Vol 2, Num 20 :: 2003.10.24 — 2003.11.06
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.