Not unexpectedly, 2003’s Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes, was a huge hit in Germany, both at the box office and critically, having won several awards. In America, though, it was shown at a very limited number of screens, did what is negatively referred to as “modest business”—many of us didn’t get a chance to see it because it wasn’t well publicized and was gone before we could find it at a theatre—and received mixed reviews. Having purchased a copy, I now think there may have been a quiet if not a cleverly disguised bias in the reviews when Luther opened in the States—it was heavily bankrolled by the German Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. (Its credit is very upfront at the opening, and the end roll offers up additional Protestant financing.) Understandable: how could a view of Luther, made by German Lutherans, be fair to the Vatican? Even when viewed by someone like me, a recovering Catholic? To say nothing of American fundamentalists and conservatives who remain unforgiving of Germany’s refusal to side with us over Iraq. But Luther, for all its intents and purposes, which in effect are to educate a modern audience about a figure in religious history few know or care to know much about, is fair. Not a fully sweeping epic of the cataclysm Luther unintentionally brought about—his only aim when he posted his famous 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg church door was to induce an intellectual debate over the Vatican’s excessive, vulgar dependence on indulgences-for-pay to finance the building of St. Peter’s—the budget-restrained perspective is nevertheless encompassing and implicitly centered on Luther’s good timing to become a thorn in the Church’s corrupt side during an expansion of a little invention called the Guttenberg press that helped spread his prickly complaints. The Vatican’s head at the time, Leo X, called Luther a drunk and excommunicated him, though not before Luther himself publicly burned Leo’s papal bulls and offered up the legitimate rebuke that the pope was “no better than any other stinking sinner.” While the original 95 beefs against the corruption of the Vatican held merit—many in the Church agreed that Luther was asking the right questions and getting only arrogant evasions—the greater offense he committed was to translate the Bible into the common language of German. The Vatican demanded that the Bible remain exclusively in Latin, thereby denying the masses any interpretations of scripture. (The Holy See believed at the time that not even most priests had the intelligence to understand the Word.) The movie is factually accurate on these points, and very clear over Luther’s severe repulsion and horror that the Reformation’s violence cost thousands of lives in Germany. (What remains in question is the extent of the numbers: historical accounts say about 5,000; the film says 50,000 to 100,000.) The revolt, however, was based on more than rebellion against the Vatican: the German peasants were so swept up by the democratic spirit of the Reformation that they fought against the impositions of taxation and civil rights restrictions by the German nobility, and this, along with giving the finger to the Vatican, helped cause the blood bath that ensued. Running at 124 minutes, Luther covers a substantial amount of ground, albeit in truncated form: Luther’s fearful plea to be saved during a lightning storm is here, as well as his overheard battles with Satan; his intense fear of damnation; his famous wit as a Doctor of Theology; his controversial position on suicide; his trip to Rome that sparked his criticism and theses; his refusals to recant his positions against the errancies of the Church; his marriage to an ex-nun; the German theologians jointly refusing to bow to Charles V’s edicts that Luther be destroyed; German knights harboring him from Leo’s minions who were sent out to kill him. There’s a very brief mention of his constipation—“Porridge does nothing for my bowels”—when in fact he would regularly write home about his excrement. No references to his perpetual indigestion, hemorrhoids, his autocratic father’s frequent beatings of him when he was a youth, or his healthy appetite for sex. (He loved the sensual pungent smell of his own sweat and would sometimes wait a year before changing the sheets on his bed.) Nor any indication that he helped many nuns escape from the clutches of Rome. Nor an acknowledgement of his continual disdain of Jews. Despite wishing it had all been here, as the roadshow it would have been in another era—directed by Eric Tull, it’s the next best thing, a prestigious TV roadshow—Luther is a very satisfying entertainment, with two equally satisfying, pleasurable performances by Fiennes and Sir Peter Ustinov as Frederick the Wise. Fiennes is becoming the new Heston of historic portrayals and a much better actor to boot, capable of persuasive multiple emotions. (Unlike Heston, he neither deigns nor expects to be deified.) Ustinov in one of his last roles and not since Spartacus so terrifically audience-pleasing. With Jonathan Firth (Colin’s brother), Alfred Molina as the fiery orator-friar Tetzel, Claire Fox (as Luther’s wife Katharina von Bora, who bore six children during their 21 years of marriage), Bruno Ganz, Mathieu Carričre and Benjamin Sadler. Written by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan. Costumes: Ulla Gothe; production design: Rolf Zehetbauer; editing: Clive Barrett; photography: Robert Fraisse. Original music by Richard Harvey, whose spiritual, moody use of the Latvain Radio Choir is first rate. Filmed in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.