Reprinted from the Nov. 2003 issue of Visual Parables.
Rated PG-13 Running time 2 hours 3 min.
Our content rating (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
…the righteous live by their faith.”
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus
Although it is based on John Osborne’s play of the same name, I was glad to see that script writers Bart Gavigan and Camille Thomasson and director Eric Till went beyond the play’s limited range to depict more of the time and place of the Reformation. Beginning with Martin Luther’s terror-filled prayer during a severe lightning storm, “Help me, St. Anne, I’ll become a monk!” the film follows the life of the rare man of whom it can truly be said, “He changed the course of history.” The film gives us a fairly good picture of why Luther succeeded in his reforms, whereas Hus and Wycliffe wound up as martyrs–the rise of German nationalism, fueled by resentment against the flow of their money out of the country to adorn Rome; the invention of the printing press which insured that Luther’s writings would be widely disseminated; the hunger for spiritual knowledge in the face of the barren secularism of so many of the church’s leaders; and the gross corruption of leaders who misused the church’s resources for their own pleasure.
Joseph Fiennes is a bit slender to play Martin Luther, but he is effective as the man riddled with such a sense of guilt that not even his devotion as an Augustinian monk could alleviate it. His church offered him release from his sins through the sacrament of penance, but even when he had confessed his sins, he was fearful that there were others for which the just and angry God would condemn him. His mentor Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) counsels him that he must love God, but Luther cannot bring himself to that point. Worrying about his young monk, after over-hearing his struggles in his cell, and even finding him unconscious from self-flagellation, Staupitz decides that advanced study of the Bible would help his charge. Thus, Luther is sent to Wittenberg, the new university founded by Duke Frederick (Peter Ustinov). It is through his study of Psalms, the epistles of Paul, and the writings of St. Augustine that Luther comes to a fuller understanding of God as a God of love who justifies sinners not because of human good works, but by the once and for all sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. This God he can love.
The young monk earlier had been disillusioned by the pomp and commercialization of the faith he discovered when he was sent to Rome on monastery business. Like so many scholars of the day, he came to recognize the need for moral reform, but soon he sees the need for doctrinal reform as well. A German prelate, Archbishop Albert of Mainz, wants to add another diocese to his holdings. This entails paying the Pope a larger than usual sum of money because it was irregular for a man to be bishop of two territories. He borrows the money from the German banker, and to pay it back, he is granted the license by Pope Leo XII (Uwe Ochsenknecht) to sell indulgences in his territory. An indulgence is a papal document that assures the purchaser that he would be released from a specified number of years from the torment of purgatory. The church was believed to be the custodian of the treasury of merits earned by Christ and the saints, and thus the pope, as head of the church, could bestow them upon the less worthy. Although the church taught that purchasing an indulgence was limited to release from purgatory, and not from hell, and their effectiveness in releasing the dead from their penalties was still debatable, the popular notion was that an indulgence was a ticket to heaven,
Thus, when Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina) began selling indulgences near Wittenberg (but in an adjoining duchy), Luther became upset that so many of his flock (he had become a popular preacher at the village church) were going over to buy them. Our justification before God is free, he taught, already purchased by Christ’s blood. He preached against them, and against what he perceived as the superstitious misuse of the relics of the saints. Luther’s sermon against venerating relics reveals the Reformer’s considerable humor, and also shows his boldness in risking the Duke’s displeasure, the nobleman having spent vast sums of money in collecting relics. The larger the collection, the more religious pilgrims (with their money) they would attract. However, the Duke lived up to his surname “The Wise,” being strongly attracted by Luther’s scholarship.
Luther posts his famous, or infamous from his enemies’ standpoint, Ninety-Five Theses on the church door, and unwittingly begins the process we now call the Protestant reformation. The document is quickly copied, printed, and thus spread throughout Germany. The Theses were intended as points for scholars to debate, but many challenged centuries-old traditions, and struck a chord in the minds and hearts of thousands of readers—first in Germany, and then in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and many other lands.
