Though Martin Luther is one of the last millennium’s most important people, his life story just doesn’t translate well to film. He taught theology, wrote the 95 Thesis and a number of other influential tracts, translated the Bible from Latin into lay German, and didn’t bow to political pressure even when his life was threatened. He also inspired the religious wars that raged across Europe for almost 200 years during and after the Reformation, leading to the ideological rupture of the Enlightenment, which led in turn to 200+ years of revolution and counter-revolution, as well as the subsequent eras of war we’ve suffered through since then.
While it can’t all be laid at Luther’s feet, the movement begun with the posting of the 95 Thesis marks a pretty conclusive demarcation between the medieval and early modern worlds. History is a chain of causes and effects, and the Reformation is perhaps the single biggest tumbling domino since the death of Christ. That said, Luther’s life was hardly action-packed, and historical epics that don’t involve lots of bloodshed don’t tend to be popular. Moreover, the reasons he was important are simply too complicated to portray in a two-hour film: the early Reformation was all about ecclesiastical reform, complete with copious reference to various Lateran councils.
To the credit of the makers of Luther, now available on a no-frills DVD from MGM, they accepted these limitations and come up with what is, for the most part, a straightforward and concise film. Luther doesn’t become a soldier of fortune with a magic sword or get a talking monkey sidekick. He does a lot of brooding, thinking, and writing, pretty much standing on the sidelines as events snowball across Europe following the publication of his initial tracts. Still, the sheer lack of manipulation is admirable: if Luther is only partially successful as a film, in an age when viewers expect to be misled by films, it is more accurate than we have any right to expect.
This is partly due to the fact that, despite its distribution by MGM, the movie was, like Mel Gibson’s far more lavish The Passion of the Christ, an independent production. The primary name on the production credits is that of the Thrivent Foundation for Lutherans, with others including a dozen regional and state film associations across Europe, specifically Germany. The result is the type of movie you can imagine history teachers embracing, on account of the facile and accessible way it tackles the subject matter.
Unlike The Passion of the Christ, Luther is a stolid and unemotional film, a reflection of the rationalist Lutheran creed just as The Passion mirrored Gibson’s ultra-emotive brand of Catholicism. The filmmakers and performers go out of their way to lay the facts of history before the viewer in a manner that almost seems didactic, taking great care to ensure that extremely complex matters of theological import are sufficiently simplified for the comprehension of a mass audience. The film makes no great stylistic leaps, no artistic decisions that would compromise the clarity of the storytelling. While this may make for a deft history lesson, it also makes for a thoroughly bland film, with a number of bland, perfectly respectable performances.
Joseph Fiennes does a credible job in the purposefully vanilla role of the titular monk, expressing Luther’s disappointment and unhappiness in equal measure to his inspired religious conviction. But Luther is ultimately little more than a sop to history here, his great religious torments portrayed only in brief expository scenes that don’t much show his ostensibly transcendent religious experience.
Sir Peter Ustinov has a delightful time chewing the scenery as German prince (and Luther’s primary protector) Frederick the Wise. Ustinov has so much fun, in fact, that he almost seems to have drifted in from an entirely different movie, a much more fun movie. But he’s the exception in Eric Till’s movie. Perhaps this immensely intricate story would have been better served by one of those enormous BBC historical mini-series, like I, Claudius, where intricate characters, concepts, and themes unfold over many hours, by circuitous means. As it is, Luther has all the subtlety of a papal bull. You will thoroughly digest this story of Martin Luther, but most of the taste has been boiled out.