Reviews of Luther Movie by Seminary Faculty

Reviews of the movie LUTHER (2003) from faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. Original comments here:

Overall, they feel the movie to be an “ok” introduction to Luther, but absent in relaying the power and drama of Luther’s historical personality. They find the Luther movie to be “nice”.

I have also seen the Luther film. I liked it, but I am not so deep in the facts and history of Luther to know the difference. So I defer to more learned minds…

Rebel, Genius, Liberator
A Film by Eric Till, Released in September 2003

Reviews by:

Pastor Henry Morris
Dr. Kirsi Stjerna
Pastor Richard Koenig
Dr. Eric Gritsch

LUTHER — Harmless Bio-Pic That Gives Just Enough of Luther’s Life To Be Useful
Review by the Rev. Henry E. Morris

Unlike Martin Luther, the new movie about him is rather pleasant but not compelling. The film depicts famous vignettes from his life: the lightning induced vow to join a monastery, the moment of panic during his first Mass, the posting of 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Church door, but does not convey the gravity of these events. At the end of the film we are not sure what Luther has accomplished and not aware of the powerful forces both within him and around him that drove him to greatness.

The Luther we see in LUTHER is, for the most part, nice. One doesn’t have to look far into his writings to wonder where they got that idea. Imagine Martin Luther strolling the center aisle at Mass delivering sweet toned homilies about how loving God really is. The passionate, combative, highly polemical Luther does not appear much in this film. More’s the pity. He is a lot more interesting than the kindly town parson depicted here.

The terrible consequences of the Peasant Rebellion are depicted powerfully in sobering scenes of devastation. Instead of showing us the slaughter, the film shows us the slaughtered. Piles of bodies, whole villages, charred ruins filled with death. It is enough to make us wonder how the growing Reformation movement ever could have produced something this awful. Unfortunately, such questions remain unaddressed in this film. We see a stunned Luther brooding over the destruction, but get no hint that he might be aware of his responsibility for it. In this film, Luther grieves over this holocaust because he loves the people and God loves the people and well, it’s just not right to butcher them.

The film is not without its charms. Peter Ustinov shows us a wily Frederick the Wise. We can see how Frederick earned his sobriquet. Having undercut his own huge investment in relics by supporting Luther, we can see his dawning realization that betting on actual Grace, while righteous, will not be good for business. But he realizes the immense political importance of undermining the Roman authority and is persistent in his efforts to do so. Watching him work the Emperor and the Imperial system is the most fun we’re going to have at this movie.

And there is something to be said for depicting Luther as approachable. I like to think of him as one who would extend himself for a miserably poor woman and her disabled daughter and would take pity on the family of a young man who commits suicide. His famous rapport with his students is hinted at in the delivery of a hilarious lecture in which the foibles of papal Rome are lampooned with gusto.

What we have here is a harmless bio-pic that gives us enough of the outline of Luther’s life to be useful as an introduction. I can’t imagine that this is what the film makers were hoping to achieve. Alas, a movie about Luther that lacks depth is an achievement of sorts.

The Luther Movie: Too Much Left in the Shadows
review by Kirsi I. Stjerna

Real life is often much juicier than any movie script-writer can offer. Certainly this is true with Martin Luther whose life is about as rich a source for a great movie as there is. One does not need to add any hyperbole or drama in the story – there’s blood and passion, there’s brain and politics, there’s love and sex, there’s courage and conviction, there’s corruption and correction. Why add anything more – or leave anything out?

Why then is it so hard to make an excellent movie true to Luther? Perhaps his early opponents were right, that he has at least seven heads and to try to imagine them all in one movie may just be simply possible. As it is also not that easy for us to imagine time other than ours, even with all the historical data we have been able to gather so far.

I’m not saying that the new movie on my favorite historical figure is bad. Nor am I giving it an excellent grade. It could have been outstanding if the “other sides” of Luther had been included, and if some unnecessary historical mistakes had been eliminated.

I saw the new Luther movie in Hanover Value Cinemas with my two elementary school age children and scoped a couple of seminarians there also. In a way the movie would well serve as seminarians’ training tool: “Watch the movie and catch the errors and gaps!” It well serves as an efficient, entertaining test for one’s Luther Trivia.

Who would I recommend the movie to, other than seminarians who need to see all that there is to see about Luther out there? I think I need to see it again to give a firm recommendation of the targeted audience. But after first viewing, I would not say I would not recommend the movie to children under certain age – there’s a lot to learn from the 16th century life through the beautiful and dark images in the movie and Ralph Fiennes is, in the words of my daughter, “pleasant to look at” – but it requires constant commentary and explanation.

