Those keenly interested in the Martin Luther phenomenon or just the Holy Roman Empire of Luther’s time should not dismiss the impact of a movie—flawed or not--that may be seen by tens of millions. Not just at the time of release but well into the future. A dismissive attitude will not help answer questions or remedy any wrong conclusions arising from such a movie.
Peter Ustinov as befuddled Frederick the WiseLuther (2003) is such a movie. The cast in Luther (2003) is rock solid. Peter Ustinov is charming, although he portrays an iron-willed 60-ish prince second in power only to the emperor as a befuddled but witty 80-year-old. Certainly film crics loved impish Ustinov’s off-the-mark portrayal. The most right-on nuanced characterization is Luther’s mentor Staupitz by the gifted Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Fiennes correctly portrays Luther as an educated monk from a peasant background slowly gaining confidence under his mentor Staupitz. Regarding Luther’s initial confrontation with the emperor at Worms, Fiennes’ portrayal is totally valid, displaying Luther’s momentary fear and trembling in an exalted aristocratic circle of which he knows nothing but gossip. The actor is also correct in showing an initially passionless acceptance of Katherina von Bora as his wife. This norm for the time, tiptoeing uneasily into an arranged marriage, was more traumatic (even troubling) for an ex-monk.
***There can be few qualms with the lush cinematography or the actual historic settings of many scenes. Even the NY Times admitted the film, shot on “100 sets in 20 locations throughout Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, is ravishingly beautiful”. The Times further described it a “handsome, fact-filled historical epic” that “tries to cram a textbook's worth of 16th-century German history into two hours”. Variety noted the failure of “obscure characters who lack the sharp introductions and through-lines needed to make them interesting”.
***The movie uses dramatically-licensed tricks of compressing time, combining characters for convenience, juxtaposing and juggling elements in time and creating conversations for which there is no proof whatever. History after all can be confusing; it’s so much easier to concoct a fiction. One also gets the unmistakable impression the movie was four or more hours long and ruthless editing cut it to two hours, truncating characters and time. In spite of these shortcomings the movie overall is a well-intended dramatization of the Luther phenomenon.
***But would you dare take a test on the ‘facts’ therein? A resounding NO.
***Other than the above gimmicks common to screen bios there are flatout fallacies. The most vile fallacy is that the Reformation caused the Peasants War. This and other fallacies in the movie will be discussed in succeeding blogs.