Review of the Movie "Luther" by Paul T. McCain, Head of CPH

by Paul T. McCain

The lights go down and the screen stays black. Then there is the pounding
noise of thunder, growing louder and louder, the screen lights up with a
burst of lightening, and we see a man running across an open field. The
bolts of lightening crash all around and one strikes the ground right next
to him. He falls face down in mud, crying out in absolute terror, "Save me,
St. Anne. I'll become a monk. Save me! Save me!" It is so realistic you feel
like ducking under your seat and making a few promises of your own. So
begins "Luther" the new movie on the life of the Reformer. It will be
released this Fall, September 26, in 300 theatres, in 55 major urban areas
across the country, with more to come following throughout the rest of the

From the storm, we see Luther becoming a monk, then it moves to Luther
celebrating his first mass, trembling in fear at the moment of consecrating
the elements of Holy Communion. The movie continues with scene after scene
in the life of the younger Luther. It pulls you in and keeps the drama and
action moving to the very end.

The years covered are July 1505 to June 1530. This is the greatest challenge
for the movie. It may also be a chief criticism of it. How is it possible to
fit these twenty-five tumultuous years into a space of less than two hours?
Is there too much to make sense? What has to be left out? One can only
imagine the agonizing decisions that had to be made in the process.

This is my only concern with the movie. Is it too much for the audience to
follow?  I am concerned that in fact so much is packed in that the movie
might tend to be a bit confusing. I may very well be wrong. Various focus
groups of all ages indicated how they were thoroughly captivated by the
movie and consider it dramatic, moving and exciting. One young lady of 22
said that she can't wait to see it again and will gladly pay to do so this
time. Another person involved in distributing films professionally in
Hollywood, California said after seeing the movie, "This is the Lutheran

The movie is stunning, dramatic, powerful and beautiful. For a Lutheran, the
movie is intensely emotional. The movie takes a few liberties with the
sequence of certain events and even some details, for the sake of making
sense out of things for the viewer. Where the movie does portray an actual
event and relate actual details the level of fidelity to the actual history
is remarkable and powerful. I come away in awe at the level of detail and
historical accuracy, far more than I expected or even hoped for.

The acting is very well done by the lead, Joseph Fiennes, who portrays
Luther as a young monk and then younger man, gaunt from his monastic life,
profoundly intense and passionate about the spiritual care of souls, both
his own and others. Those who play supporting roles in the film do a very
fine job. All very authentic and believable, communicating through voice and
expression, the entire range of human experience.

Does the Gospel come through in this movie? Absolutely, yes. Would I have
appreciated more? Yes, absolutely. Let me hasten to add that it was
breathtaking to hear the Gospel come through as clearly as it did, when it
did. A major Hollywood distributor said that he loved the movie and wanted
to distribute it, but he had one condition. He asked for all the "Christ
stuff" to be taken out.  It wasn't. Thank goodness. I appreciate how the
movie revolves around the theological issues, and doesn't make Luther out to
be a social revolutionary or champion of free speech or any of the assorted
other misunderstandings of Luther that are often offered up (PBS special!)

The movie shows Luther's progress in realizing how, in Christ, God is a
loving heavenly father, not the harsh judge who is appeased only though
works of piety on the part of the faithful. I would have appreciated a bit
more than what the movie did, but I cannot help but be thankful for the
Gospel that is in the movie. There is no question that it is Christ whom
Luther discovered.

The movie had to choose which major events leading to the Diet of Augsburg
to show. They therefore chose to leave out the Heidelburg Disputation, the
Leipzig Debate and did not deal with the Sacramentarian controversy. I can't
fault them for these decisions. Again and again, when I think to criticize,
I ask myself, "But what could they have done in two hours that they didn't
do?" I think the decisions on what to feature and what not to include were,
overall, wise. I'm not sure I agree with a fictitious scene early in the
movie, but for dramatic effect, it was included.

This is a movie, not a documentary. That is a key point to keep in mind.
Ironically, however, it makes the Luther documentary broadcast on PBS this
summer look rather anemic, particularly, and most importantly, when it comes
to the articulation of the Gospel.

"Luther" does a marvelous job portraying the problems of the church in the
16th century; the scenes of Luther's visit to Rome and then the selling of
indulgences by Tetzel are absolutely brilliant. They use a fictitious woman
and her child to bring home the personal impact of the sale of indulgences
and Luther's very pastoral response.