My children who I thought are immune to violence and scary movies (thanks to Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network) got actually scared with this movie after the first five minutes. There was something very dark about the movie, not merely the quantity of blood shed or the number of amputated limbs, but something else — the tone of the movie. It was full of angst and darkness and agony. I spent the two hours of the movie assuring the little Luther fanatics that “it will get lighter” after the “wedding scene.” I assured them that there was more to Luther than this.

It never got lighter. There really was no wedding scene. There barely was Katarina von Bora – which is too bad, because the actress could have really portrayed her well, I think.

As the movie does point out, Luther getting married was such a huge step, a scandal, thus it would have merited more of a celebration in the movie, not to mention bringing up the obvious effects of his marriage in his personality, life and life experiences, beer drinking and eating, as well as his thinking and writing. I personally was waiting to see how the movie would change when Katie enters the picture and six children are being born and Luther transitions from the solitary monk-preacher of reform to a husband, father, and jovial host in his noisy, crowded Augustinian monastery turned into a “parsonage.” None of that happened in the movie.

The movie ended too soon, but even so, by 1530’s, several results of their love had been given birth. Witnessing the birth of his children and loving them and witnessing his wife mother their children was in all a transforming experience for Luther, and it shows in his writings.

For those movie viewers who do not know this very important part of Luther’s personal and public life leave the movie with an incomplete image of Luther. A stereotypical and old-fashioned I would say, an image drawing from sources not drawing from the most recent and significant research on Luther’s life, personality, marriage, love life, and other such influences that shaped his theology and contribution significantly and in part made him the exceptional theologian he became.

As important as Luther’s criticism of the apparent abuses and corruption in the church and the abusive theology of the time is, also important are his insights on the sacredness of life in all vocations, the presence of God in all the aspects of human life, including the personal domestic arena and human relations. As invested as Luther was in purifying the teaching of the gospel and religious practices, he was equally passionate about the need to educate, teach and nourish the Christian faith at homes and with children; this was the occasion for his Catechisms, which undeniable represent his most lasting legacy as a teacher in the church. The movie could have done more this emphasis.

There were several exaggerations or simple historical inaccuracies – unfortunate and
unnecessary – and for listing of those I’d refer to Dr. Eric Gritsch’s review (see below). I share his disappointment that certain precious details have been messed with for movie making purposes, all of which eats away some of the movie’s credibility and frustrates all Luther lovers. One has to have the basic facts of Luther’s life and the main events around him correctly told in order to understand him. That is as important as the authenticity of the costumes.

Speaking of authenticity, I am not sure at which speed Luther’s dietary changes caused him to gain weight – thanks to Katie Luther, most certainly – but we all know that he did not maintain Ralph Fiennes’ figure for too long after getting married. I suppose it would have been too much to ask from Fiennes to “do the Robert De Niro thing”, for the sake of authenticity.

Also, I wished Andreas Karlstadt had gotten more of a role in the movie. His contribution, for better and worse, in the early days of Reformation is more important than the movie’s illustration. But, I guess Karlstadt must suffer being misconstrued and relegated (as is Katie) to the shadows of Luther.

Personally I found most irritating the simplicity with which the story of Martin’s and Katarina’s meeting and mating was told. There is much mystique about the beginnings of their relationship while their love has been made quite public by Luther himself. The complex story of the two would have deserved more attention – and also added a significant dimension to the movie.
If the movie wanted to show what was important and dear to Luther, it did fail in leaving Luther’s beloved “partner in calamities” and his children in the shadows of a legend.

Humbly speaking
Kirsi Stjerna, Director of the Institute for Luther Studies, 2001-
Nov. 6, 2003

Pretty Picture — But Not Luther and Not the Reformation
Review by the Rev. Richard Koenig

Well, I saw it. Took the train all the way into South Station in Boston where I met a friend who accompanied me to Kendall Square to see “Luther.”

I think the 2 and 1/12 stars the Globe critics gave it was generous.

I didn’t recognize this Luther. He was a nice guy, courageous, but not the Luther who closed with God in a titanic struggle for grace.

It was all too easy. Sure, he had a few bad moments but Staupitz assured him that God was not angry with him but he was angry with God.And so he seemed to say, OK, and then went out to crack jokes as he preached to his congregation and began to tweak the authorities.

