Before the Reformation, the meaning of life came highly structured from the hierarchy of the Church. One didn't ask questions. One didn't need to.
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, 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.
At several key moments in the movie, Luther faces the charge that he is tearing apart the church. He grapples repeatedly with the possibility that he is destroying, rather than building, God's kingdom. To their credit, though, the filmmakers resist the temptation of portraying a Lone Ranger Reformer against a thoroughly evil Church. There are enough sympathetic figures in the Catholic establishment (Matthieu Carriere's Cardinal Cajetan chief among them) to create some sense of historical nuance.
Moreover, we get to see some warts of the Reformation. Andreas Karlstadt (Jochen Horst) takes Luther's teachings to their extreme, announcing that the day of the great leveling has arrived. Soon we see townspeople dragging the monks who have cared for them out of their church and pummeling them. Rocks crash through stained-glass windows. A crucifix is knocked to the floor. (The scene involves a bit of historical sleight-of-hand: the real Karlstadt, advocating nonviolence, had refused to join the militant radical reformer Thomas Müntzer.)
Luther is still a medieval man; this anarchic attack on authority is too much for him. He appeals to the princes, demanding the peasant revolt be put down. Soon the blood of the peasants runs on the floor of the ruined church.
Surveying the carnage, Luther agonizes: "I have torn the world apart." He begins to slide into depression. He must force himself out of bed each morning. Until, that is—in a moment befitting Hollywood—he meets the escaped nun Katerina (Claire Cox). Sunny but steel-willed, Katerina leads Luther from the dark tunnel and into the summer of the loving marriage he has long denied himself.
Of course, this is a Lutheran movie, not a Catholic one—it is backed by Thrivent, the major Lutheran financial services organization. The answer to the question of whether Luther is destroying the church he loves or bringing it back to its most basic sources of authority is clear. The abuses flowing from the "sewer" of Rome are portrayed starkly enough.
But writer Camille Thomasson and director Eric Till have done well to show something of the anguish and desolation that comes with the uprooting of old meanings and the conflicted (and always incomplete) process toward the new. Even if we are convinced, with Luther, that the new meanings are really the oldest ones of all—fidelity to Scripture, salvation by grace alone, the surpassing love of the Father—we can sympathize with the human toll of what our age has fashionably called a "paradigm shift."
If there is any misstep in the film, it is the relentless niceness of its Reformer. Throughout we see Luther filling the void left by the old, corrupted symbols of late medieval Catholicism with the simple "Jesus loves me" theology of a mainstream Sunday school class.
The filmmakers have hardly gotten young Martin out of his early years as a psychologically tortured monk, convinced God is out to get him, when they remake him as a mild '90s Luther. His confessor Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) is reduced to blustering: "In all the time I've known you, you've never once confessed anything even remotely interesting!"
As a student at Wittenberg, Luther insists on giving a teen suicide a Christian burial—theological niceties be damned. Interpreting the story of the Prodigal Son to children in the woods, he stresses the father's surpassing love. In the tower at Wartburg, he interprets a Greek term as expressing that same love.
All of this is fair enough, though the theme does become wearing. In one impassioned sermon, Luther takes aim at the villain Tetzel, who emotionally blackmails his audiences by unfurling crude paintings of hell and then offering to help them buy their relatives' way out of eternal agony. Tetzel's problem, Luther insists, is that his God is too mean.
"I, too, saw God as sentencing sinners to death in hell," Luther preaches. "But I was wrong."
Oops. In a major film for a diverse viewing public that sees nothing but an oppressive, hypocritical church, this '90s approach may indeed serve the producers' religious motives. But God's sovereignty seems to have receded a little too much here. And one wonders, if this was really all the Reformation was about, why would anyone have objected? Why didn't all the Catholics just get on board, singing Kumbaya?
Finally, though, the film does tell us as much as it probably can: the Church had been corrupted in many ways. It had strayed from the Bible—its best and truest authority. And the road back was a rough one.
What it loses in theological subtlety it gains back in artistry. This is a dramatically gripping and visually stunning movie. More, it is warmly personal: Sir Peter Ustinov comes near to stealing the show as Luther's wise, wry prince-protector, Frederick; Staupitz is another Catholic "good guy" whose concern for his spiritual son lights up the screen. The film is—as much as can be expected—historically even-handed.
Luther matches grandeur of vision to excellence of execution. The resulting drama packs spiritual as well as entertainment power: it charged the atmosphere even of the small screening room where I first saw the film. I will be seeing it again.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/02/03
Director Eric Till's new film about Martin Luther has film critics in the religious press cheering that there is yet another worthwhile film this year that focuses on faith. But when it comes to the historical accuracy of Luther, several Roman Catholics are pointing out some misleading aspects of this period piece about the papacy and its protester.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says that the movie explains "in a detailed and wonderful way exactly what Martin Luther was all about and how God used him to change the Church."
