It is unlikely audiences will attend this film for an objective historical portrait; its primary audience is probably among believers who seek inspiration.
The primary audience for this film is Protestants who will watch it to cheer for their hero. And contrary to what Ebert suggests, you will not be disappointed. This is a tremendous film, highly recommended.
The challenges of making a religious film, and wisely the film makers decided to go with the religious approach, are great. It is just too easy to be too cliché, to bombastic, or too holy. This film avoids all those errors. Neither is it a period piece, not a costume drama. This is an exciting movie about an exciting story. Excellent scenes with horses riding through dark forests, french horns, and everything that could be desired.
The music is excellent. Richard Harvey‘s score perfectly supports the script. At first I was disappointed that he did not incorporate A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. But upon reflection that might have been too much of a Protestant sledgehammer. He did use one of Luther’s hymns, one I did not recognize. This movie could have used more of Luther the musician. A few scenes of Fiennes playing the lute and singing would have gone a long way to brightening this very intense movie.
The Protestants who will love this film will fall into two groups, those with only a vague knowledge of the historical events in this film, and those of us who have read numerous histories of the Reformation. It is very difficult to satisfy both groups, but this film does.
The film opens with the famous lightening storm where the young Luther promises God to become a monk in exchange for his life and takes us to the Augsburg Confession.
He must have been quite a man. I doubt if he was much like the uncertain, tremulous figure in “Luther,” who confesses, “Most days, I’m so depressed I can’t even get out of bed.”
This is actually drawn directly from the historical record. Luther was famously subject to prolonged periods of deep depression. He was also famous for his arguments with the devil. If you visit Erfut Castle you can see where Luther threw ink at the devil. The stain is still there.
My favorite scenes are the exchanges between Luther and Spalatin, such as early in the film when Luther has been summoned to Rome and Luther says “I cannot believe that the Pope would issue such an order,” whereupon Spalatin replies “welcome to the world of politics.” There is another great exchange in Erfurt Castle where Spalatin says, of translating the bible into German, “It’s the thing Rome fears most,” whereupon Luther responds with a sly smile, “Well, you must blame the author for that.”
Alfred Molina is brilliant as Johann Tetzel, playing the infamous seller of indulgence with just the perfect blend of stern Dominican and ingenious traveling salesman.
The iconic scene of nailing the 95 theseses is done brilliantly, with the pounding of the hammer echoing into the nave of Castle Church, and by inference, every church in Europe. The scene is mixes with scenes of printing presses (who might as well be listed as a supporting cast member) and crashing indulgence sales.
I like the Cardinal Cajetan in this movie and sympathize with his frustration. Like the historical Cajetan, the one in the movie portrayed as a reformer. However, the historical Cajetan was, like most Dominicans of that era, far too keen on burning people.
The question arises as to why they did not burn Luther after his meeting with Cajetan in 1518. The reason is that burning Luther would have offended Frederick the Wise. Since Frederick was an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and since the Emperor Maximilian I was ailing, the Pope did not want to risk offending any of the Electors, lest the Papacy lose influence on the selection of the next Holy Roman Emperor. Ranke details how Frederick the Wise required a promise of a trial in Germany for anyone accused of a crime, in anticipation of charges against Luther, before he voted for Charles V for Emperor.
The movie follows the movie hat rule: The more corrupt the character, the more absurd his hat. Of course Luther has the monk’s shaven tonsure. He’s one of those wise guys you find in every class, who knows more than the teacher. When one hapless cleric is preaching “there is no salvation outside the Church,” Luther asks, “What of the Greek Christians?” and the professor is stumped.
The professor of course is the famous Andreas Karlstadt. This is the challenge of telling Luther’s story; Luther is surrounded by so many historical giants. The uprising that Karlstadt would lead was not Protestant versus Catholics, but Anabaptist radicals against conservative reformers. Protestantism began to fracture from the very moment of its birth.
The excommunication scene is wonderfully presented. The text of the bull is read over a scene of Leo X spearing a boar with a sound track of french horns blazing. It could not be more splendidly told.
I like the way this movie handles Luther at the Diet of Worms. The very quiet voice that Fiennes employs is counter intuitive, but creates a great tension. Of course he uses the most famous words Luther never said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Luther never said that, but since that is the only thing people know about him, you can’t leave it out of the movie. The rest of the speech is drawn directly from the historical record and it pretty splendid that Luther was brave enough to look the Emperor in the eye and say it. It made him a national hero.
When he leaves the priesthood and marries the nun Katharina von Bora (Claire Cox), where is the passion that should fill him? Their romance is treated like an obligatory stop on the biographical treadmill, and although I am sure Katharina told Martin many tender things, I doubt one of them was “We’ll make joyous music together.” This Martin Luther is simply not a joyous music kind of guy.
Compared to the historical record the movie gives us a red hot romance. Luther was very worried about the nuns who had run away from the convents and was anxious to find husbands for all of them. Katharina von Bora was the only one left and she suggested that she could marry Luther or one of the other reformers (whose name now escapes me). Luther decided that he would marry her. It was not until he was married that he decided he really really really really liked Katharina von Bora. In all his letters he constantly praises his wife.
This is a wonderful movie and highly recommended.