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Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) stars as martin Luther, the brilliant man of God whose defiant actions changed the world, in his "epic, ravishingly beautiful" (The New York Times) film that traces Luther's extraordinary and exhilarating quest for the people's liberation. Regional princes and the powerful church wield a fast, firm and merciless grip over 16th century Germany. But when Martin Luther issues a shocking challenge to their authority, the people declare him their new leader-and hero. Even when threatened with violent death, Luther refuses to back down, sparking a bloody revolution that shakes the entire continent to its core.
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‘Protestant’ has the word ‘protest’ in it. Luther’s protest was a peasants’ revolt. Power resided in the collective might of the people, not in a slim ruling elite in Rome. The Reformation was a revolt to claim and legitimize this power, the power of the word of God returned to the people, where it belonged. Christ was the humblest of men. He taught in the open air on hilltops, in villages, from the backs of donkeys, not in temples and cathedrals. He wore simple cassocks, not robes with ermine furs, vestments, gold chains and pointy hats. His sermons came from the heart, not from liturgies and rituals. His message was clear and simple, the link to God intimate and personal. No one can know your heart because it’s yours, not theirs. Only God knows what you know. An outsider, the Pope is as ignorant as all the rest. Put your faith in God, not the church. Not even in the emerging Protestant churches, Luther would later say. They are but sanctuaries for personal testament to God, there to support your faith, not exploit it.
The protest of course was also political. If the Pope wanted to build St. Peter’s in Rome and other sumptuous edifices to the glory of the Catholic Church, he could do it with his own coin, not monies taken from the meagre incomes of poor believers through taxes called indulgences. Luther therefore called out the Church of Rome, fingering it as a sort of confidence racket. This was his view, his dangerous assertion, and it ensured he would be a marked man, a radical monk with seditious, heretical ideas who would burn at the stake for his apostasy, as many before him had. But, fateful or not, it was his destiny to survive, to start a chain reaction that would fracture Western civilization, cleaving it in two.
At the Diet of Worms, his public trial in 1521, he refused to recant:
“Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture…I cannot and will not retract [what I have written]…Here I stand. God help me!”
Four years earlier, in 1517, he had hammered his 95 declarations/arguments into the heavy wooden double doors of All Saints’ Church in the town of Wittenberg in Saxony. His demands were written in Latin to the Church of Rome, but they were also meant to be read by the people, so copies were printed in German and widely distributed throughout the town and well beyond.
Right man, right place, right time, aided by the genius of Gutenberg and his printing presses. So this is the way the pieces fall into place through the dubious lens of hindsight. Pope Leo X charged Luther with heresy. Luther responded by breaking with the Catholic faith, publicly denouncing it as corrupt and reactionary. When the written Papal decree of apostasy reached Luther he burned it publicly in the town square. Talk about spoiling for a fight! At this stage Luther was embracing his martyrdom, calling on God’s intervention if it so pleased Him to be merciful. Evidently God took notice. Luther was saved from the flames by influential friends in high places. For instance, Prince Frederick the Wise, founder of the University of Wittenberg, who risked his own life by having his men abduct Luther after the Diet of Worms, allowing Luther to escape and find safe refuge with sympathisers. This suited many German princes who detested the power of Rome. They hated the greed of local bishops whose authority drained their incomes and prevented reform. Reducing or eliminating the power of these parasitic emissaries of the Pope was welcomed by these princes. Game on!
A thunder storm rages as the film opens. Lightning flashes in the blackness of the night. A young man is caught out in the deluge, alone on a muddy country road. He is soaked through. He lies face down and beseeches God, “I’ll become a monk. I’ll give myself to you. Just spare me!”
Whether this truly happened or not (as Luther claimed it did), it’s a good allegory. The year was 1505 and Luther was 22. Thereafter, two years later, we see him as an Augustinian monk in Erfurt under the care of Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s Father Superior. Young Luther is still unsettled, still wrestling with his demons. He hears voices and suffers through fits. Tortured by doubt, he wonders if his own father had been right in telling him to study law, not theology. Is this really his destiny to be a monk? He beseeches God for an answer. He needs to find a proper direction to his life.
