Imagine you’re an honest man trying to be loyal to a church, but you discover it’s filled with the kind of wholesale corruption that can only be compared to the kind Jesus found when he threw the moneychangers out of the temple. Imagine that this church you are a part of is the only one in town—in fact, the entire country and all the surrounding countries—and that it wields not just cultural influence, but political power so great that speaking out against it could be fatal. Above all, imagine that the only God you know is an angry judge, bound to condemn you to hell for your sins.
Now imagine that you discover that God isn’t itching to punish you, but in fact loves you more than you’ve ever dreamed possible—a truth so important to you that you’re willing to take on this church, no matter what it costs you.
Such were the life and times of Martin Luther, the 16th century German monk-turned-historic-church-reformer.
You can’t fully capture Martin Luther in a two-hour movie. But Luther takes a good stab at it, bringing him vividly to life with quality acting, costumes and sets that effectively recreate his corner of the world—from Rome’s decadence to the dusty, daily lives of German peasants and churchgoers. Joseph Fiennes brings passion, sensitivity and range as a Luther who is at different points fearful, indignant, questioning, reflective and boldly convicted. Seeing his fear only highlights his bravery; watching him you feel the weight of what it was like to stand against the greatest powers of his time, the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.
The greatest strength of Luther is that it takes its material seriously. No one is caricatured, not even the notorious seller of indulgences Johann Tetzel, who comes off as charismatic and intense. Best of all, the film stays largely true to history with relatively little creative license. Much of its dialogue is a matter of record, and this brings some of the strongest moments, such as Luther’s compelling, grace-oriented sermons and his famous “Here I Stand” speech. The latter is surely the dramatic highpoint of the film: Clinging to Scripture in defiance of the Pope and in full awareness of the consequences, Luther shows us the fiber of a man for whom, in the end, the Word of God was the most important thing in the world.
In addition to its abundance of positive spiritual content (noted below), Luther is a profile in courage and conscience. Its hero struggles with fears and doubts, but overcomes them even when it placed his life at risk. A reluctant revolutionary, he feels pain and responsibility over the violent rebellions his words touched off. He regretfully pronounces himself “a man of blood,” though we see him do his best to stop a riot, and one character says that Luther deplores violence, fighting “with his tongue and his pen, not his sword.” None of this deters Luther from asserting his convictions about Christ, however, insisting to the end that he cannot compromise the truth.
Bravery, loyalty and honor are displayed by several other characters. Luther’s allies risk their lives for him and his cause (one dies as a result), and even Luther’s severe father comes around to showing concern and affection for his son. Duke Frederick the Wise lives up to his name with keen insights and his politically shrewd but at bottom stouthearted support for Luther. Some men within the Catholic Church show concern over its corruption, foreshadowing reforms that would come several decades later. Luther’s monastic superior and substitute father, Staupitz, gives Luther valuable spiritual counsel and strives to protect him. Marriage also gets an explicit boost from Luther’s own words quoted by his wife, a former nun.
The year is 1507 and to its detriment, Christianity and Catholicism are nearly synonymous. The Pope has reportedly fathered children out of wedlock and keeps several mistresses. To fund its vast empire and church building projects around the world, the Catholic hierarchy has sanctioned the selling of indulgences (written documents that supposedly have the power to release individuals from Purgatory and Hell). The masses, having no access to a readable Bible themselves, are at the trusting mercy of church officials. So dutifully, they purchase these phony “contracts” while church coffers continue to grow.
Martin Luther is not an outsider to this disorder; he’s been a buyer himself. But as a Bible scholar, he, like the masses, is largely ignorant. What sets him apart from his fellows is that he takes it upon himself to learn, to become familiar with God’s precious, written Word. In doing so, he comes to the realization that the Bible says mankind is saved by grace through faith.
Knowing the costs he could personally incur, Luther loudly proclaims his spiritual discoveries. He begins by nailing his now well known 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, in the year 1517. People not only read them, but catching the vision, supporters begin to help reproduce and distribute them.
Spiritual warfare plays a role in this movie as well. More than once, Luther finds his faith or courage under attack by the devil, and screams rebukes at him. A secular reviewer has said Luther comes off as “neurotic;” Christian viewers should recognize instead a man who knows the devil is very real, and needs to be fought day in and day out.
In a crowd scene in Rome, Luther sees prostitutes soliciting. The Pope’s mistresses and illegitimate children are mentioned. Tetzel boasts that he can save the soul “of one who violates the Mother of God herself.” Luther and his wife are shown in bed (wearing nightclothes with little exposure).
Brief but fairly intense—usually depicting not the actual violence but its aftermath. A number of dead bodies are shown, including a few hanging victims—one of them a suicide. Crowds are shown rioting and several people are shoved. Tetzel intentionally burns his hand over a flame (charred flesh is shown) to illustrate what hell is like. One character is burned at the stake (flames are shown near him before the camera cuts away).
Luther curses the devil with “d–ns” and one s-word.
If Luther suffers from anything, it’s ambition: In trying to cover so much ground, it sometimes moves too quickly, passing over story points that need developing—especially Luther’s own process of recognizing God’s grace. In its drive for realism in recreating Luther’s world, the movie shuns voiceovers, a device which could have brought in more of Luther’s own words on such points. Even so, the finished product is quite an achievement—a memorable tale of a remarkable man and of the Gospel which transcended all the powers and principalities of this world. It ends up inspiring you not in the fleeting fashion of a feel-good summer flick but in the lasting way of, well, Scripture. So while Luther likely won’t draw big at the box office, those who do see it will certainly feel its impact.