catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 20 :: 2003.10.24 — 2003.11.06


Luther in Hollywood

From time to time the filmmaking industry wows us with an inspiring celebration of the life of an historical giant. The recent big screen release of the picture Luther

was, unfortunately, not one of those times.

The film chronicles the life of the sixteenth century reformer who was used by God to begin a reformation that would lead to revivals and revolutions that were to shape much of the western world as we know it. It begins with Luther’s promise to become a monk and jumps into his struggles with the Roman church and his failures to satisfy an angry God. Luther is sent to Rome and later to Wittenberg to study theology. We see him begin to question his teachers and when given the opportunity to teach, openly criticize Rome, particularly over the medieval practice of selling indulgences. The film is most enjoyable where it includes Frederick the Wise as Luther’s German protector, meddling in political power games. Luther makes his stand against Rome at the Diet of Worms in 1521 and is forced to go into hiding at Wartburg Castle where he translates the New Testament into German. During Luther’s absence, the enthused peasants turn to violence after a taste of Luther’s rebellion against establishment. The film culminates with creation of the Augsburg confession and a statement of the far-reaching effects of Luther’s life.

Joseph Fiennes cast as the title role is probably the biggest strike against this film. Fiennes is tall and slender. Luther was short, stocky, even fat. Fiennes’ Luther is smaller-than-life, introspective, does not relate well to others. While Luther definitely had inner spiritual struggles that he describes in his books, he was a gregarious individual—a people-person who frequented the pub and had a very earthy sense of humor. While director Eric Till is doubtless trying to avoid a typical formulaic inspirational film, and deal with some of his struggles, Luther’s character feels less than genuine and contrived.

For the most part the character development in the film left much to be desired. The audience is trying to catch up the entire film as Till presses to cover as much ground as possible. Sub-par performances from most of the cast exacerbated this problem. An exception to this was the delightful role played by Peter Ustinov as Frederick the Wise. Ustinov takes liberties here and it is refreshing in the otherwise bland plot.

The filmgoer may be interested to compare the recent feature film with the Oscar-nominated picture on the same subject produced in 1953. It takes on a smaller chunk of Luther’s life, spends more time in character development and feels more authentic as it represents 16th century life. This is surprising because of the huge budget that the recent Luther worked with and the many, many sets and locations which were used.

There are several scenes in Luther which seemed particularly unbelievable. Among these was the stand-up routine berating the Roman Catholic church that he delivered to a class of university students to the chagrin of one of his superiors. Another was the modern day worship setting where Luther walks among the aisles of his congregation like a Baptist pastor. The scene where Luther makes his stand at the Diet of Worms is particularly unconvincing as he makes this great statement, but sounds unsure and somewhat apologetic.

There are other areas of the film that do not capture history well. Luther’s reformation was really a call to the gospel, a re-discovery that salvation is by faith alone. The film portrays the primary struggle as being with corruption in the Roman church, seen most visibly in the sale of indulgences. While this was definitely part of Luther’s ministry, his primary focus was that Christ alone is our salvation, by faith alone. He found this truth while studying the Psalms and Romans for a class he was teaching. It was from this breakthrough that the rest of his ministry grew, including the desire to put the scriptures in the language of the people. The film pays some attention to this, but does not show its centrality to the

While I was very excited to hear that another major motion picture was being made on the life of Luther, it was largely disappointing. It is a shame that so many resources were expended to make a film that is of little enduring value. The acting is subpar, the plot far from engaging, the historical figures inauthentic. Luther leaves its audience much like its protagonist—somewhat confused and less than inspired.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus