Martin Luther (1483-1546) is clearly one of the central figures of the Middle Ages. The man launched the Protestant movement, founded a church, helped standardize the German language, revolutionized ecclesiastical music with his congregational hymns and gave German nationalists their chief political issue for 100 years. No two-hour movie is going to do justice to such a life. Nevertheless, “Luther” gamely tries to cram in everything.
Produced with major funding from Thrivent, a Lutheran organization, and carrying more than a whiff of missionary zeal, “Luther” will appeal mostly to history buffs and those interested in questions of religion. Shot on 100 locations in three countries and outfitted with impressive props, costumes, art direction and medieval streets, “Luther” makes up for what it lacks in vigorous storytelling with such production values.
Veteran TV director Eric Till hands the task of embodying the religious reformer to Joseph Fiennes. While Fiennes seems to age nary a day over the course of Luther’s long career —other than changes to his hair style — he does give a sense of the intellectual firebrand who led one of history’s major revolts. His Luther is always in earnest, gaining increasing confidence in his own infallibility even as he questions the pope’s. Certainly, he gets all the good lines, turning him into the kind of hero one usually finds in books written for young adults.
The movie’s first scene recounts the legend of the young Luther vowing to become a monk when struck by a bolt of lightning. By the very next scene, he has accomplished this task, despite his father’s opposition. Almost immediately, he is torturing himself with guilt over sins both real and imagined. He desperately longs for a merciful God, who will forgive rather than cruelly punish. His mentor, Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz), swiftly packs him off first to Rome — which is a moral cesspool — then to the University of Wittenberg. Achieving a doctorate in theology in no time, Dr. Luther is soon performing stand-up comedy routines, poking fun at the nonsensical nature of “indulgences” and holy relics for an appreciative audience of fellow theologians.
Indulgences — the practice of greedy churchmen to confer the forgiveness of sin in exchange for hard cash — is what causes Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. It is here that writers Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan do a fine job at sketching the political and social situation in the German states, which leads to the Reformation. But in the movie’s extreme haste, things of huge importance get glossed over.
Luther’s translation of the New Testament from a Greek text into German appears to take place in a fortnight rather than over years. The importance not only of this but a later German translation of the Old Testament into a rich vocabulary equal to Shakespeare’s is never felt in the movie. So too Luther’s marriage to an ex-nun (Claire Cox) is tacked onto the movie’s final section without any appreciation for the profound impact this had on German culture and the Protestant world.
The actors do a decent job of bringing these historical figures to life. Among the well-known name actors, Peter Ustinov is his old scenery-chewing self as Luther’s protector and prince, Friedrich, but nonetheless fun to watch. Alfred Molina doesn’t get nearly as many opportunities, but he too is a hammy delight as an indulgence-peddling monk.