I kept thinking of “A Man for All Seasons” ( Peter O’Toole?) and how his struggles were portrayed. “Luther” doesn’t come close.

The PBS Luther did better. So did the 1952 version which at least told us how he got to justification before launching his Reformation.
Even Osborne’s play (on which the film was purportedly based-not so) took a stab at this and had Luther arriving at what the Bible meant by the righteousness of God while sitting on the john.

The trailer said nice things. The credits went on for ages and told us that Martin Marty and Tim Lull and Clancy Kleinhans were consulted along the way with others.

It is a pretty picture, in spite of some dead peasants and a poor little peasant woman who with her crippled child lay dead (crutches by her side) as a result of the Peasants War. But it isn’t Luther or the Reformation. Maybe in part, but not in the round. But again it’s hard to depict what it’s like to go through Anfechtungen to the point where one is near despair only to come face to face with a God who against all logic forgives.

Use with caution.
October 4, 2003


“LUTHER” A Review of Its Historicity
Review by the Rev. Dr. Eric W. Gritsch

Though well directed, acted and dramatically impressive, some caution needs to be exercised when the film might be used for education based on historical evidence. There is always room for “dramatic license”, but when dealing with such influential historical figures as Martin Luther a fundamental loyalty to historical facts must be preserved. I only focus on some basic facts which have been ignored, indeed abused, in the sequence of portraying Luther as a man who changed world history, as the film correctly assumes.

1. Luther’s first celebration of the Mass revealed his great anxiety about the priestly power to bring Christ from heaven to the altar. He wanted to leave the altar, but was signaled by his prior to continue. There is no evidence that he spilled the wine. Moreover, his father attended with many members of the family, gave 20 guilders as a gift to the monastery and, despite some criticism of Luther for becoming a monk rather than a lawyer, the father stayed and enjoyed the celebration. He did not leave after a public outburst of anger, as the film alleges.

2. The Uprising of the Peasants made Luther so angry that he called for their killing as a divine mandate since the peasants identified the freedom in the gospel with violent liberation from their feudal landlords. About 5000 peasants were finally massacred in the so-called battle of Frankenhausen, Saxony; their “noble” opponents lost six men. The spiritual leader of the rebellious peasants in Saxony was not Carlstadt, but Thomas Müntzer who was executed. All rebellious peasants in German territories numbered about 60.000. About 6000 were killed, not 100.000 or more, as the film alleges.

3. The Augsburg Confession was developed and drafted by Melanchthon who met with and was supported by princes and other officials. Luther met with princes a year after the Diet of Augsburg, in 1531 at Smalcald when supporters founded the military Smalcald League to defend themselves against Catholic attacks. Luther never met with princes in connection with the Augsburg Confession and had no leading role in its production, as the film alleges.

4. Luther and Frederick the Wise had only a relationship through Spalatin in order to protect the prince from any accusation of personal contact with the heretical professor. Consequently, Luther never saw him (except from a distance at the Diet of Worms in 1521). The moving scene of Luther handing his prince the German Bible never took place, as the film alleges.

5. Luther at the Wartburg is the one part of his life when he agreed to hide, indeed change his appearance by being disguised as a German knight known as “Squire George” (“Junker Jörg”). While it is not necessary to show Luther with beard and knightly dress (though it would have enhanced the film), it is important that he returned to Wittenberg on his own, against the orders of Frederick the Wise. The prince did not issue a call for his return, as the film alleges.

Other minor historical flaws could be pointed out, such as the use of a legend that his spouse “Katie” had been smuggled in herring barrels with other nuns into Wittenberg. It is uncertain where the nuns were hidden during their secret journey. Some sources talk about empty barrels, others add “herring”. But no Luther scholar has confirmed the “smelly” part of the story.

Instead of highlighting a legend, the film could have portrayed in some fashion one of the most dramatic events in Luther’s career, the Leipzig Debate on July 4, 1519 with John Eck—the only occasion when he was granted his wish for a free, scholarly disputation. The American audience would have enjoyed this “Fourth of July” event in Luther’s life.

It should have been easy to receive some expert technical advice for the production of such a significant film which, after all, was sponsored by Lutherans in the United States and in Germany. History itself is a powerful medium. In the case of Luther, the historical facts themselves are just as dramatic as any film maker could make them through “dramatic license” without much concern for historicity.

The Rev. Eric W. Gritsch, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Church History
Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary
First Director of the Institute for Luther Studies (1961-94)
Member of the International Congress for Luther Research
Director of the Forum for German Culture
Zion Church of the City of Baltimore

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