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A New Film About Martin Luther

Category Articles
Date November 17, 2003

Glenda Mathes

The fact that a movie about Martin Luther is necessary for our culture can best be demonstrated by a recurring phenomenon. Some people, hearing about the selection of the actor Joseph Fiennes for the lead role, asked why a black man wasn’t chosen for the part. It’s a sad commentary on modern society when it has only heard of Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader, and fails to recognize the great reformer for whom he was named.

This sad fact impresses on us the enormity of the enterprise involved in making a movie about a figure from Reformation history. That the movie was made at all and is available in a local theater are causes for great rejoicing. That the movie is well made and fairly accurate are causes for even greater rejoicing. It was well worth the steep admission price at the only theater in central Iowa where it was playing.

It capably depicts the medieval experience, it shines with some outstanding performances, and it accurately recounts many events and specific dialogue from the life of Martin Luther. It is, however, not without its disappointments. Many of these are minor, but the movie’s biggest failing is its almost total neglect of the doctrine of justification by faith. This was arguably the most crucial doctrine at the heart of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s understanding regarding this doctrine was the driving force behind his work.

In his "History of the Life and Acts of Luther," Luther’s colleague, Philip Melancthon, makes clear the central role this doctrine played in Luther’s life and ensuing reforms. By ignoring justification by faith, moviemakers have missed the bull’s eye on what could have been a tremendously effective film.

Luther’s epiphany regarding justification could easily have been incorporated into an early scene showing him struggling with the weight of his sin and the almost physical presence of the devil. This would have set the stage for a unifying theme that would have woven the entire movie together and provided a solid basis for future events. As it is, relics and indulgences seem to be trivial grounds for the radical actions that follow. And so many events are presented in rapid-fire succession that it is sometimes difficult to understand their connection. The clear depiction of works righteousness versus justification by faith would have provided a unifying theme.

A particularly moving scene makes Luther appear cold-hearted as he tells a poor mother that the indulgence she has purchased for her crippled daughter is "only paper" and urges her to save her money to feed the child. If only he had gone on to comfort her with the truth of Scripture, assuring her that she didn’t need to do anything or purchase anything to obtain salvation because we are justified through faith in the finished work of Christ.

In spite of this tragic lack, the movie has its strengths. Many of the principal actors give remarkably strong character presentations, but the most outstanding is Peter Ustinov. His performance as the sage and sly Prince Frederick is simply delightful.

Some scenes carry incredible visual impact. One forceful scene depicts a boar hunt with images of the Pope spearing and killing a wild boar juxtaposed with a close-up of Luther being startled. The Pope’s voiceover during this scene represents the wording of Pope Leo X’s papal bull issued against Luther in 1520: "Arise, O Lord! A wild boar has invaded your vineyard." The scene ends with the Pope determinedly pressing his ring into the wax seal on the official document.

The movie provides not only the experience of being transported to the physical locations of Medieval Saxony, but also acquaints the moviegoer with the pervading social and religious philosophies of medieval times. The days of Luther were truly the death throes of medieval society. As the Reformed Internet pundit "DataRat" says, "Luther was the last Medieval Man, and Calvin the first Modern Man." He points out how Luther and the events of the early 1500s were at the end of the Middle Ages, while Calvin came into prominence at the beginning of what was actually the start of the Modern Age.

"Luther was a former monk, and Calvin a trained lawyer," he says. "How appropriate for medieval versus modern times!"

It’s important to bear such historical reality in mind when viewing the movie, especially since the depiction of the peasants’ revolt is misleading. At one point in the movie, Luther wanders through streets filled with the bodies of dead peasant men, women, and children. The bodies fill every building and even the church. As he walks, his voiceover talks about how he "urged the nobles to action" and how they responded with a vengeance, unleashing this slaughter.
This graphic scene is certainly part of what earned the film its PG-13 rating, and parents of young or impressionable children will want to consider this in deciding who should see the movie.

What any viewer should realize, however, is that Luther’s writings were not the only contributing factor to the peasants’ revolution. Luther’s defiance of established practices in the church may have helped people think that they could defy the established authorities, but there were other social and political factors at work.

Europe was converting from a barter economy to a cash economy, most of European society was shifting from an agricultural base to mercantilism, cultural life was shifting from rural to urban living, government was converting from administration by lesser nobles to professional bureaucrats, all while the dominant system of communalism was being replaced by capitalism and ownership of private property.

All of these changes made life even more difficult for poor peasants. They were revolting throughout Europe, not just in Saxony. The German peasants’ revolt received more notice than others because it so quickly became violent and many thousands died (although 5,000 is the number of the largest known massacre and reports of 50,000 to 1 00,000 deaths may have been exaggerated).

The peasants rampaged in marauding mobs throughout the Saxony countryside, destroying churches, looting castles, burning buildings, and killing anyone who got in their way. In spite of Luther’s repeated pleadings for nonviolence the peasants refused to give up their arms. It was only when the situation became out of control that Luther urged the nobles to take up their swords against the peasant mobs.

Besides a somewhat misleading portrayal of Luther’s involvement in the peasant uprising, other minor weaknesses of the film are a lackluster musical score and a sometimes lackluster performance by Joseph Fiennes. Luther’s hymns are only briefly mentioned and heard, but could easily have been more integrated within the musical score. There were few moments when the music was good enough to even be noticed. I would have liked to hear more of Luther’s hymns, especially the stirring strains of "A Mighty Fortress." There were plenty of opportunities when that hymn would have provided perfectly appropriate background music.
Fiennes (who is tall, slender, and quite good-looking) made a believable Luther in spite of my previous conception of Luther as a squat, fat, plain, somewhat crude fellow given to manic-depressive mood swings. Although Fiennes did the "tormented soul in the dark cell" thing well, he seemed too often at other times to depend on much the same facial expression to portray every emotion.

In spite of these minor weaknesses and the major omission of the justification by faith issue, Luther is a movie that is worth seeing. How often does one sit in a nearly full theater, viewing a movie about a great reformer? How often does one hear the audience break into spontaneous applause after the show and watch them remain seated while the entire credit listing rolls by? That certainly says something about the way this film is touching hearts of Christians who still treasure the hard-bought riches of the Reformation. It was good to be reminded that God has preserved for himself a remnant who recognizes the contributions of Martin Luther.

By permission of Christian Renewal, October 27, 2003. Editor John Van Dyk

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