Luther: Well Made, but Flawed

The role of religion, God, faith, and the church in contemporary Hollywood movies is not very encouraging. Generally, the best we can hope for is a generically faith-affirming message of the sort seen in Signs
and The Count of Monte Cristo, or perhaps a positive depiction of a believing character such as Nightcrawler in X2.

An Event Worthy of Note

Often as not, Hollywood stumbles in delivering even this much substance, resulting in fare like Bruce Almighty and The Fighting Temptations.

Worse, the movies often strike an actively antagonistic stance, from serious anti-church polemics ( The Magdalene Sisters, The Crime of Father Amaro) to cheap-shot associations of piety with hypocrisy or murderous brutality (Gangs of New York , Hannibal). A few sincere efforts, often championed by Christians in Hollywood, have been made to depict belief in a positive light, but the results have been less than inspiring (Gods and Generals, A Walk to Remember).

For a well-made, dramatically compelling historical drama that is also an affirmation of faith that takes seriously matters of Christian doctrine even to be made in Hollywood today is an event worthy of note. Luther, directed by Eric Till (Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace) and with Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) in the title role, is such a film. Funded in part by a Minneapolis-based Lutheran organization, the film aspires to reach broad audiences with a drama of conscience and resistance to institutional authority. Publicity blurbs compare it to A Man for All Seasons, and while dramatically Luther isn’t in that league, it’s a more than respectable effort that, dramatically at least, honors the tradition — and the first film in who knows how long even to make the attempt.

In one sense, I’d like to see more films like this made. At the same time, Luther is also a seriously flawed film. Relentlessly hagiographical in its depiction of Luther and one-sidedly positive in its view of the Reformation, the film also 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.

The film covers a quarter century of the German Reformer’s life, beginning with the dramatic opening scene of the thunderstorm that so frightens the young Luther (Joseph Fiennes) that he vows to St. Anne if he survives the storm to become a monk, and ending with the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, at which the German princes defy Charles V (Torben Liebrecht) and support Luther’s teachings, essentially guaranteeing the future of the Lutheran movement and the Reformation.

In between we see Luther clashing with Tetzel (Alfred Molina) over abuses regarding indulgences, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, being summoned before Cardinal Cajetan (Mathieu Carrière) and ordered to recant, and standing before the Diet of Worms and taking his stand in famous, only slightly apocryphal lines: “Unless I am convinced by scripture or by plain reason… here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

The film also gestures at the peasant revolt and the German princes’ violent suppression of the peasants, the iconoclasm that destroyed and sacked churches and monasteries, Luther’s German translation of the sacred scriptures, and his marriage to a former nun (Claire Cox).

A Drama of Ideas

This is an ambitious undertaking, and it’s a tribute to the filmmakers that it succeeds dramatically and artistically as well as it does. The dialogue is fine and literate, the acting solid, the production design and costuming impressive, and the story both lucid and emotionally engaging.

Till finds vivid cinematic moments in what is essentially a drama of ideas: The ominous opening tempest foreshadows the storm of religious and civil controversy soon to grip Europe, and when an iconoclast’s rock shatters the face of a stained-glass window image of the Virgin Mary, a blazing shaft of sunlight pours into the church, a metaphor for the filmmakers’ vision of the light of truth.

A few times Till stumbles: A scene depicting Leo X on a boar hunt heavy-handedly emphasizes the symbolic connection between the pope’s quarry and Luther himself; and there’s a cloyingly melodramatic fictional vignette about a lame waif whose mother makes her a pair of crutches after Luther advises the woman to concern herself with her daughter’s care rather than buy her indulgences. There are also a few scenes in which Till goes over the top, as when he briefly turns Luther into an action hero defending helpless priests against the rioting peasants. But these are forgivable flaws in a basically solid drama.

More troubling is the filmmakers’ apologetic manipulation of the facts of its hero’s life. It’s one thing for the film to avoid Luther’s notorious anti-Semitism, which is especially associated with his declining years after the period depicted in the film. On the other hand, 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” (cf. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 6, pp. 357, 422).

Needless to say, such pronouncements go against the film’s portrayal of Luther as a champion of “religious freedom.” Of this aspect of its hero’s religious views, Luther is conspicuously silent.

The film similarly shows Luther’s horror and grief over the massacre of over 100,000 peasants by the German princes in response to the peasant uprising — but fails to reveal that Luther himself, in a vituperative essay called “Against the Murdering and Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” specifically called upon the princes to show no mercy in crushing the uprising. This selective depiction creates the impression that the guilt and remorse we see Luther feeling over the peasant massacre is simply due to his awareness of how distortions of his own teachings played a role in the peasant revolt — which, since that seems not to have been Luther’s fault, implies that Luther was in no way implicated in the peasant massacre, when in fact he was.

The film is equally careful to exculpate Luther of rebellious intent regarding the pope, showing his respect and deference for Leo as late as his 1518 interview with Cardinal Cajetan — yet it never hints at Luther’s identification of the pope as the Antichrist years earlier, even before the 1517 publication of his 95 Theses. In fact, we never hear Luther associating the papacy with the Antichrist, though he did so repeatedly.

