Luther (10/10)

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley


In 1506, Leonardo was completing The Mona Lisa and still had 13 years to live.  Michelangelo, who had completed David, began a relationship with Pope Julius II that would culminate in his painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he started two years later.  Henry VIII was 15 years old and in two years would become King of England. Nobody had heard of a young Catholic Monk who was living in Germany.  Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) was an overly devout monk, one so pious and self-critical that he felt doomed. Despite the accomplishments of his then more famous contemporaries, this not-so-simple Monk would have a more revolutionary, world-changing effect than all three of them combined.


 Fiennes gives us a memorable picture of the great man, and the turmoil he faced. The film simplifies Lutherís journey. It shows that on a trip to Rome in 1510 he was exposed to the corrupt system of selling Indulgences (the remission of the time a soul must spend in purgatory before being admitted into Heaven), which opens Lutherís eyes for the first time.  Infuriated and inspired, he returns and the film follows tradition by showing him tacking 95 demands for change in the Church (The 95 Theses) on the Cathedral door at Wittenberg. 


In fact, what the trip to Rome showed Luther was the moral corruption of the clergy, mainly sexual.  The issue of the Indulgences didnít arise for another seven years. After his trip to Rome he became a respected lecturer. It was in 1517, seven years after his trip to Rome, that he published the 95 Theses, (scholars dispute that he ever actually tacked them on the door), but he did publish them and the world changed.


Itís possible that to appreciate the masterpiece that Director Eric Till has produced, one needs to have been raised a Catholic.  Without the knowledge of the dogma and the guilt that is still a part of a Catholicís upbringing, itís easy to believe that someone not so schooled could not comprehend the extent of the courage Luther needed to do what he did.  Iím not talking here about the physical courage to take on the most powerful organization in the world, or to risk a horrible death by The Inquisition.  Iím talking about the moral courage to turn his back on the beliefs of his upbringing; beliefs like there being no salvation outside of the Church; beliefs that the Church was a representation of God on earth and wasnít to be questioned.  Acting in the face of those beliefs took more courage than challenging a Pope or risking torture and a horrible death by burning at the stake.


The film concentrates on Luther, naturally.  The Pope is rarely seen and we never see Julius II, who was Pope in 1510, and who was an efficient businessman, who encouraged the money-raising scheme of the sale of Indulgences that finally so infuriated Luther. The Pope we see, however, is Leo X (Uwe Ochsenknecht), who succeeded Julius II in 1513 and was a disaster for the Church.  The picture presented of Leo is historically inaccurate.  Instead of strong, he was weak and economically profligate, and greatly expanded the selling of Indulgences. One criticism I have of this film is this inaccurate depiction of Leo, whose ineffective administration greatly weakened the Church economically and made Lutherís challenge much worse for the Church.


 Unfortunately, the film perpetuates the myth that Luther said ďHere I stand; I cannot do otherwiseĒ to Emperor Charles V (Toren Liebrecht) at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  In fact, what he said was, ďI cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.Ē  That sounds pretty profound to me; why diminish it by adding fiction?


Without Elector Friederich The Wise (Peter Ustinov), Luther would have been lost.  Friederich protected Luther, and from what I know, what we see in the film is accurate.  Ustinov gives an interesting interpretation of this man who was a master of achievement through non-confrontation, sort of a 16th Century Gandhi. In fact, except for compressing facts so they fit into the relatively short time frame required for a movie, and other small trifles, like the Luther quote and the depiction of Leo, this film is faithful not only in the factual presentation of the politics, but in the presentation how people lived 600 years ago.  Luther vividly depicts the filth and degradation of the lives of the people of the era.


 The 1960s were a time that produced some of the best historical dramas.  Becket (1964), A Man For All Seasons (1966), Lion in Winter (1968), all came within four years of each other.  Luther fits comfortably with these.  Even though the film doesnít deal with the negative aspects of Lutherís character and life, this is a wonderful, spellbinding movie that is as educational as it is entertaining.


 September 28, 2003


 The End