Luther is an action-packed drama that takes a piece of ecclesiastical history and puts robust personality to it. Martin Luther of Protestant Reformation significance and fame comes to us as a young man narrowly missed by a bolt of lightning while traveling down a dirt highway in 16th century Germany during a violent thunderstorm. After ushering himself into a Christian monastery to devote himself to God in thanks for his life being spared and not snuffed out by the bolt, Luther struggles with believing that he can be the recipient of Christ’s propitiation (appeasement, conciliation) for the eternal separation between a holy God and a less than holy humanity.
In part to get Luther into a scenic perspective bigger than a monastery cell, fellow monk and adviser, Staupitz, sends Luther to Rome to deliver letters for him. Here, Luther discovers the traffic in supposedly soul-saving Indulgences that purport to trade the monetary purchase price for the freedom of a soul from Purgatory, the spiritual exile land where souls make recompense for their spiritual shortcomings and unconfessed and unrecompensed sins. Luther buys an Indulgence for his grandfather and is deeply troubled by the notion of the validity and truthfulness of Indulgences.
His distress upon returning from Rome and his new-born emphasis in his sermons on God’s love instead of God’s wrath lead Staupitz to recommend another trip—this time to Wittenberg for Luther to study for his doctorate in theology (and you thought university was a new concept…). In Wittenberg Luther advances through his studies to becoming a lecturer, a capacity from within which he ridicules Indulgences and advocates lives that emphasize God’s love, having become more convicted through his studies of God’s love having preeminence over God’s wrath. While teaching at the university in Wittenberg, Luther wrote and publicized in bold fashion—on the Cathedral door—his most important work, Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (1517).
As history attests, the Roman Catholic Church (the original and, at that time, one and only Western Christian church (The Great Schism of 1054 created a Western and Eastern Church)) didn’t take kindly to Luther’s action and less kindly to his Theses which advocate, among other things, justification by faith, an antithetical theological doctrine to the then prevalent doctrine of justification by works—and Indulgences. Since the Roman Catholic Church was none too pleased, two things began. The first was violent attempts to suppress Luther both with physical force and religious force. He would not be subdued. The second was the Protestant Reformation that shook the Western world. The film goes on to show the violence and violent ramifications of Luther’s destruction of world order as known by Western Civilization.
The film Luther is both exciting and entertaining. The scope is huge, moving as it does from monastic beginnings to doctoral studies to university teaching to Ninety-Five Theses to love and marriage to translating the Latin Bible into German, and in places confusing to follow—though always emotionally stirring since Joseph Fiennes does a brilliant job of rendering Luther as vital, spiritual and driven by a quest for truth, while being perfectly supported by Alfred Molina as a seller of Indulgences, and Peter Ustinov as German ruler Frederick the Wise.
Eric Till’s directing is sound as the film goes through one tonal change after another, tonal changes that require an element of unity as being representative of Luther’s unified life. There are distracting problems with the extras (casting by Brigette Rochow)—the many many extras—who from time to time look like they are having far too good a time and clutter the background with degrees of ineptitude, and with the costume design by Ulla Gothe, who had to cloth those many many—many—extras but unfortunately had a limited imagination in the doing of it, thus creating crowd scenes and background scenes of uncanny uniformity reminiscent of a “Star Trek” episode.
Despite these tproduction imperfections, if you haven’t seen Luther, it’s a good DVD for buying or renting. It is entertaining and historically important. It is rated PG-13 for violence and legitimately disturbing images, making it unsuitable for the young children and the squeamish of any age at home. If you haven’t seen it, this may be a good time do so.
Eric Till - Director
Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan – Screenplay Writers
Joseph Fiennes – Martin Luther
Alfred Molina – John Tetzel
Claire Cox – Katharina von Bora
Sir Peter Ustinov – Frederick the Wise
Jonathan Firth – Girolamo Aleander
Bruno Ganz – Johann von Staupitz
Ulla Gothe – Costume Design
Brigitte Rochow – Casting