In Luther, representatives of Catholic orthodoxy, especially papal representatives such as Cardinal Cajetan, are always shown dismissively refusing to debate or engage Luther, instead imperiously insisting that he recant without argument. Certainly Luther did meet with such treatment at times; yet the impression conveyed by the film is that no one on the Catholic side was ever interested in engaging and refuting Luther’s novel ideas. That Johann Eck, for example, publicly debated both Luther and Carlstadt — and seems to have had the best of the debates, incidentally — is not something one would ever guess from this film. Of course the filmmakers can’t show everything; but why must they consistently omit whatever facts might suggest that Luther’s adversaries were anything but unreasonable and imperious?

Pope Leo X, no hero in the annals of the bishops of Rome, comes off even worse in the film than he really was. Of the man who has been described as “the most genial of popes” (Durant, 346) there is no hint; instead, the film’s Leo (Uwe Ochsenknecht) is a dour, calculating villain free of redeeming qualities. The film alleges that Leo X put a bounty on Luther’s head, but neglects to show Leo sending orders that Luther’s safe passage from the Diet of Worms was to be respected.

Tetzel comes off even worse. Luther is as ready to believe and represent the worst of him as it is to believe the best about Luther. For example, the film credits the scandalous rumor, alluded to by Luther, that Tetzel claimed to absolve with his indulgences even one who (per impossibile) “violates the mother of God,” though Tetzel indignantly denied saying this and had eyewitness testimony to back up his claims.

It must be noted that Luther does show one Catholic priest in a sympathetic and positive light: Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz), Luther’s mentor. Many Protestants respectfully acknowledge von Staupitz as a devout Christian who was instrumental in helping Luther grasp the gospel of grace, though he remained a Catholic to the end and was horrified at Luther’s religious revolt. Cajetan, too, is not entirely negatively portrayed — he comes off better than Leo, anyway — and there’s some sympathy for the anonymous priests we see under attack in the peasant uprising.

In a word, Luther is no The Magdalene Sisters. However, von Staupitz is clearly the exception to the rule. And certainly the film shows nothing that in any way reflects negatively on its hero.

Problematic Distortions

Luther is equally uncritical in its positive estimation of the Reformation itself. Among judicious Protestants the Reformation has often been called a “tragic necessity” — necessary, in this view, because of what the Catholic Church had become, but tragic because it split Western Christendom, opened the door to further splintering among Protestants, and created a stumbling-block to reception of the gospel. Luther, however, evinces almost none of this ambiguity; von Staupitz’s misgivings aside, the Reformation is seen as a wholly positive thing, a triumph of religious freedom and conscience.

Still more problematic are Luther’s distortions of the Catholic doctrines of indulgences, which, along with relics, are its main theological target. (Curiously, the film basically bypasses the central issues of sola fide and sola scriptura, as well as the sacrifice of the Mass, priesthood, and other major Catholic–Protestant bones of contention.)

The film perpetuates a confusion common among Protestants regarding references to indulgences of so many “days,” here taken to mean so many fewer days in purgatory, whereas in fact it refers to the equivalent of so many days of penance on earth.

The film also confuses indulgences with absolution from sin itself, from guilt — which is hardly credible, since absolution from sin was obviously always freely available to all Catholics everywhere in the confessional, a major institution of 16th-century Catholic life. That indulgences offer only remission of temporal punishments due to sins already repented of and forgiven — a fact clarified at the time by Leo himself — is not mentioned.

One of the film’s most egregious distortions is its portrayal of Luther’s German translation of the Bible as the first of its kind, and a thing forbidden and feared by Rome. In fact Catholic German scholars had produced at least eighteen previous German Bibles with Church approval (Durant, 369).

That’s not to deny the significance of Luther’s achievement: His Bible, though flawed, was superior to previous editions in two important ways. First, where previous editions had been made from the Latin Vulgate, Luther worked from Greek and Hebrew texts. Second, Luther was a great German stylist, and his edition was vigorous and literarily superior to previous editions. Still, in having a character describe the very notion of a German Bible as “the thing Rome fears most,” Luther both falsely maligns Rome, and perpetuates the Protestant canard of the Church “forbidding” the scriptures to the laity.

One gets the distinct impression that at no point in the process did the filmmakers consult with Catholic scholars or historians in order to avoid perpetuating Protestant misunderstandings misimpressions. As a result, they have produced a partisan film that will be edifying to Lutherans, misleading to the uninformed of all stripes, and objectionable to knowledgeable Catholics.

This is a shame, because in many ways Luther is an admirable effort. Had the filmmakers been willing to allow a bit of ambiguity, take a more critical warts-and-all look at its hero, and give the 16th-century Catholic Church its due, they might have created a film one could recommend Catholics and Protestants watching together and discussing and debating afterwards. As it is, Luther should certainly be debated by those who see it, but I can’t recommend watching it in the first place.

(c) 2003 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website is the Decent Films Guide.

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