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Luther [DVD] (2003)
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Television miniseries about the German Protestant reformer, played by Joseph Fiennes. Enraged by the corruptions of the Catholic Church in the early sixteenth century, in particular the sale of 'Indulgences' as a means of raising money for the Pope, Martin Luther posts his '95 Theses' on the Wittenberg church door. This list of what he sees as necessary changes to be made in the practice of the Catholic faith, ushers in the age of the Reformation and brings Luther's principles into stark conflict with the ruling orthodoxy of the time. Also featuring performances from Alfred Molina and Peter Ustinov.
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When the opening credits revealed that it had been co-produced by a Lutheran financial institution, I was quite wary of the movie possessing possibly a too-heavy religious feel. After all, the story is of a religious figure. I have no formal religious drum to beat, thus I view the film qua film, but such a subject as Luther in itself cannot fail to present an agenda. (In an interview that appears as an extra on my DVD, director Eric Till points out that his film is not for theologians; if it was then it would never have been made as they would still be disagreeing over various aspects.)
So, thankfully, my initial fears were misplaced, since the film takes a predominantly secular and historical perspective as it tells Luther's story. Here we have a preacher battling with himself as well as with the religious hierarchy. This was also a time when religious doctrine had stark political influences. The film cannot help but show the worlds of religion and politics clashing. But it's not helped by the holy soundtrack composed by Richard Harvey.
The film's historical outline is broadly true. It commences in Erfurt in 1507 with the young Luther's holding his first mass. It is an embarrassing moment for all concerned. This is followed by his life-changing trip to Rome. And here we come across one of the historically problematical issues of the film, for the one scene follows upon the other, giving the impression that only a short time separated them when really it was three years.
Another instance of this telescoping effect is Luther's marriage following the death of Pope Leo X; the first happened in 1525, the latter four years earlier. The film ends with the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, where many German princes defy Emperor Charles V.
There are some omissions, such as the burning of Tetzel's counter-theses or of the debate with Eck, but this latter admittedly would only repeat what we already knew. There is no evidence that Frederick of Saxony and Luther ever met, but they do - briefly - in this film. But, as Peter Ustinov points out in his interview, there is equally no evidence that they did not, and their geographical proximity must have given them opportunities. On a separate note, interestingly, the filmed interiors of the churches look almost Lutheran already!
Filmed in Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy, it has high production values and a strong star cast. Joseph Fiennes is Luther; Alfred Molina is Johann Tetzel, the highly-successful Dominican seller of papal indulgences; Peter Ustinov is Prince Frederick of Saxony; Bruno Ganz plays Luther's immediate superior and spiritual guide; Jonathan Firth (Colin's younger brother) is the papal nuncio; whilst Pope Leo X himself is played by Uwe Ochsenknecht.
The extras on my German DVD feature some German-language-only items. However, there are also interviews in English with the director and stars, as well as an unnarrated six-minute behind-the-scenes look at the set, rehearsals, filming, CGI, clothing the extras, and make-up.
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