Bruce Gordon nails the errors of this bio-pic of the great German reformer
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CERT PG, 113 MINS The makers of this bio-pic have run into a familiar historical problem: how to reduce a complex movement into a coherent narrative focused on the dramatic events of one person’s life. It needs to be a good story, otherwise its audience will be confined to church halls, while at the same time remaining theologically and historically faithful to a man who is still a powerful symbol.
It is one thing to play fast and loose with the Trojan War or Alexander the Great, but Luther, even if little understood and less read, continues to evoke the fundamental division of the western Church. Luther ranks second only to Shakespeare (also recently played by Joseph Fiennes) in the amount of scholarly literature generated, yet his life has a peculiar symmetry. To a certain extent, Luther provided the filmmakers with a ready-made solution. He enjoyed a privilege granted few figures of the 16th century, or ever. He was able to write the authoritative account of the very events in which he himself had played a leading role. Towards the end of his life, Luther penned an autobiographical sketch of his dramatic journey from the nailing of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg to his break with Rome. This carefully scripted memoir, including his great moment before Charles V at Worms, quickly established itself as the “true” version of events and has been repeated in virtually every non-hostile biography of the reformer written since his death. Luther limited himself to the events of the early 1520s when, admittedly, he reached the zenith of his influence.
The period from 1517 to 1525 forms a coherent narrative full of great moments that lend themselves well to biography and cinema. After the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, however, the Reformation was no longer about Luther. It fractured into movements whose antipathy towards one another often surpassed in vehemence their shared rejection of the papacy. Luther’s decisive influence on the Reformation, both theologically and personally, was over fairly early in the match. Naturally he remained an important symbol, but the aging Luther concentrated on family, preaching, education and railing against those whom he believed to be distorting his message. None of which is particularly filmable. The makers of Luther were clearly aware of the difficulties posed by their subject but they nevertheless failed to avoid the snares.
The film takes us from 1505 to 1530. The opening scenes, with young Luther celebrating his first Mass and spilling the wine on account of his fear of God, brilliantly draw together a range of themes, including his troubled relationship with his father. Staupitz (played by Bruno Ganz, last seen as Hitler in Downfall) is Luther’s mentor and their relationship provides the intellectual and emotional core of the film. This is not a docu mentary and historical inaccuracies abound. Sadly, the Catholic hierarchy always seems to occupy darkened rooms in which it plots against this heretic, only to be foiled. Popes and cardinals come off badly and even the brilliant Cajetan is little more than a robed villain.
On the other side, the script sticks doggedly to Luther’s own portrayal of himself as a prophet. His colleagues seem rather benighted enthusiasts wholly dependent upon him. For dramatic purposes the producers have stayed with a rather old-fashioned view of Luther to the extent that Karlstadt is presented as a demented figure who might have been played by Jack Nicholson. Peter Ustinov’s Frederick the Wise is an endearing old uncle, while Charles V is a slightly transgendered figure.
This film is clearly about Luther and no one else. What makes it successful is Joseph Fiennes’ amazing ability to evoke Luther’s inner struggles with gestures and eye movements. His Luther is neither heroic or bombastic, but very much a man. In the hands of a less talented actor this film could have been a disaster.
If one accepts that people and events have been recast for dramatic purposes there are still two major difficulties. First, having brought us to Worms in 1521 it seems that the producers suddenly realised that they had an hour in which to tell the rest of the story. The last part of the film is full of vague references to historical events that will be wholly lost on those not familiar with the Reformation. It took two viewings for me to figure it out – and Reformation history is what I do for a living.
Luther’s marriage to Katerina von Bora is well portrayed, but it becomes lost in the need to mention his Bible translations, religious politics, and Catholic opposition. The confusion in the film is illustrated by the bizarre choice of the Augsburg Confession (rather misrepresented) as the end point.
The choice of ending brings us to the second difficulty. Having made a good start in portraying Luther’s religious troubles and convictions, it seems that the producers decided they needed an over-arching theme. As a result, the second half of the film portrays Luther as the champion of religious freedom against the tyranny of the institutional church as represented by the evil cardinals and Johann Tetzel.
Clearly, unlike their subject, the producers lost their nerve and decided they needed a more modern message than faith alone. This representation of the individual against the system perhaps was undertaken with an eye to the American audience, but it leaves the viewer with a hazy understanding of what the fuss was about.
Caught between accuracy and dramatic purposes, the producers have made some bad decisions. The unfortunate result is that this powerfully acted and beautifully shot film manages to sin on both sides, offering ropey history and a confusing story. Luther would never have made that mistake.
Bruce Gordon is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews and is currently writing a biography of John Calvin