Historical dramas that stick closely to the real people and events generally
make for poor, if not boring, cinema. On the other hand, those that take
liberties with the source material and add fictional elements, do better.
Witness the outstanding "Gladiator" that created its own hero while fitting
the hero's exploits into the framework of classic Roman history. Not so,
"Luther" whose fictional elements dare not go beyond canonical bounds.
And, while a description of the first frames of a movie is rarely important
or necessary, the first frames of this one essentially suggests how the
reformation of the church got started. In this initial sequence, bolts of
lightning reveal a man running in a field in the darkness of night as though
they were aimed at him. He splashes down into the mud and cries out, "Save
me, St. Anne", vowing that, if she does him this small favor, he'll become
a monk and devote his life to the church. Thus we are introduced to Martin
Luther as well as to the proposed landscape of his mind.
Profoundly intense and passionate about the spiritual care of souls, both his
own and others, we then see Luther (Joseph Fiennes) as a monk, celebrating
his first mass, trembling in fear at consecrating the elements of Holy
Communion, and as he starts moving within the political hierarchy in order to
right the church's many wrongs.
In the year of 1505, the sale of "indulgences" is chief among these wrongs,
one the church doesn't recognize as a corruption of spiritual guidance. In
the hands of these holy pietists, exemplified by the hawking style of Johann
Tetzel (Alfred Molina), a farthing to buy a religious favor is marketing of a
conman's sort. Luther sees its degrading effects upon the church and
sets out to Rome to open up its greedy eyes to its failures. This is the
beginning of the process that will be called reformation.
Not so easy, though, because he's playing with the system's financial
underpinnings and going against the paragons who control it, like Father
Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) and the pope himself, Leo XII (Uwe
Ochsenknecht). Who does this pipsqeak monk think he is? The rejection of
the upstart's notions leads to his spiritual anguish and a wrestle with his
beliefs, even as he begins to be heard (and followed) by the masses.
Someone else who begins to believe and support the rebel and his teachings
is Friedrich the Wise (Peter Ustinov in the most colorful performance of the
movie), a rather pragmatic and faithless prince of the German territories at
Augsburg. He gains courage by the passion of Luther's fiery sermons and
supports his ideas by informing Emperor Charles V of his decision to defend
While we're not in a position to tell you what's true or not, the totality is
a certain revelation of how Lutheranism came about as an offshoot religious
following. "Luther" is educational. Furthermore, it's likely to engender
inspiration amidst the pews, as this cinematic offering is clearly
designed to do.
For those with a less ready sense of awe in religious experience, the
skeleton portrait of a 25 year-long tumult and the man who led it is less than
grabbing. Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love"), a fine and fully trained
actor, brings an excess of training and control to his rendering of the role
-- too much to get us down to the visceral level of the man and the interior
wounds of his battles. The film takes on the character of the lead, and it
winds up feeling like a lot of strutting and emoting.
The satisfaction element of the movie comes in the portrayal of that
diplomatic ace, Friedrich, by Sir Peter Ustinov (oscars for his roles in
"Spartacus" and "Topkapi"). With a dash of whimsy and a splash of vision,
he's the delight of the ensemble, but not quite its rescuer.
Bruno Ganz ("Wings of Desire"), as Luther's personal priest and advisor,
shows considerable depth and a keen play of changing motivations. Claire Cox
as Katharina von Bora, Luther's late-in-life spouse, provides her role no
Technical credits are fully up to the specs called for by historical
dramatization. Praise for this goes to Robert Fraisse, Director of
Photography, Rolf Zehetbauer, Production Designer; and Ulla Gothe, costume
Now, if this movie makes you want to learn more, explore the historical
record. We commend you to your favorite search engine.
~~ Jules Brenner