Exactly? Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) begs to differ: "[Luther] is … one-sidedly positive in its view of the Reformation [and it] distorts Catholic theology and significant matters of historical fact, consistently skewing its portrayal to put Luther in the best possible light while making his opponents seem as unreasonable as possible."
He explains that the film tends to "avoid Luther's notorious anti-Semitism." Further, "It was solidly in the midst of the film's events that we find the historical Luther declaring that no man can be saved unless he renounce the papacy; that Luther's own doctrine cannot 'be judged by anyone, even by the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved'; that those unconvinced of Luther's views must 'hold their tongues and believe what they please'; that even 'unbelievers should be forced to … attend church, and outwardly conform.' Needless to say, such pronouncements go against the film's portrayal of Luther as a champion of 'religious freedom.'"
Still, he concludes, "For a well-made, dramatically compelling historical drama that … takes seriously matters of Christian doctrine even to be made in Hollywood today is an event worthy of note. Luther … is such a film."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) agrees that the film is seriously flawed, but worthwhile. "Till's well-crafted biopic veers steadily from balanced historical accuracy toward hagiography. Till deflects blame away from Luther, glossing over his shortcomings with a gilded revisionist glaze. The film also promotes an erroneous understanding of indulgences. While it is certain that abuses involving their dispensation did occur, the film mistakes those abuses for official church teaching. [However,] the historical importance of the subject matter and its central character offer much in the way of thoughtful discussion. Luther is worth seeing."
Movieguide, on the other hand, "can find little or nothing wrong, factually speaking, with the historical portrayal of this part of Luther's life. The movie is engrossing throughout."
"If Luther suffers from anything, it's ambition," says Matt Kaufman (Plugged In). "In trying to cover so much ground, it sometimes moves too quickly, passing over story points that need developing—especially Luther's own process of recognizing God's grace. Even so, the finished product is quite an achievement—a memorable tale of a remarkable man and of the Gospel which transcended all the powers and principalities of this world."
Paul McCain (Hollywood Jesus) likewise declares, "The movie is stunning, dramatic, powerful, and beautiful. The movie takes a few liberties with the sequence of certain events and even some details, for the sake of making sense out of things for the viewer. Where the movie does portray an actual event and relate actual details, the level of fidelity to the actual history is remarkable and powerful."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls the film "a fair and balanced look at one of the most important figures in all of history."
Angela Aleiss (Religion News Service) says this portrayal of Luther, compared to past productions, "might very well be the most passionate." Her article includes an interview with the director.
At BreakPoint, Charles Colson is pleased to a movie with "an unmistakably Christian worldview that avoids the poor production values and forced religiosity that often turn off even Christian moviegoers. You don't need me to tell you how rare this combination is."
Andrew Coffin (World) calls it, "ambitious in scope, particularly for an independently financed religious movie. The highlights of Martin Luther's life … are vividly wrought here. Luther hits most of its historical marks. The overall product is captivating in a way that most paint-by-numbers Christian-themed movies are not."
Chris Armstrong (Christianity Today) argues, "If there is any misstep in the film, it is the relentless niceness of its Reformer. Throughout we see Luther filling the void left by the old, corrupted symbols of late medieval Catholicism with the simple 'Jesus loves me' theology of a mainstream Sunday school class." But Armstrong concludes, "The film is … historically even-handed. Luther matches grandeur of vision to excellence of execution. The resulting drama packs spiritual as well as entertainment power."
The responses of mainstream critics—quite an array of arguments—are archived here.from Film Forum, 10/09/03
Michael Medved (Crosswalk) reviews Luther this week. Echoing some of last week's reviews, he says that although "the time constraints leave huge gaps in the Luther story," the movie "succeeds in the major challenge for any project of this sort: it leaves the audience craving to learn more about the astonishing story it tells."from Film Forum, 10/23/03
David Hogg (Crosswalk) asks "Is Luther True to History?" He addresses the various complaints that have been made against the film's historical accuracy with a contrary argument: "This film is not intended to replace historical research … [but instead] to provide a third dimension to the books Christians ought to read, to add color to their knowledge and to infuse passion into the page."from Film Forum, 10/28/04
Although Luther had its big screen release last year in the United States, Canadians are just now getting a chance to see the film. Peter T. Chattaway reviews the film for CanadianChristianity.com. He calls the film "an unbalanced portrait of Luther that is at once both sympathetic and triumphalistic. Luther and the movement he founded were full of … contradictions, but the new film passes them by in favour of a broader message of tolerance, tailored for our ecumenical times. Tellingly, many evangelicals have endorsed this film simply because it presents a basic gospel message. But the man through whom that message was preached is still waiting to be fleshed out."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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