believers owe Luther a debt of gratitude. I walked out of the movie thanking God for raising up such a man rather than allowing us to continue to flounder in spiritual darkness.