(Original title: A Return to Grace: Luther’s Life and Legacy )
Not Rated. Running time: c. 1 hour 53 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith;
as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
If you have any interest in the 500th anniversary of the launching of the Protestant Reformation, you will be tuning your TV set to PBS on September 12 to watch director David Batty and writer Mike Trinklein’s docudrama centering on the explosive monk who rocked Western Europe in 1517. This blending of well-staged drama with commentary from numerous scholars and writers, all tied together by narrator Hugh Bonneville (best known for Downton Abbey), works very well.
The excellent cast, headed by veteran actor Padraic Delany as Luther, conveys well the human side of the events, and a veritable classroom full of scholars, writers, and clergy—more than two dozen!—provide more historical and theological details that enhance the viewing experience. Most of the interviewees, each of whom appears several times, are Lutheran, but one of them is Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York. I love it that Dolan points out: Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is in the Catholic Hymnal!
The film covers ground that will be familiar to Protestants who are old enough to remember, years ago, when the Reformation was sometimes was wryly referred to from Protestant pulpits as “Whack the Catholics Sunday.” The topics include Luther’s education in law; his sudden decision during a thunderstorm to enter a monastery; his struggle with his faith in a stern God; his journey to Rome where he saw the church at its most corrupt; his assignment by his mentor Staupitz to teach; his eventual break-through in his Scripture study to the idea of faith alone, and not works, as the path to salvation; his anger at Tetzel’s selling of indulgences; his refusal to recant his beliefs during the dramatic confrontations with the Emperor and prelates; his marriage and family life; and so on and on through a dangerous life of strong opposition to corruption and false doctrines.
Luther’s story is so full and complicated that viewers will learn some new facts about the Reformer’s story. I have never heard, for instance, of the noble woman Argula von Grumbach*, neither in seminary, nor in any of the books about the Reformation that I have read, yet we see her in the film visiting Luther in 1530 and conversing with him on an equal footing. We are told that she was one who advised him to marry. Many of her letters and pamphlets defending the Reformation were widely read, so that her enemies defamed her and ordered her husband to use violence to silence her. What a film could be made about the life of the first woman who dared to write on behalf of the Reformation!
Intriguing too, is the segment about Luther himself tending to the sick during the outbreak of a plague. It was during this period that he wrote his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress” to encourage his people. Although it became known as the anthem of the Reformation, its original purpose was pastoral, not polemical.
The film and the interviewees do not flinch from discussing Luther’s calamitous mistakes. Clearly the filmmakers do not intend to whitewash his character. Though he was from a lower class himself, he sided with the nobles when the oppressed peasants rose in revolt. Of course, it was Duke Frederick the Elector who kept him from the murderous hands of his enemies, so it was understandable that Luther would stand by his protectors.
Of more far reaching consequence is Luther’s denunciation of the Jews in his infamous booklet when they refused to accept his version of the gospel. He wrote that their synagogues should be burned and the people expelled from the country. Thus, Hitler was able to use Luther’s writings in his evil propaganda against the Jews in the 1930s. Modern day Lutheran bodies have all denounced this work of Luther’s, including formal apologies and reconciliation efforts with Jewish groups.
Curiously, the above fascinating 5-minute segment segues into a section asserting the Reformer’s influence on America’s Civil Rights Movement. In 1934 a black Baptist minister was in Germany attending a world Baptist Convention, during which he was so inspired by the various sites related to Martin Luther that he decided to change both his and his five-year-old son’s name from Michael to Martin Luther King. The rest, as they say, is history.
Perhaps most endearing to some viewers will be the domestic scenes that begin with Luther’s marrying the former nun Katharina von Bora, who proved to be a good organizer of the household and staunch supporter of her husband. The couple had six children, and from the way they flock to him when he returns home, their relationship must have been warm. He is grief stricken when his daughter Magdalene sickens and dies at the age of 13, but this experience adds depth to his letters that he writes to others mourning the loss of a loved one. No doubt his own children added to his zeal to spread education among all children, a program in which he included girls. The film alludes to comic book illustrations when we are shown that his famous Catechism included pictures to enhance the young readers’ understanding of Christian teaching.
There is so much to explore in this exciting docudrama, so gather a group together on the night of September 12, tune in to PBS, and prepare for a grand time. This is such an excellent production that if you must be away, be sure to set up a recording of the series. You will not want to miss this production! There are many other good films about Luther available, but for overall educational effectiveness, this tops my list.
*See the Wikipedia article on her, and for a longer piece that includes one of her poems, click onto the first of the “External Links” at the bottom of the Wikipedia article. It seems so shameful that she, like other female church leaders, has been overlooked by historians.
This review with a set of questions will be in the October 2017 issue of VP.