It's no surprise that religious faith is one of contemporary Hollywood's weakest suits.
The best we can generally hope for is a generically faith-affirming message of the sort seen in Signs and The Count of Monte Cristo or perhaps a positive depiction of a believing character such as Nightcrawler in X2.
More often, we get the banalities of Bruce Almighty and The Fighting Temptations — or, worse, the serious anti-Church polemics of The Magdalene Sisters or The Crime of Father Amaro. A few sincere efforts, often championed by Christians, have been made to depict belief in a positive light but with less-than-inspiring results (Gods and Generals, A Walk to Remember).
So it's something of an event when that rarest of Hollywood rarities comes along — the well-made film that respects sincere piety and takes seriously matters of Christian doctrine.
Luther, directed by Eric Till (Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace) and with Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) in the title role, is such a film. Funded in part by a Minneapolis-based Lutheran organization, the film has been compared in publicity blurbs to A Man for All Seasons, and while Luther isn't in that league, it's a more-than-respectable effort that, dramatically at least, honors the tradition — and the first film in who knows how long even to make the attempt.
In one sense, I'd like to see more films like this made. At the same time, Luther's distortions of Catholic theology and matters of historical fact, as well as its relentlessly hagiographical depiction of Luther and one-sidedly positive view of the Reformation, make the film a frustrating and ultimately objectionable experience.
Luther covers a quarter-century of the German reformer's life, from the dramatic thunderstorm that so frightens the young Luther (Fiennes) that he vows to St. Anne if he survives the storm to become a monk, to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, at which the German princes defy Charles V (Torben Liebrecht) and support Luther, essentially guaranteeing the future of the Lutheran movement and the Reformation.
This is an ambitious undertaking, and it's a tribute to the filmmakers that it succeeds dramatically and artistically as well as it does. The dialogue is fine and literate, the acting solid, the production design and costuming impressive, and the story both lucid and emotionally engaging.
Unfortunately, the film consistently selects only those facts that put Luther in the best possible light, while making his opponents seem as unreasonable as possible.
It's one thing for the film to avoid Luther's notorious anti-Semitism, which is especially associated with his declining years after the period depicted in the film. Yet it was solidly in the midst of the film's events that we find the historical Luther declaring that no man can be saved unless he renounce the papacy; that those unconvinced of Luther's views must “hold their tongues and believe what they please”; that even “unbelievers should be forced to … attend church and outwardly conform” (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 6, p. 357, 422).
Needless to say, such declarations go against the film's portrayal of Luther as a champion of “religious freedom.” Of this aspect of its hero's religious views, Luther is conspicuously silent.
Similarly, the film shows Luther's horror over the massacre of more than 100,000 peasants by the German princes in response to the peasant uprising — but fails to reveal that Luther himself, in a vituperative essay called “Against the Murdering and Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” specifically called on the princes to show no mercy in crushing the uprising.
The film is equally careful to exculpate Luther of rebellious intent, showing his respect and deference for the Pope as late as his 1518 interview with Cardinal Cajetan — yet it never hints at Luther's identification of the Pope as the Antichrist years earlier, even before the 1517 publication of his 95 Theses.
In Luther, representatives of Catholic orthodoxy, especially papal representatives such as Cardinal Cajetan, are always shown dismis-sively refusing to debate or engage Luther, instead imperiously insisting that he recant without argument. The impression is that no one on the Catholic side was ever interested in engaging and refuting Luther's novel ideas. There is no hint, for example, of Johann Eck's public debates against both Luther and Carlstadt (which Eck had the best of).
Luther does show one Catholic priest in a sympathetic and positive light: Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz), Luther's mentor, whom many Protestants respectfully acknowledge as a devout Christian who was instrumental in helping Luther grasp the idea of divine grace. However, von Staupitz is clearly the exception to the rule in Luther.
Still more problematic are Luther's distortions of the Catholic doctrines of indulgences, which, along with relics, are its main theological target. (Curiously, the film basically bypasses the central issues of sola scriptura and sola fide and other major Catholic-Protestant bones of contention.)
The film perpetuates a confusion common among Protestants regarding references to indulgences of so many “days,” here taken to mean so many fewer days in purgatory, rather than the equivalent of so many days of penance on earth. It also confuses indulgences with absolution from sin itself, from guilt — which is hardly credible, since absolution from sin was obviously always freely available to all Catholics everywhere in the confessional, a major institution of 16th-century Catholic life.
One of the film's most egregious distortions is its portrayal of Luther's German translation of the Bible as the first of its kind, and a thing forbidden and feared by Rome. In fact Catholic German scholars had produced at least 18 previous German Bibles with Church approval (Durant, 369).
One gets the distinct impression that at no point in the process did the filmmakers consult with Catholic scholars or historians in order to avoid perpetuating Protestant misunderstandings, misimpressions or canards. As a result, they have produced a partisan film.
This is a shame, because in many ways Luther is an admirable effort. Had the filmmakers been willing to allow a bit of ambiguity, take a more critical warts-and-all look at their hero and give the 16th-century Church its due, they might have created a film one could recommend Catholics and Protestants watch together, then discuss and debate afterward. As it is, Luther should certainly be debated by those who see it, but I can't recommend watching it in the first place.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms. com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.