LUTHER (Eric Till, USA/Germany, 2003, 6)
Circumstances don’t come together like this. I saw LUTHER with a Lutheran friend (Wisconsin Synod) … on Reformation Day. Although frankly, if noting that Reformation Day is the same day as the Satanic holiday of Halloween isn’t enough to make you Catholic, Christ Himself would probably be powerless. Is LUTHER a good film? Yes. Is it a great film? No. You just have to go into it with the right set of expectations. LUTHER is a hagiography, a Protestant “Lives of the Saints” film. Expect that, and the film delivers nicely. But my fellow Papists are advised to have thick skin.
Is LUTHER historically or theologically distorted? Yes, in a certain sense. People more knowledgeable than I have had more severe problems with its history and theology than I could possibly have had. I can forgive it showing none of Luther’s anti-Semitism (neither atypical of the period nor the reason Luther matters). Or passing over his abusive, scatalogical debating style (his rants against Erasmus in “Bondage of the Will” hardly matter any more, though they make for ‘interesting’ reading). In any event, those features of Luther became prominent later in his life than the period the film shows and I don’t think that that focus was a deliberate choice, made to duck those issues. It is simply that the most-important things Luther did, the reason he is important in a way Huss or Tyndale are not, he did early in his life — his break with the Catholic Church on [in part] the grounds of individualism, his [sorta] bucking the German princes into ending the Holy Roman Empire and other features of the medieval system, his lighting the fire of German-ness and thus nationalism in general. That was all early. And the Catholic Counter-reformation and the Enlightenment, which the Protestant Reformation helped spark, are obviously beyond the scope of a Luther biopic.
But what is not forgivable is the film reducing the Protestant Reformation to questions of indulgences (practices the Church promptly reined in) and Papal authority. These were both prominent issues certainly, but there isn’t even a passing reference to any of the others, like sacramentality or soteriology. In fact, joking before the movie, my Lutheran friend and I devised soccer-fan style incantations to chant during the relevant scenes (“SOH-la-FEE-day, SOH-la-FEE-day …”) Maybe “sola fide” and “sola gratia” might make people’s eyes glaze over today, but that’s precisely why the issues are important. Their absence gives us a Luther comfortably domesticated to Our Virtues. (Yeah, freedom and the individual! Boo, control and authority!) Also, even I knew that the shock the movie’s Luther professed at the peasant massacres and attacks on Catholic churches was a sop to modern-day audiences. Even a Lives of the Saints portrayal has some responsibility in these regards.
Nevertheless, this is a fairly good retelling of the Founding Myth of Protestantism. We turn reverently from one station to the next in the story, though I admit my knowledge of the history here is less than perfect. My Lutheran friend had to tell me after the movie that the story of the lightning storm that begins the film is true, from Luther himself. But the roll call of scenes is gone through — the trip to Rome, the disillusionment, the quarrels with his teachers, his seeing John Tetzel sell indulgences in a brazen manner, the nailing of the 95 Theses on a Wittenberg church door, the condemnation of Luther’s works, the Diet of Worms, the marriage to a wayward nun, the Bible translation, the Augsburg Confession. And so on. The history is also not as anti-Catholic as it could have been — the down side of the Reformation is clearly shown (even if Luther’s attitude toward it is not), as is the worshipful “New-Pope” reaction of the German people; Church figures are shown doubting some of Tetzel’s practices (they would soon be repudiated) and also realizing that Pope Leo didn’t handle everything as well as he might have.
From the outside, Joseph Fiennes just looks like a horrible casting mistake — Luther was a peasant mensch; Fiennes has a fine-fingered white-collar aura. But Fiennes makes it work by playing Luther as tortured. Some critics objected to this characterization, but there can hardly be any doubt that Luther saw himself in the constant shadow of God’s judgment. So when he goes “bonkers” praying in his room the night before his famous words at the Diet of Worms, it recodes in advance Fiennes’ relatively subdued except-when-clearly-stretching performance before his judges. When Fiennes says the next day, before God, and recites the modern man’s credo: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me” … well … a chill went up and down my spine. Really … a physical chill.
The truly delicious performance in the film though, is given by the great Peter Ustinov as Frederick of Saxony. It has some of the qualities of Orson Welles’ late work as an actor (or even the performance Charles Laughton gave in SPARTACUS, opposite Ustinov himself). There’s something liberating and relief-giving in the total hammy ease and self-confidence Ustinov flashes in playing a cynical, knowing, sly old man. It’s as if Ustinov knows he’s the best actor in the show, the thing you’re gonna be looking at in every scene he’s in, and dammit, he’s gonna have some fun hamming it up, and you’re gonna have fun watching him.
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