Best Christian Film, 2003 - 4 Stars

Good Production Design and Acting Recreate Period and Man

Eric Till (Bonhoeffer: Agent Of Grace) does a good job directing this bio pic of Martin Luther from a script by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan. It is solid filmmaking with no sensational effects. It is acting - period. The time and place are Germany at the beginning of the 16th century, when the Catholic Church was selling indulgences like they were candy. It is also the eve of the Protestant Reformation, a period when it was dangerous to speak one's own mind. But Martin Luther had no problem with that, so his character is enthralling.

Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare In Love, Enemy At The Gates) does a fine job playing Luther, as do Jonathan Firth (Victoria And Albert) as Girolamo Aleander, Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2, Frida) as Johann Tetzel, Claire Cox (Eragon) as Katharina von Bora, Peter Ustinov (Jesus Of Nazareth, Topkapi, Billy Budd, Spartacus, Quo Vadis) as Frederick the Wise and Bruno Ganz (Wings Of Desire) as Johann von Saupitz. The production design is striking, with superb cinematography, costumes and sets. It's feel for the period is uncanny.

Of course, the story centers around Luther's nailing his 95 Theses to the doors of the Wittenberg Church in 1517. Unfortunately, that scene is so underplayed, you could almost miss realizing what's happening. When Luther goes to nailing, nothing is said to indicate that these are the 95 Theses or that that is the Wittenberg Church. Yet, that is the event upon which the entire movie, Martin Luther's life, and the Protestant Reformation hang.

The second most important event is when Luther is standing before the Diet of Worms and is asked to recant his theses and the entire body of his works. That scene is handled very well, and is when Luther utters his famous words, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen." The words, "Here I stand, God help me, I cannot do otherwise," was never said by Luther.

For Luther not to do what the Church is asking means not only excommunication but to be burned at the stake. He knows that, so this is a very intense, very important, very courageous moment.

Fortunately for Luther, he has become a national hero to the German people, and a favorite of Frederick the Wise. So the Church is hindered from immediately carrying out their plans. Luther goes into hiding, with the help of Frederick, and it is during this period that he writes the German Bible. This further infuriates Church leaders, who ask the Emperor of Germany, Charles V (played with understatement by Torben Liebrecht), to demand that Luther be arrested and burned as an heretic.

This is the third great event. Charles calls together his princes and demands that they give him Luther, which they refuse to do by bowing before the Emperor with their heads lowered, indicating that they would rather be beheaded than give up Luther and their new Bible. This is a great scene - my favorite in the film - and shows how important it is that civil authorities support the Word of God in word and action. This is the moment when the Church lost it's tyrannical authority over the state.

There are other memorable scenes, like when Luther advises the princes to suppress a civil uprising, in which peasants are looting churches and killing churchmen, and it ends in a bloodbath of thousands, which he never intended. This shows the tremendous influence Luther had. He was a man of his times and a man for all time. His vision and courage helped establish the relationship between church and state that we enjoy today, as well as lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation and the giving of the Word of God to all people in their own languages. He helped to end the tyranny of the Church, which at that time fed on the superstitions and ignorance of the people.

This was a turning point in history that everyone should be very aware of, making this film essential viewing. The only other film versions of Luther's life that I am aware of are Guy Green's Luther from 1973, starring Stacy Keach, Patrick Magee and Hugh Griffith, and based on John Osborne's play; and Irving Pichel's Martin Luther from 1953, starring Niall MacGinnis, John Ruddock, Pierre Lefevre and Guy Verney. Both are good, but the latter is probably the better.

Rated PG-13

Waitsel Smith, June 1, 2007

Text, © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Picture, © 2004 MGM. All Rights Reserved.

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