Fortunately for Luther, Duke Frederick was one of those convinced, he refusing to give over his now famous professor to the authorities. Tetzel, and then the scholar Eck, and others, engage Luther in debate, driving the German upstart to espouse far more extreme positions than he originally intended—such as that the pope and councils are not infallible, and that authority for the Christian’s conscience is to be found in the Scriptures, not in the pope. A great emotional climax in the film is Luther’s standing before the Emperor and electors of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms and, after a day’s hesitation, finally making his famous declaration upholding his writings, “Here I stand…”
By now he has been excommunicated by the pope and declared an outlaw. Fearful for his life, Duke Frederick secretly has Luther “kidnapped” during his return journey from the Diet of Worms and taken to Wartburg Castle. Here Luther dresses in civilian clothing and grows a beard while working on his translation of the New Testament into German. Although it is not the first German translation, as the film might lead one to believe, it was the first to rely on the Greek text and not the Latin translation known as the vulgate. And Luther’s style was so superior to anything before that it influenced the development of the German language in a way similar to that of the King James translation would have upon the English tongue a century later.
Luther, although it shows us a very human Reformer, does not show us all of his “warts.” Several years are telescoped together between his return to Wittenberg, where he corrects the radical reforms of Carlstadt, and the chaotic years leading up to the Peasants’ Revolt. Horrified by the chaos created by the hard-pressed peasant, who saw in Luther’s teachings a justification for their rebellion against the unjust feudal system, Luther sided with the nobles and wrote the pamphlet “Against the Murderous and Thieving Rabble of the Peasants” urging them to be put down with the sword. Thus, the scene in which he is shown grieving while surveying the wreckage and dead bodies of a village, is a bit misleading in regards to his position. Luther did sympathize with the original intentions of the peasants to right age-old wrongs, but once they committed to violence, he turned on them, even urging the princes to kill them by the sword. Luther’s teaching that believers must submit to the prince would play into the hands of later tyrants, his fear of the chaos of anarchy being greater than any desire for justice or freedom. Also, the film wisely concludes after the German nobles defy the Emperor at Augsburg and Luther marries Katharina von Bora (Claire Cox). By ending at this point, the filmmakers do not have to deal with the greatest stain on the great Reformer’s reputation, his infamous tract in which he urges the killing of the Jews because they had rejected his purified version of the gospel. Luther’s famous temper got carried away by what he regarded as the stubbornness of the Jews–he thought that now that he had purified the gospel from the errors of the Catholic Church, only the willfully perverse would reject it.
Like all historical films, Luther is better at conveying the feelings of its times than actual facts. The meeting between the elderly Duke Frederick and Luther did not happen (I seem to recall reading that the Elector saw his favorite professor only from a distance), but it is dramatically satisfying, providing us with insights into each of their character. We can say the same about the entire film, weighted of course as it is toward a Protestant interpretation of the times. And, during our own time when the screens are so filled with mindless action flicks, it is so refreshing to encounter a film bristling with theological ideas presented by characters who care passionately about them. The film has been opening in just a few theaters in the larger cities, and it does not stay long, so if you see it playing, do not put off going.
- What forms of commercialization of religion do you see during Luther’s trip to Rome? Go into a Catholic and a Protestant book/religious goods store and see what present forms of commercialization exist. Or read about the recent Beatification in Rome of Mother Theresa and the reaction of the merchants there.
- Luther’s first view of God and Christ was as angry judges condemning sinners to hell. Where do you find a similar view today? How does such a view make you feel? In art books you might view some of the art of the Middle Ages, particularly of how God and Christ are so often depicted—e.g., virtually every church had a sculpted fresco over the main door of Christ the Judge.
- Read over the two Scripture passages cited above and see how they support Luther’s argument.
- What does the scene, in which Duke Frederick receives the pope’s gift of a golden rose, reveal about the nobleman’s character? How is he instrumental in preserving Luther’s safety, and very life?
- What truth does Luther’s words, while he is translating the New Testament, convey about the Scriptures? “The language of the Bible should be like a mother’s talking with her children.”
- What effect did Luther’s marriage have on his friends and his enemies? Do you think that the Roman Catholic Church will ever accept married priests? Is there a place for both married and celibate clergy?
- What have you learned about the Christian faith from the film? The Sunday nearest October 31, the day of Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses has been celebrated in Protestant churches as “Reformation Sunday”—why did some call it “Bash the Catholics Sunday?” How has the observation of this changed since the Second Vatican Council? Do you think we have learned some things for the better? How is it better to cooperate across creedal divides whenever possible while “agreeing to disagree” on some matters?
- For an earlier film about Luther see the 1953 Louis DeRochemont production Martin Luther, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.