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A Reformation saint
on 6 January 2006
Luther is a remarkable film in many ways. One disclaimer should be made -- this is not a documentary, in which the standard phrase about scenes being created or adapted for dramatic purposes would be made. No such disclaimer is given here, but the serious observer watching for history as well as entertainment should be warned not to accept everything at face value.
The performances are solid, occasionally stunning. Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in 'Shakespeare in Love') does an exceptional job portraying Germany's turbulent priest, whose search for knowledge and personal salvation leads him to question all around him. The action moves quickly in the film, collapsing complex historical and theological items into almost single-issue ciphers for clarity in the film -- one might be forgiven for coming away from the film believing that Luther tacked up a declaration of 1 Thesis rather than 95 Theses, and that the Roman church was corrupt entirely. The tension within the church is alluded to in a few spots (the cardinal who hopes for a pope who will save the church, etc.), but by and large, the Roman church is portrayed with a broad brush as evil.
The scenes in which the peasants revolt and the people take Luther's messages to extremes are dramatically produced and emotionally moving without being gruesome or needlessly gory. The complexities of the people's wavering support for Luther, and Luther's occasional collaborations against the people, are similarly glossed over.
Fiennes is shown in a few points preaching to the people, as a priest and as a street leader -- Luther was known to be an effective preacher and teacher, and this comes across here. Luther's time as a professor of theology is, like much of the story, collapsed into a brief series of scenes, again simplifying the complexity of faculty and academic dealings into a few figures either supporting or worrying about the controversy being stirred.
The historical progession is kept fairly accurate, going from early days in ministry and schooling to early awakenings in the light of his travels and teaching, to the Diet of Worms and the final climax of the film taking place in Augsburg, showing the recitation (and assuming the victory) of the Augsburg Confession, a document still recited to this day.
Sir Peter Ustinov steals every scene he appears in, as Philip the Wise, an almost bumbling and good-hearted soul, who is probably the most ahistorical figure in the film. Luther's primary sponsors were neither bumbling nor innocent, but rather political animals of the first rank, and to a certain extent, the political side of the Reformation owed as much to military and economic freedom from Roman overlordship and the fracturing of Germanic unity with the slow and steady downfall of what remained of the Holy Roman Empire. This tension is hinted at in the film, particularly in the post-script, but is really secondary to the primary point of the film.
Claire Cox portrays Katerina von Borg, the run-away nun who became Luther's wife. Her role is virtually non-existent through most of the film, and save pressuring Luther into deciding to take a wife, she seems to have little role in Luther's political or theological development, which is likewise not true to history. Another key character, Johann Tetzel, the man whose preaching specifically prompted Luther's writing of the 95 Theses, (portrayed by Alfred Molina), is presented as a very one-dimensional and corrupt character only interested in selling indulgences, which is rather far from the truth of Tetzel, also.
Despite these drawbacks (understandable, given that in two hours, writers and directors have to be selective in choosing material), there are occasionals glimpses of the fascinating history surrounding church and society during Luther's time -- for instance, the fact that not only were scriptures removed from access to the laity, they were in fact rarely read by the clergy. The character of Luther specifically says that he relies on scripture AND reason (something the sola scriptura crowd tend to forget). The real threat to Christendom from the newly-expanding Muslims lingers in the background (the city of Constantinople, whose walls had been unbreached for a thousand years, had fallen just a few decades prior, and the idea of yet another Crusade against the Muslims was being seriously considered).
This film presents a sympathetic figure in Luther, one that the church would have done well to retain rather than cast out -- but then, churches have a tendency to cast out for authoritarian/hierarchical/institutional reasons those they ought to embrace on theological and pastoral grounds. Luther's darker side is only hinted at -- the character says at one point that he is a divisive figure, and this remains true until the end of his life, and even Lutheranism split from other Reformers, and even among itself, as many Lutheran followers modified official Lutheranism into something Luther himself probably would not have been able to accept.
In history, Luther gets portrayed with a broad brush as a bold reformer, taking on the powers that be to lead the Western world into an era of Reformation (prompting, not to long after, the Counter-Reformation in the Roman church). In this film, with sensitivity and compassion, Luther is portrayed without too many dimensions (his anti-Judaic stance, for instance, is never even hinted at in the film) but with an aim toward presenting the point -- that it is sometimes worth taking a stand of faith and reason against seemingly incalculable odds.