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.
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More information about the film, including its trailer, is available at its official web site.
Concordia Publishing House has a tie-in book.
Review roundups of Luther are available at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Christianity Today's weekly Film Forum feature will summarize reviews from the religious press and mainstream critics next Thursday.
Christian Reader, a Christianity Today sister publication, earlier offered a quick summary of Luther's defining moment. Christianity Today's Christian History Corner asked if the reformer really ever said, "Here I stand."
Christian History magazine devoted two issues to Martin Luther, one on his early years (including his posting of the 95 Theses) and another on his later years (including his marriage and writing "A Mighty Fortress.") Sadly, neither issue is available online, and the latter is out of print.