Critics gushed over Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of Frederick the Wise as a befuddled but witty 80-year-old. Deft as he was, Ustinov did not have many options because he was past 80 himself. In fact, during the ‘Luther affair’ the real Frederick the Wise was a 60-ish prince, in poor health but iron-willed and second in power only to the emperor.
Other than Ustinov’s off-the-mark casting and simpering, befuddled behavior was the movie’s portrayal of Frederick ‘historically’ correct?
Let us not try to count the misrepresentations. Here are but a few of the howlers:
At 28 min. into Luther (2003):
Frederick looks timidly from a window in his castle at a performance of players in the courtyard. Although the castle at that time (1517) was a mere 20 years old, the window is ancient. He sees Luther loitering under a tree and turns to his court painter Lucas Cranach. “Is Luther open to persuasion?” he asks Cranach, although his private secretary Spalatin is at the time talking to Luther! Moreover, Frederick had been well aware of Luther since the Reuchlin controversy in 1513. He surely already knew a great deal about Luther from Spalatin, who did indeed know Luther very well.
At 56 min. into Luther (2003):
Luther has just fled Cardinal Cajetan in 1518. Cajetan writes Frederick demanding he send Luther to Rome. Frederick, while playing among his relics in the presence of Spalatin, once again asks about Luther’s recalcitrance. Reference is made (once again and erroneously) that Spalatin and Luther were law students together (at Erfurt). Luther went into the monastery before he was to become a law student. Frederick reassures himself Luther is merely practicing his right as a professor to debate important issues. Spalatin worries about an answer for Cardinal Cajetan. Frederick impishly replies there are two ways to respond to one ‘stronger than yourself’, to not reply at all or to say no in ‘such a kind and thoughtful way it befuddles them’. The truth is far more complex. In the next two months letters flew back and forth all over the empire and Rome. Frederick scoffed to his cousin Duke George, “I fancy I can do as [my jester] Clauss Narr says, go on drinking my wine and being a heretic all my days…” [Smith, 143] “Drinking wine” was proverbial for ignoring trouble. Frederick did however answer Cajetan and there was nothing impish or coy about “As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy.” [Bainton, 78]
At 1:00 hour into Luther (2003):
Charles Miltitz arrives from Rome, brandishing the coveted Golden Rose as a bribe for Frederick. In fact Miltitz did not bring the Golden Rose but held it back with the condition that Frederick must first agree to surrender Luther. Frederick did however receive the Golden Rose without surrendering Luther. In the movie a ridiculous fabrication continues of Frederick disdaining the rose to Spalatin, waving it off contemptuously and adding this invention, “And while you’re about it, move all the relics out…” In truth, the image-conscious Frederick did covet the Golden Rose. Also it is factual that he displayed the relics as well as collected them for another four years.
The misrepresentations go on and on…but one more howler in particular deserves scrutiny.
At 1:39 into Luther (2003):
This is perhaps the most outlandish scene of all. Worthy of a Custer movie starring a charming, convivial Errol Flynn. After the conclusion of the Peasants’ War in 1525 the movie Luther finds Frederick the Wise alone in his study. Frederick whimpers, “Martin Luther?”, then exclaims, “We meet at last!” Luther presents him with his translation of the New Testament into German. This scene is notable for its concentration of falsehoods. First, a powerful prince at the time was virtually never alone; certainly Frederick could never have been approached in such a way. Perhaps it was his ghost - for by this time Frederick the Wise was dead and buried in the castle church in Wittenberg. That ghostly appearance might also explain the totally inappropriate drab surroundings for a great electoral prince. We must pretend Frederick the Wise was alive to continue exposing the falsehoods. The point has been made again and again by historians that the real Luther never exchanged one word with the real Frederick. Furthermore, Luther’s New Testament had been printed in September 1522, over two years before this preposterous scene. “This will separate us from Rome forever,” laments an amazed but troubled Frederick (or his ghost). Frederick goes on to predict all the dire things that may happen. This concocted scene really is brain-warping. Don’t use it as a source to study for a quiz.
Q. Is there a significant ethical difference between a fabricated scene that may have occurred and a fabricated scene that runs counter to historical evidence?