The costumes, location work, and cinematography are stunning. The historical
accuracy is also impressive. For example, Lucas Cranach's paintings are seen
in the elector's palace. The relics on display are very authentic looking,
the costumes show the stark contrast between the "haves" and the "have
nots." Those who are aware of these details will appreciate the depth of
detail in the movie. The movie was filmed on many locations throughout
Europe and therefore the movie has a level of realism and authenticity that
is very impressive.

The movie shows Luther's multifaceted personality, warts and all. The depth
of his spiritual anguish is shown in disturbing reality, as he writhes in
spiritual, emotional and mental torment, contemplating a God whom He can
never make love Him and a Devil constantly seeking to devour Him. It is
painful to watch. Do we take matters this seriously? But then we see the
bold, confident man of faith, clinging to the Word, standing up courageously
for what the Word of God teaches about Christ and salvation.

The movie ends with a dramatic portrayal of the courage of the princes of
the German territories at Augsburg informing Emperor Charles V of their
decision to defend the teachings of Luther.

We can be thankful that the movie does not pander to "political correctness"
but shows the reality of those years and the faults and failings of all
concerned. Politicians are shown to be shrewd and wise, but also men of
faith and conviction. Peter Ustinov as Luther's faithful defender, Elector
Frederick is simply a delight. He masterfully shows Frederic moving toward
supporting Luther and then defending him and then embracing his beliefs. The
movie takes liberties with history to show Luther meeting Frederick and
presenting him a copy of the Bible in German, a powerful moment in the film.

The movie has not yet been assigned a rating. One would imagine that it will
be a PG-13 movie. The scenes of death in the movie are graphic. There are no
battle sequences, but the results of the peasant war are graphically
presented, along with several images of hangings. This is not a movie for
younger children, nor should it be. The portrayal of violence is necessary
to show just how powerful an impact the results of Luther's work and its
misinterpretation were.

Luther is portrayed as uttering a vulgarity when in the midst of spiritual
torment, a term then that was very common. It may disturb some to recognize
just how human Luther was, but should it? This movie is dealing with
reality, not fantasy. I applaud the producers for showing us just enough,
but not too much. Some may disagree. The bottom line is that if one is
looking for a "G" rated movie, that presents an idealized picture of things,
one would be better served by sticking with the 1950s era Luther movie in
black and white. Reality in full color is something quite better, in my
opinion, in more ways than one.

Reflecting on the movie, it would be easy to quibble and find fault with all
sorts of things; however, does the movie deliver a dramatic and engaging
portrayal of Luther and his work? Yes. Does it articulate the Gospel? Yes.
Does it articulate it clearly enough? Perhaps not, nor as often as we would
like, but yet, clearly, it is Christ to whom Luther is pointed and to whom
He clings for hope and salvation. Christ is named and is the focus of
Luther's work. It is remarkable that they got the Gospel as right as they
did. Those looking for a "docu-drama" may be disappointed, for there is
simply no way a movie that is slightly less than two hours can deliver that.

This reviewer left the movie theater inspired, uplifted and profoundly moved
by the power of this movie. It encouraged me to dig more deeply into
Luther's writings, and Luther biographies. It brought many aspects of the
man Luther to life and lifted him from a cold printed page to a living,
human reality. Of course, it is still a movie, but the opportunity to view
things in this manner has greatly increased my interest in learning even
more about Luther. I have spent most of my professional life studying Luther
and reading Luther and this movie did not leave me disappointed. For those
who know little about him, I am sure they will be fascinated as well.

The goals of this movie were to provide a motion picture that would attract
interest and present a powerful moment in history, a moment of high drama,
with action and emotion to bring audiences in, and then, once there, to give
them a chance to meet Martin Luther, and have a sense of what he went
through. It is that interest that we can capitalize on to help people learn
more about Luther and his beautiful exposition of the Gospel.

I am convinced that this movie really will open doors for people interested
in Lutheranism, wanting to learn more about Martin Luther, his life and his
work. What a great opportunity for Lutheran congregations! It will provide a
valuable tool for years to come to help portray the essential truths of the
Lutheran Reformation. Many thanks are due Thrivent Financial for Lutherans
for seeing this project through to completion.

It will be released on DVD sometime in February 2004, after running its
course in the theatres in the USA and Europe.

Concordia Publishing House has a companion book that will be released in the
coming weeks, a very clear, direct and simple biography that will fill in
many gaps and articulate much more clearly the essential truths the movie
covers. I'll provide more information on that later.

Cordially in Christ,
Rev. Paul T. McCain
Concordia Publishing House
St. Louis, Missouri

July 19 , 2003