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Luther (2003) July 1, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Social conservatives often complain about the lack of explicit religious themes in contemporary cinema. This could be explained with most of those films having rather limited appeal – by fully endorsing one religion they tend to alienate viewers who are atheists or have different religious beliefs. A good example is LUTHER, 2003 German biopic directed by Eric Till, a movie hardly to make strong impression on viewers in predominatly Catholic countries.

The film deals with one of the most important figures in European history. It starts in 1507 Germany when young law student Martin Luther (played by Joseph Fiennes) decides to become priest. Soon he is ordained, becomes Augustine monk and makes a pilgrimage to Rome. There he is digusted with corruption and selling of indulgences – documents that allow sinners and their relatives to evade God’s wrath in exchange for financing Catholic Church. Luther sees this as betrayal of Christian principles and on October 31st 1517 nails his famous 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg church. Pope Leo X (played by Uwe Ochsenknecht) reacts by trying to make Luther recant, but it soon becomes apparent that Catholic Church has lost the ability to quickly silence those opposed to its religious supremacy. Luther, whose views became widely known and popular thanks to the recently invented printing press, refuses to yield to papal authority. He has people on his side, while Saxon prince Frederick the Wise (played by Peter Ustinov) provides political protection, and this provides a fertile ground for the movement that would become known as Protestant Reformation.

Makers of LUTHER had difficult task of having to tackle not only complex theological issues by also putting them into proper historical context. In the first half of the film Eric Till succeeds in that task. Joseph Fiennes is very good as a young monk driven by personal demons, strong religious conviction and deep sense of outrage over injustices and corruption. Peter Ustinov is also very good in one of his last roles, while Bruno Ganz is very moving as Luther’s friend and mentor Johann von Staupitz – character very different from the one he played in DER UNTERGANG. A great effort was made with costumes and production design and early 16th Century Germany is successfully brought to screen despite the lack of budgets. Even some minor historical flaws (Pope worrying about Turks threatening Vienna years before it really happened) could be forgiven.

Problems for LUTHER appear in second half, when it becomes apparent that the film was partially financed by Lutheran groups. Script by Cammille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan now has to deal with Luther as a leader of a powerful movement instead of brave and lone dissenter. Description of the events is less detailed, which isn’t that surprising considering Luther’s controversial role in German Peasant’s War and his developing anti-Semitism. In second half LUTHER becomes less of a historical movie and more of dry and routine noting of the important events in Luther’s life, including the marriage to Katharina von Bora (played by Claire Cox).

However, even with apparent lack of objectivity, LUTHER proves to be more interesting and more accurate depiction of history than anything recently produced by Hollywood.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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