Father Johann steadies him. The older man sees his passion and intelligence. He knows great things are possible for Luther if his intellect is properly applied. Father Johann helps give him the strength and confidence to endure, to believe in himself and accept the path he is on instead of dwelling on regrets, his failings and sins. It’s not through self-punishment that one finds enlightenment, but through all the blessings that flow from Christ’s love. This is the lesson Luther learns from Father Johann and it’s a strength and insight that will sustain him through all the turmoil to come. The love of the Saviour will be his strength and armour. He will fight his many enemies with books and ideas, not with swords and other weapons. His triumphs, if there were to be any, would be intellectual, philosophical, theological. He was a warrior of the spirit, not one of the flesh.
His path to Wittenberg was paved by Father Johann. There Luther taught theology at the university. It was also there that his writings on church reform would occur. Earlier as a divinity student he had spent time in Rome as a pilgrim. What he saw there astonished and appalled him. In the film he says this to Father Johann:
“Rome is a circus, a running sewer. You can buy anything: sex, salvation. They have brothels just for clerics.”
Rome comes to Wittenberg in the form of John Tetzel, an emissary from the Vatican. Tetzel’s job is to fill the church’s coffers with monies given for indulgences (penance for sins that can ensure safe passage to Paradise in the afterlife). Whether Tetzel is disingenuous or a true believer we don’t know, but like any present-day Evangelical he’s charismatic and good at attracting money. Good man for the Pope, then.
Luther is incensed. The poor German peasants cannot read the indulgences that are given to them. They are written in Latin, and even in Latin they are vague, virtually meaningless like any horoscope is. Even if the indulgences had been written in German, many of the people would not have understood what they said, as most of the people were poor and illiterate.
Luther’s reforms were launched by the scandal and scam of indulgences. The practice was intolerable to him and had to be stamped out. If it could not be, well then, let’s see where this takes us.
Of course it took him directly onto a collision course with Rome. But Luther was clever and had allies in Germany, especially in Wittenberg. Everyone understood some reforms were needed. A complete break with the Catholic Church had not been envisaged, not even by Luther. But the intransigence of Rome made it inevitable. One thing led to the next, and one of the most important of these was Luther’s translation of the entire New Testament from Latin into vernacular German. It was a work of genius, something never attempted by one man before. For the first time, in their own language, Germans who could read German were able to see what the Scriptures truly said. It was a revelation that changed everything. Copies were printed. The wildfire spread. The Reformation was on and there was nothing Rome could do to stop it anymore.
By the time of the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 the Vatican had essentially conceded defeat. Protestant churches were already flourishing in Germany and fanning out across northern Europe, especially into the Low Countries and Scandinavia. The Reformation was secure. Game over.
The film ends after Augsburg with Luther married to Katharina von Bora, a former nun freed from her vows by the Reformation. Their marriage in 1523 caused further outrage in Rome, but at this stage Luther was past caring. They went on to have six children.
In the new church Luther wrote sermons and hymns and preached. His hymns survive to this day. In fact, as a boy I sang some of them in our local Lutheran Church. The first and only time I sat through a Roman Catholic mass was at age 12 with a neighbourhood friend. I thought I was on another planet surrounded by alien beings and was very glad to return to Earth when the bizarre service ended. Thank you, Martin Luther.
The secular view in our age is modern. Most people who ever lived would not have understood our thinking. They had no science, no way of understanding the composition of the material reality that surrounded them. If we are the beneficiaries of modern scientific knowledge, it makes the religious past look strange and alien. Were the doctrinal differences between various Christian sects (even within Protestantism itself) so great to warrant all the hatred and bloodshed that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries?
Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, is an eminently modern voice when he says:
“The Reformation was the scraping of a little rust off the chains which still bind the mind…Darwinism is the New Reformation.”
Indeed it is. Science, not divine revelation, has made truths about the world accessible to us. The Bible has and will always have a revered place in Western culture. Our culture is founded on both this book and Christianity. We are all religious, culturally speaking. But ours is not a religiosity that depends any longer on fables in the Bible to understand the world, and for that we should feel grateful.
He was a radical, a rebel, though he never set out to be. His life and fate were ironic. He brought the roof of the Catholic Church crashing down and we still live among the chaos of its rubble today, the church an anachronism, a relic from another age with a tarnished authority that only the truly devout take seriously anymore.
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.
Luther stood against the church of Rome because of its political powers, hoarder of wealth and riches while the poor starved and worldly pursuits.
Acutely aware of his own weaknesses, he joined a monastery but was haunted by his own sinfulness and fears and believed he had been rejected by God. However, it was by reading the Bible that he began to understand the purpose of God in people's lives, was to rescue them by grace and that grace would let to faith. It was then he found peace.