Retro Review – Luther (2003)

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Overview

Synopsis A lone German monk becomes a symbol for Reformation after he challenges the Catholic Church's teachings on indulgences.

Length 2 hours, 3 minutes

Release Date September 26, 2003

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution R.S. Entertainment (theatrical), MGM Home Entertainment (DVD)

Directing Eric Till

Writing Camille Thomasson, Bart Gavigan

Composition Richard Harvey

Starring Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox, Peter Ustinov

On the liturgical calendar celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, tomorrow is All Saints Day. The day before though is All Hallow’s Eve or the Vigil of All Saints Day—which has traditionally been understood as a Catholic holiday.

Halloween also shares a day with another major day in the history of Christianity—Reformation Day. On this day 505 years ago, a doctorate in theology at the University of Wittenberg is said to have sent a letter to his Archbishop containing a provocative debate proposal over fears of corruption in the church. This debate would never come about, but the letter would ascend the chain of command and eventually result in this priest’s ex-communication and the formation of the Evangelical/Lutheran Church in Germany. It would become the first major church to break away from the Roman Catholic Church since the Orthodox schism in 1054, but not the last.

The legacy of Martin Luther’s church has been fraught, with many blaming all of the tensions and failures of the modern world as a direct consequence of the destruction of Christian Unity in 1517. And certainly, it is true. All that is good and bad about the modern world—its freedoms, its benefits, its advances, and excesses—exists because the Reformation broke the authority of Rome. So this year for Halloween, why don’t we explore the spooky specter of Lutheranism as its legacy continues to haunt the world to this day?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A boy hangs himself offscreen. We see the aftermath of a battle where 100,000 peasants and knights are slaughtered by soldiers, littering the streets with corpses.
Language/Crude Humor: Some infrequent language including h*** and s***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual alcohol consumption.
Sexual Content: A couple kisses in bed fully clothed.
Spiritual Content: The film is about the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and explores aspects of Catholic monastic life, theology, the nature of salvation, and the politics of religion.
Other Negative Content: Some overtly propagandistic or mythical elements.
Positive Content: Themes of truth, faith, perseverance, and the challenges of understanding and living for Christ.

Review

When one is talking about the legacy of Martin Luther, one is going to face the reality that he is either one of the greatest forces for human freedom and truth in human history or one of the most destructive men in history. It is rare to find a middle ground. He was an immensely compelling figure and one I personally respect as a man of deep intelligence and moral consciousness. But he is also deeply maligned in the more traditional circles of Christianity due to the effect of breaking Rome’s authority. As G.K. Chesterton notes, Luther was “one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.”

That legacy is ultimately going to cloud any discussion about works dramatizing his life. It also means that one has to consistently unpack the legends and narratives around that person’s life in order to get to the fullness of the truth. Still, his life and work remain deeply powerful and his ability to bring such a case forward against the magisterial authority of the Bishop of Rome speaks to how powerful his message was.

With that said, the 2003 biopic Luther is one of my favorite movies and has been ever since I watched it in Jr. High. Growing up in a fundamentalist Evangelical home, I found the story riveting. It is a film I find highly entertaining but as an adult who had come to read major biographies about the events, I have come to appreciate it in a fresh way—as a work of mythmaking.

It is however a film that is primarily interested in the mythology of Martin Luther. If you look at the Historical Inaccuracies section of Wikipedia, the film’s sins are egregious at points. So much of the monk’s life has been made more dramatic by history, and moments of his life that seem to represent dramatic events like the famous nailing-of-the-thesis are actually apocryphal. Luther did not actually hammer the 95 Thesis into the cathedral door. His wife wasn’t smuggled in a herring barrel. He probably didn’t actually send out the thesis on October 31. These moments are all dramatic legends that make the story more cinematic, but even most biographies falsely propagate them.

The film was funded by Lutheran organizations and it is clear it is very much a Hollywoodized abridgment of the life of Martin Luther. Despite that, it is incredibly compelling. If one wants to learn about the cultural narratives surrounding Luther’s life, this is an excellent source to use as a jumping-off point (If you want to dive further, I recommend Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Eric Metaxes’ Martin Luther, or a more critical book like Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks).

If the movie excels at anything, it is in capturing the complicated nature of the real Martin Luther’s character. The real man was a complicated one—melancholic, depressed, tortured—who felt the need to attend confession for hours on end fearing damnation. He was a man obsessed with the fear of God’s wrath and his confusing actions reflected this. Luther did not live the life of a Saint. His heart was burdened by uncertainty and fear, which drove him to fanatically memorize the scriptures and major commentary on Scripture. His actions against the church sparked division and conflict across Europe, resulting in peasant revolts, the death of thousands, and centuries of wars and persecutions between Catholics and Protestants.

And Luther was aware of all of this. As he laments in the movie, “People look to me as a fixed star but I am not. I am a wandering planet. No one should look to me for guidance.”

In his review, Roger Ebert counted this jilted character as a negative, saying “I don’t know what kind of movie I was expecting Luther to be, or what I wanted from it, but I suppose I anticipated that Luther himself would be an inspiring figure, filled with the power of his convictions. What we get is an apologetic outsider with low self-esteem, who reasons himself into a role he has little taste for.”

Frankly, I don’t think the movie would work if Luther was a more overtly Machievllian or political figure. His entire critique of the church had power specifically because Luther was seemingly above these things. He wanted to die a martyr and he was totally devoted to his faith. His entire critique was strenuously Biblically sourced and he was personally blameless as far as character goes. He was quoting the Catholic Church’s own teachings to them and that is what gave him power.

That critique didn’t come without consequences though and the film portrays Luther’s lament with incredible melancholy and brutality. We see this also in the actions of Andreas Karlstadt, Luther’s former theology professor turned revolutionary, who starts the film as a bored Catholic lecturer and ends the film rambling like a deranged combination of John Calvin and Karl Marx, screaming that burning cathedrals and icons is “the people’s work!” He wanders out of the film after Luther rebukes him but fades into the crowd as if to say a mere rebuke wouldn’t kill these ideas that would only grow and fester.

Luther works as a historical film because it is able to address a lot of this nuance, conflict, and truth. Martin Luther is compelling because he was mostly above the conflicts that arose after him. He was a fully Christian man and the tensions he saw in the church were real. But that truth came with consequences. We live in the post-Luther world now and everything good and bad about the modern world exists because one German monk pried open the box of religious freedom and let hope and chaos out into the world.

The film is certainly on his side, if for no other reason than its benefactors are Lutherans who had a vested interest in showing the founder of their movement as a hero of modernity, but it wouldn’t be half the film it ends up being if it didn’t find creative ways to address all of these tensions and realities, even in passing.

Positives

+ Great performances and production design
+ Thorough script with a lot of nuance and history
+ Strong themes

Negatives

- Some confused drama and incomplete themes
- Overt preference for a controversial historical character
- Historical inaccuracies

The Bottom Line

Luther is mostly forgotten nowadays as a historical drama and religious biopic, but it is one of the best faith-based films of the early 2000s and does an amicable job presenting the biography of one of history's most divisive figures.

 

8.8

Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

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