Martin Luther is the primary protagonist of the Luther Film. He is portrayed by Joseph Fiennes. The life of one of the controversial figures in the history of modern religion is brought to the screen in this historical biography. Ironically, prior to accepting the film, Fiennes reluctantly turned down the role of Luther in the London National Theater’s Production of John Osborne’s play because of a schedule conflict. So, he already had a passion for the character and was prepared to play this role.
Giving human dimension to popular historical figures is, of course, one of those things films can do especially well. But Luther, which was finally released in this country over a year after its premiere in the United States, is not as satisfying an example of this as it could be. Instead of settling for a calm and authoritative historical pageant, the Luther Film uses tight close-ups and restless camerawork to portray Luther’s epileptic seizures and to convey his darkest fears, and to suggest how these things may have helped to shape his personality.
The Story of Luther Film
Many believers, perhaps most, experienced Truth through relics, images, and rituals—not as oppression but as comfort. To be sure, one did not meet God face to face. But one did not want to! For the late-medieval rank and file, assurance of salvation came not from bold access to the throne of God, but from the myriad mediating practices of penance and devotion.
In Luther Film, one scene in particular brings home this historical reality. Glowing with joy, a young mother who has purchased an indulgence (a remission of temporal punishment) for her crippled daughter holds it out to a gaunt Martin Luther: “Look what I bought for Greta!” She has been gulled by the rhetoric of the charlatan indulgence-seller, Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina).
Luther (Joseph Fiennes) takes the paper and reads it. His anger at the corrupt establishment rises and boils over. He forgets the gentleness he has displayed toward her. “This is worthless,” he says, crumpling it in his fist. “You must rely on God’s love.” Crestfallen, she turns and walks disconsolately away.
The basic chronology of the Luther Film is one that is affirmed by modern Luther scholarship. The basic contours are accurate: that Luther, the Augustinian Monk and teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg, protested the sale of indulgences and wrote the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, challenged the authority of the Church to forgive purgatory with pieces of paper, appeared before the Diet of Worms to defend his written works, including The Freedom of the Christian, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and dozens of other treatises and writings, was taken into hiding by his elector Prince Frederick at Wartburg Castle where he worked to complete a translation of the New Testament into German, and continued to protest the theology of the Roman Catholic Church through the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Thus the plot and storyline of the Luther Film do portray accurately a basic chronology of Martin Luther’s attempts to reform the Church.
Lets take a look at the plot of Luther Film
The story begins in the year 1505 showing a young Martin Luther in a rain storm when a bolt of lightening lands close to him and prompts him to hang up his study of law and apply for acceptance the following day in an Augustinian monastery. The film then narrates Luther’s pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 and shows people all over the steps of the church buying indulgences for relatives – a practice that makes the church wealthy and fools the poor. Luther rebels against the church and writes an essay of 95 theses which he nails on the church door. He is then hunted by the church which forces him to defend himself. Luther’s life as an outlaw – excommunicated and banned by the Pope as well as the emperor – is depicted in the film, as well as his “exile” in the tower of the Wartburg castle, where he translated the entire New Testament into German within 11 weeks. The story shows how Luther’s deep faith and convictions made this German reformer both a rebel and a leader of his day.
The Best Scene of Luther Film
At the monastery, Luther is wracked by guilt because he feels completely unholy in front of the God of Justice. His mentor orders him to continue an academic career to relieve the strain. Soon, however, the young theology teacher is trying to correct the corrupt Catholic Church in Rome, whose corruption Luther saw first-hand. He begins teaching his students and the people in Wittenburg about the mercy and compassion of God, while complaining about the Church selling forgiveness of sins to the people for money.
All of this angers the Pope and many of his officials, who are trying to collect money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They charge Luther with heresy, and the climax of the first half of the movie occurs when Luther refuses to renounce his writings, unless convinced by Scripture.
Overall, Joseph Fiennes does a marvelous job of portraying this revolutionary historical figure, whose Protestant Reformation clearly led to the founding of America and the establishment of representative government in both England and the United States. Although he appears to be a bit too thin and young by the end of the movie, there are surviving portraits of Luther from the early 1520’s when most Luther takes place which approximate Fiennes features. Supporting Mr. Fiennes, as Luther’s avid supporter, Prince Frederick the Wise, is the legendary, always enjoyable Peter Ustinov, star of such classic historical movies as QUO VADIS and SPARTACUS.