It’s too bad that most movie critics never read anything of consequence. Most reviewers of this movie were aware that the film Luther was based upon the play by John Osborne by the same name, but practically none of these critics had any knowledge that the play and the movie are not close to being the same. Osborne tries too hard to make Luther appear pathological, but at least from the play we see in Luther an individual not so weak-kneed to accomplish what he did. The movie only gets the chronology of what occurs in Osborne’s play correct. Luther (Joseph Fiennes), after being terrorized in a thunderstorm, vows to Saint Anne that he will become a monk. Luther messes up the service at his first communion, and his father, Hans (Michael Traynor), is not pleased. Luther excels in school and gains the attention of his lifelong mentor and later friend, Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz). Occasionally, we see Luther struggling in conversations presumably with Satan. Luther, after visiting Rome, is shocked by what he sees. When returning to Germany, he becomes aware of a preacher named Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina), who sells indulgences to save the souls of ones’ ancestors. This leads to sermons by Luther against the selling of indulgences, and later the nailing of his Ninety-five Thesis on the church of Wittenberg’s door in 1517. Luther was excommunicated in 1520, ordered shortly after to appear at the Diet of Worms where he refused to recant, and then “kidnapped” by Frederick the Wise (Peter Ustinov), and hidden in a castle to prevent the Catholic Inquisition from burning Luther at the stake. In hiding, Luther translates the Bible into German. In 1525, he marries a former nun, Katharina von Bora (Claire Cox). He’s outraged by the peasants who are looting the churches in his name, and his stinging (but allegedly well meant) criticism of these same peasants result in more than 100,000 of them being massacred. However, his overall message is gradually heard, his Bible is widely distributed, and Protestantism comes into being.
Luther’s real-life message (as opposed to the one said to be his in the movie) came more from the forceful teachings of Paul rather than from Christ’s very words. Luther’s teachings were from Galatians or the Book of Romans, and seldom from the Sermon of the Mount. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a’ Kempis, contained no meaning for Luther. Despite Luther’s words to the effect that we all fall far short of the glory of God, Luther could not imitate Jesus (again, as he does in the movie) because he was perfectly aware that he could never humble himself as such. (If Luther ever did humble himself, it was for political expedience rather than theological considerations.) Luther had to talk big to gain the attention of the whole world. Not only do the screenwriters (Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan) and the director (Eric Till) of the movie get the theology of Luther wrong, they also fail to introduce the type of person who could communicate that message.
Joseph Fiennes (the brother of Ralph Fiennes) plays Luther almost as if he was a saint (preaching the message of love), but Luther was no saint. Fiennes ably plays a young and sensitive intellectual who questions his own beliefs. However, the Luther portrayed is not believable as the force that would face down the Roman Catholic Church. We can see the witty young Luther in this film, popular as a teacher because his students could so readily identify with him. The humor in his sermon on indulgences is like the mild chiding of a college professor. We can’t see projected on the screen the defiant Luther at Worms who almost dared the Catholic Church to burn him alive. When the actual Luther was served with the Papal Bull of excommunication, his reply was entitled: Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist. (If there was any doubt about what he really thought, Luther said in this reply: “I protest before God, our Lord Jesus, his sacred angels, and the whole world that with my whole heart I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse and execrate it as sacrilege and blasphemy of Christ, God’s son and our Lord.” For the remainder of his life, the earthy Luther would refer to the “excretions” of the pope and alternately use the terms “antichrist” or “ass” when describing him.) And even after the massacre of the peasants, we can still not see in the movie the Luther behind the killings who wrote the pamphlet entitled, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. Great film biographies like Patton or Lawrence of Arabia shows characters whose magnificence is often as much due to their flaws as to their virtues. Here, we are only given a whitewashed Luther, too docile to be fiendish and too fragile to be great. The real Luther was so driven by his needs to live up to his father’s demands and so motivated by his hatred of Catholic doctrine, that he succeeded where everyone else for fifteen hundred years had failed. Despite his faults, he justly deserved to be admired for his courage to stand absolutely alone.
The movie fails to give Michael Traynor, as Hans Luther, the requisite number of lines that would have been required of the father of such a giant. Traynor may have perfectly been able to give the role some strength, but he is never shown as anything more than a distant character. In fact, Hans Luther would live a very long life and never hesitate to give both favorable and unfavorable opinions of his son. And Claire Cox as Luther’s cinematic wife is shown as little more than Luther’s adoring playmate. She would hardly be the woman that Luther needed and depended upon who would marry him and deliver his six children while all along knowing that her husband had a death sentence hanging over him. She is not even interesting in the film. The Catholics (the bad guys in the film) such as Cardinal Cajetan (Mathieu Carriere) and Pope Leo X (Uwe Ochsenknecht) don’t ever seem all that menacing that we can sufficiently appreciate the power that they held. Only Peter Ustinov as Frederick the Wise and Alfred Molina as Tetzel give their particular characterizations any real personality. Again, like Traynor, their parts are too small.
It’s important to understand the remarkable significance of Luther to also understand how far the movie Luther falls short of its goal to film an honest and complete picture. Luther’s credo that we all be our own priests liberated the mind of the German country side to a degree that such diverse thinkers as Hegel, Kant, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, Heidegger and Spengler, were a product of the Germany that Luther made possible. On the other hand, Luther was guilty of possessing authoritarian tendencies and making occasional anti-Semitic outbursts. In Germany, Luther’s darker teachings fertilized the soil for the future Nazi regime. As exemplified by more than a century of religious conflict that was to follow, Luther’s teachings were anything but a mollifying influence upon his listeners. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that his teachings were only negative. If a religious message does not touch upon the passions of everyone involved, it only means that the message was never directed at a living soul. It is an insult to suggest that an apologia such as the movie Luther is what’s in order for a true Protestant to hold onto his faith. The real gist of Luther’s teachings is that a true Protestant bows to no man, be it to Luther or to any priest. His faith is his own, and only his own.
Luther is the imperfect example of the man trying to be his own man. Maybe someday another movie director will make another attempt to film Luther’s story – just with a bit more integrity than the three or four attempts that have already been made. If the latest filming were part of an effort that we could take seriously, there would be much irony in showing Luther’s uncompromising search to know the truth in a movie that’s hesitant to speak even a small fraction of the truth. I’m only mildly disappointed because that’s simply the way that most movies are made.
© Robert S. Miller 2007