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The hero monk of Hollywood

30 June 2017

Stephen Brown surveys on-screen portrayals of Martin Luther of which there are more than you might expect


A poster for the 1953 film Martin Luther,starring Niall MacGinnis

A poster for the 1953 film Martin Luther,starring Niall MacGinnis

DID Martin Luther really nail his Ninety-five Theses to a Wittenberg church door in 1517? Seeing it at the cinema does not make it true. There are a few incontrovertible details about the celebrated Protestant Reformer, but, as this year’s Reith Lecturer, Hilary Mantel, points out, historical facts form only a part of the truth. The many Luther-themed films continue in a centuries-old tradition of adding the other “part of the truth” in attempting to transform the German 16th-century ex-monk into a character whom we can relate to our contemporary experiences.

There are at least 30 film and television representations of Luther; nearly all are in German or English, with Timothy West, Robert Shaw, Alec McCowen, and Jonathan Pryce ranking high among English-speaking por­­trayals. A new title, Emperor, is still in post-production. Other contemporary portrayals include Age of Uprising (2013) and the Spanish TV series Carlos, Rey Emperador (2015).

What facts do we actually know about Martin Luther — and, more to the point, which ones interest filmmakers? Cinema barely addresses Luther’s childhood. Most movies start later in life, from his entering the Augustinian Hermits monastery at Erfurt, in 1505.

Most films also tend to play down Luther’s Catholic background, presenting him as a ready-made Reformer. The 1923 silent German film Martin Luther, His Life and Times (translated from the German), directed by Karl Wüstenhagen, who also plays the lead, even contains a scene in which Christ rescues the young Luther to enable him to fulfil his sacred mission of liberation. Here he is a romantic national hero, designed with the audience in mind, to uplift the spirits of the Weimer Republic’s despondent citizens.


THE first silent film about Luther was Doktor Martinus Luther in 1911. This set the para­meters for future biopics, most of which have tended to be based on the familiar canon of iconic scenes found in the many paintings, woodcuts, and plays about Luther.

The most compelling biographical moment is, of course, the nailing of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, in Wittenberg. The historical evidence that this took place is disputed; but it was, apparently, the first time that he signed himself “Luther” (instead of “Ludher”), a derivative of “Eleuther­ius”, meaning “the Liberator”. One can see how all this drama is too much for filmmakers to resist.

In Irving Pichel’s film of 1953, Martin Luther, starring Niall MacGinnis in the title role, an opening credit calls fastening the scroll to the church door “a decisive moment in history”. This is followed by a montage showing the widespread circulation and translation of the theses from the Latin. The Holy Roman Empire is depicted as arcane and sinister, and within it Luther is the voice of democratic reason. This was intended to echo the context of the time, which was current Soviet tyranny and the memory of Germany’s fascist past.

The trailer for the 2003 production, starring Joseph Fiennes, is even more dramatic. Loud hammer-blows echo around the nave to the alarm of the congregation inside. The securing of the theses is accompanied by a strike of lightning, as Luther changes the world in a flash!


THE domains of cinema are characterisation, action, and emotion; it is an often inadequate medium for conveying ideas — hence, the contents of the theses are often left unattended to. Silent-film versions can articulate more, using intertitles. Der Wittenberger Nachtigall (“The Wittenberg Nightingale”, 1913), for example, converts the theses’ theological arguments into simple German rhymes.

Hans Kyser’s film Luther, made in 1928, is even more elaborate. It enlists poets and authors to paraphrase and apply the theses to present-day conditions. Number 72 concludes: “Hence, there is something that’s stronger than Rome and all the popes: the German con­science.”

Talkies have to show rather than tell. Brief references to the trade in indulgences or Luther’s doctrine of grace usually suffice. Other films manage to convey more substance: the 1983 Luther, for example, which came out of West Germany, presents the theses as a charter of freedom by an author who fails to practise what he preaches; the point is made in the castigation that Luther receives from Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525), a revolutionary theologian, who calls Luther the Pope of Wittenberg because of his unwillingness to support the peasants’ uprising against feudalism.

In another German film, Luther — Kampf mit dem Teufel (“Struggle with the Devil”, 2003), Luther throws an inkpot at the Devil to symbolise the struggle between reason and faithlessness. The French three-part television series Frère Martin (1981) — note the emphasis on “Brother” — likewise promotes Luther as a champion of intellectual freedom and equality, a forerunner of the French Revolution.


IT HAS been argued that all these Luther films are Protestantism’s equivalent to Roman Catholicism’s Jesus films. It is certainly true that the Lutheran Church officially involved itself in certain films, advising on production and ensuring distribution. It was instrumental in the 1923 film Martin Luther, His Life and Time, which gets close to portraying the Reformer as a latter-day Messiah.

Church influence was even stronger on Luther: Ein Film der deutschen Reformation (1928). Bruno Döhring, a pastor at Berlin Cathedral, supervised the screenplay, which included an appearance by the Archangel Michael, who was encouraging Luther to continue his struggle with ecclesiastical opponents. The film, generally viewed as an anti-Catholic vehicle, was making a bid to be the spiritual expression of German political aspirations (an irony, given Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, in which government is in the realm of the secular authorities, while religion looks after our souls).

The German Democratic Republic also made a five-part series for television in 1983, shortly after the Communist state’s rehabilitation of Luther in 1981. In this, he is depicted as a villain who criticised the peasants as murderous gangs and becomes exalted as the secularised harbinger of the workers’ revolution.

The American films also peddle their own variety of propaganda. The 1953 biopic Martin Luther presents Luther as a model of individualism, often hostile to bureaucracy. Clearly it is not only the Evangelische Kirche (Evangelical Church) that has employed Luther in the service of its own causes.


OTHER movies spend more time attending to Luther the individual. Unsurprisingly for a film of our times, the 2003 Luther paints a man full of psychological turmoil: Joseph Fiennes plays a Luther who is emotional, charismatic, and often gripped by self-doubt. Der arme Mann Luther (“Poor Man Luther”, 1964), portrays this angst through a battle for Luther’s soul, whereby a Faust-like figure encourages Luther to renounce his beliefs and claims.

A “psychological Luther” is also played by Stacy Keach in the 1974 film version of John Osborne’s 1961 play Luther. “I listened to God’s voice, and all I could hear was my own,” Luther says at one point. Elsewhere in the film, he attributes his gut ailment — what we might now call irritable bowel syndrome — to his spiritual struggles: a reference to a cryptic note left by Luther which suggests that divine revelation may well have occurred in a latrine.

Less palatable aspects of Luther’s character, such as his anti-Semitism later in life, tend to be overlooked in favour of his heroics: the many spectacular gestures that are cinematic musts — not just the hammering on a church door, but also the burning of the papal bull at Wittenberg’s Elster Gate; and the line that he supposedly spoke when under scrutiny at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” Even the fact that Luther was a monk who married a former nun is too hard for a filmmaker to overlook.

Perhaps it is as much the high drama of Luther’s actions as his teachings which sets him apart from other Reformers. Contemporaries such as Karlstadt and Melanchthon rarely feature in Luther films, and who has ever seen a biopic about Calvin, Zwingli, or Knox?

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