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Luther – RS Entertainment (In Theaters)

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Luther was made on a $30 million budget and was released three weeks ago to premiere as the #15 movie in America (the #2 independent film), showing on only 400 screens. The other three top-20 debut films that weekend were shown on 3152, 1226, and 2189 screens. Per screen, Luther made more money than eight of the movies ranked higher on the list. However, the movie has only made about $3 million so far and is now showing on only 311 screens, so it will certainly not turn a profit based on US theater ticket sales. This is a shame. The film is fantastic and deserves to be seen by more people. Still, most people I mention the film to have never heard of it, even some people in the most obvious target demographic, members of protestant churches.

Luther stars Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther,and tells his life story — or at least as many of the interesting bits as they can fit into just under two hours. The film opens in 1505 with Martin in a lightning storm, bolts striking the ground around him, as he commits himself to a life serving God if he just lives through this night. We then see the result of this promise, as Martin is a young monk struggling with his faith. Of course, things really kick into high gear when he is sent to Rome, where he witnesses the extravagant foolishness of the Roman church himself.

I should interject here that some have been concerned that this film is biased against the Roman Catholic Church. While I’m not a member of the RCC myself, so I can’t really say how an RCC member might feel after watching the film, I don’t consider it a commentary on the modern Roman church any more than Amistad is a commentary on racism in modern America, or Schindler’s List a commentary on modern Germany. The events depicted within the film are mostly historical fact, and while they don’t reflect well on the RCC in the 1500s, the intervening 500 years have seen the end of the doctrines which Luther fought against most strenuously. I encourage any RCC members considering this film to rest assured that this protestant at least views the 16th-century Roman church as a historical footnote and no more.

In any case, the film chronicles well the politics of the day, and how Luther’s writings and preaching were used by many in Germany to further their own goals, much to Luther’s dismay. Many times in his life, Martin wished that he could have kept his mouth shut about the tragedies he saw within the church, as people died because of his stand. Still, he could not keep silent, stating famously instead to the Emperor of Germany, “I can and will not retract. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.” That scene, the Diet of Worms in 1521 is very well depicted, portraying Luther as history records him — an imperfect man full of doubts about many things, sometimes including his own sanity, but sure that people within his beloved church were tearing it apart for money. If only it could have been as he thought it at first – that people were acting without the knowledge or approval of Pope Leo X.

It is easy to assume that Martin Luther’s speeches have been “toned down” for modern audiences. They are more sermons on “love” than strict theological exercises. And yet what I know of Martin Luther suggests that the tenor of the messages is largely accurate, which says more about modern American protestant churches than about Martin Luther, I think.

The film is rated PG-13 for “disturbing images of violence.” It is worth noting also that Luther and his fellow monks are depicted as much more earthy than we expect our preachers to be today. In once scene, Martin is struggling in prayer and cries out against his spiritual adversary, “You devil, you s–t!”

I heartily recommend this movie for everybody 13 or older. For protestant Christians, it is a fascinating examination of the foundation of the worldwide protestant church. For all others, it is a well-made historical epic of one man of principle reluctantly taking on an enormous establishment determined to silence him at any cost. As a bonus, it happens to be more historically accurate than most historical bio-pics.

One thing I noted is that the closing of the film notes that something like 540 million people worldwide worship in churches based on the foundation laid by Martin Luther. By my own reckoning, I would put that figure closer to one billion, since there are roughly two billion Christians in the world, roughly half in the Roman church. To come up with 540 million, I suspect the filmmakers excluded a few groups, or relied on old sources. Southern Baptists may not usually recognize their heritage in Martin Luther as clearly as Lutherans do, but they are indeed children of Luther.

Luther – (In Theaters)
Genre: Historical Drama
Watchability: Knowing the story, I followed things very well. The pacing seemed very good, keeping the story moving.
Philosophy: It’s the life story of the father of the protestant reformation, and so treats protestant Christianity with some favor.
Suitability: It’s rated PG-13 for violence, but while the violence it disturbing, it takes up only a small portion of the film. There is also some bad language, as noted in the review.
Overall: 5/5

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  • andy

    I would say that Southern Baptists are probably closer to the doctrines Luther thought than the modern day Lutherans are though.

  • But not the Missouri Synod Lutherans as I can attest to.

  • Naturally the films gets a lot of media attention here in Germany (I think it started on Thursday). Though, a lot of it isn’t historical fact – for instance (as I recently learnt) Luther never actually said the words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

    I didn’t decide yet whether to see the film or not. I can’t really imagine Joseph Fiennes as little fat monk.

  • Michelle – the statement is much-debated. Some say he never actually nailed the these to the church door (instead of sending them privately), some say he never said “here I stand…” and so on. Given the era and so on, there will be way to have a definitive answer one way or the other, but I happen to believe that the evidence support both events as true.

    Other disagree, but I don’t know that we can say anything like “Luther never actually said” or did with any degree of certainty.

    Heck, some people disagree even on some of the stuff he wrote – claiming it came from others and Luther put his name on it. What can you do?

    But see the movie – it’s excellent, even if Fiennes is considerably more attractive than Luther was.

    As far as the doctrines go, I don’t know that I’d say holding to Luther’s doctrines is a great prize, frankly. His 95 Theses contained much that was specifically aimed at the egregious practices of his day, practices that do not continue even in the modern Roman church post-Trent.

    While he was the “Father of the Reformation,” he was by no means the most influential scholar thereof over time.

    Better, I think, to be close to Scripture than the Luther.

  • For an atheist like me that’s not really the question;-) Anyway, I’ve read about a lot of historical mistakes – which I can’t recall here, because I’m everything but a history buff (in fact I hate history). The comment that made me thinking was from a Luther expert I saw on tv: If you watch this movie, get some other information, too (e.g. read a book). So, I’m thinking, why not read a book in the first place and skip the movie altogether?

  • Sorry, the second half of my comment is directed at andy (#1), not you.

    For you, why see the movie? Because it’s a fun movie, and far more historically accurate that many other historical bio-pics. 😉