Political Film Society - Newsletter #181 - October 15, 2003

October 15, 2003


A biopic about the life of Martin Luther is a most ambitious undertaking indeed, and director Eric Till has responded to the challenge with Luther as a study of a man whose ideas successfully challenge the ossified theology of Roman Catholicism under Leo XII as well as the imperialistic ambitions of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V. The film begins with an adult Luther (played by Ralph Fiennes) walking on a road in the night, so besieged by lightning in a storm that he is convinced that God is calling him to greatness, similar to the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. He then abandons the study of law to enter the Augustinian order in 1506. Soon, the clear-thinking mind of a lawyer confronts something very odd about the way Christianity is being practiced. On a pilgrimage from Erfurt to Rome, he is horrified that salvation is being promoted through a ritual of climbing up stone steps, using the knees, to reach a summit where further indulgences are sold, while priests visit brothels and accept coins before the faithful scrape their knees on the steps. In short, the religion to which he has committed himself is simply getting rich on formalistic practices that have nothing to do with sacred beliefs. When he returns to Erfurt, Johann von Staupitz (played by Bruno Ganz) concludes that Luther should be studying at a theological university, so he sends Luther to Wittenberg University in Saxony, which is ruled by eccentric Prince Friedrich (played by Peter Ustinov). As a student, he learns quickly, spotting contradictions in conventional theology. For example, he questions the view that salvation can only come through Rome by noting that the consequence of such a view, which is contradicted by Scripture, would be to condemn all Greek Christians. Soon his teacher and fellow students are swept into the logic of his rigorous interpretations of the Bible. Meanwhile, the pope wants to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica, a most expensive project, so he sends Johan Tetzel (played by Alfred Molina) throughout Germany to promise eternal salvation as a reward for making monetary contributions so that Rome can pay back a loan from the Fuggers. Furious that Tetzel is playing a trick on the people, in 1517 Luther nails Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, and soon Tetzel's contributions dry up.

Whereas previous efforts to question Rome were quickly forgotten and easily silenced, now the existence of the printing press means that Luther's document is widely distributed. Rome is angry. In 1521, Luther is summoned to a confrontation at Worms where he refuses to recant the Ninety-Five Theses as well as other writings, resulting in his excommunication by Leo XII (played by Uwe Ochsenknecht). Fearing that Luther would be assassinated, Prince Friedrich, who has been trying to retain the cash in Saxony that previously flowed to Rome to fund papal extravagances, then arranges to kidnap him and to hide him out, thereby giving Luther an opportunity to translate the Bible into German. However, Luther's refusal to bow to Rome emboldens some of his fellow theological professors in his absence to speak out, which in turn triggers a peasant revolt in Saxony, since the common people conclude that they have been cheated by a false religion of graven images, indulgences, and phony saints. After as many as 100,000 peasants die in the uprising, Luther is summoned to restore order. However, in 1530, the princes of Germany are summoned before the Holy Roman Emperor (played by Torben Liebrecht) at Augsburg to renounce the new Lutheran teachings, but the princes remain defiant. The film ends as Luther marries Katerina von Borg (played by Claire Cox), and Protestantism begins to spread. Titles at the end indicate that somewhat over 500 million Protestants now worship throughout the world, attributing to Luther the eventual recognition of the need for religious freedom. However, that recognition took nearly a century after the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which culminated in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which then recognized that each state was free to choose its own state religion independent of Rome. The purpose of the film is clearly to challenge Roman Catholicism even today, as the most profound statement in the film, by Cardinal Cajetan (played by Mathieu Carrière), is that the pope and his advisers at the time of Luther were intellectually incapable of grasping the opportunity for a reform that might have prevented a split in Christianity. But of course Roman Catholicism in 2003 remains a theologically conservative, and Luther hints that the reason as before is found in the politics of running a vast church where common people, deemed intellectually incapable of understanding the basis for their beliefs, are expected to follow ritual and tradition. MH