Brit Alfred Molina plays the Dominican Johann Tetzel, who was a sub-commissioner of indulgences for the archdiocese of Magdeburg under Archbishop Albrecht (of Brandenburg). The movie explains very intelligently why Pope Leo X needed money from indulgences and why Albrecht of Brandenburg (also Archbishop of Mainz) needed money as well. The movie however credits Tetzel too much for the overall process of selling indulgences. Historically he just happened to be the one sub-commissioner who crossed paths with the 800-pound monk Martin Luther. Molina portrays Tetzel very convincingly as a malevolent hawker of indulgences through ever wilder and wilder promises. Finally, according to Molina’s and the historical Tetzel, one could even violate the Holy Mother and his indulgence would absolve such an outrage. In the movie Tetzel emotes the historically-based jingo, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs.” [Bainton, p78] At this point in the movie the ‘Luther Affair’ begins; Luther hears of the sleazy indulgence practice in neighboring Magdeburg archdiocese and angrily launches his 95 theses. The movie character of Tetzel rants against Luther, then abruptly disappears.
What of the historical Johann Tetzel? He suffered a cruel fate. First, with the help of scholar Wimpina he tried very ineffectually to write a rebuttal to Luther’s 95 theses. Rome and the local church authorities in Magdeburg then used him as a scapegoat, pretending they knew nothing of the abuses. The hatchetman from Rome Karl Miltitz trumped up totally unrelated charges against the ‘Schweinehund’ Tetzel and sent him in disgrace to a monastery in Leipzig. Miltitz very nearly condemned Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz too [Brecht, 268]. (One has to wonder at the profound stupidity of the Vatican. The Brandenburg brothers were two of the six imperial electors! The emperor Maximilian was known to be in grave health.) Even Luther was disturbed by the heartless way the Dominican Tetzel was discarded. Luther wrote Tetzel, “Don't take it too hard. You didn't start this racket. The child had another father.” [Bainton, p105] Mild words indeed from the volcanic Luther. Not two years had passed since Luther posted the 95 theses when the broken, shamed Tetzel died at 54.
One of the truest characterizations in the movie Luther (2003) is German Jochen Horst’s portrayal of Professor Andreas Karlstadt (or Carlstadt). In spite of that historical accuracy, the portrayal is one-dimensional because it truncated. No other possibility seems possible with the script. Karlstadt, who at first opposed Luther’s ideas, became an over zealous follower of Luther. He was even more volatile and tactless than Luther. He gained the upper hand in Wittenberg when Luther was hiding at the Wartburg (mandated by Frederick the Wise) and almost pillaged the town. In the movie he becomes the face of the unbridled violence. The movie compresses the violence at Wittenberg in late 1521 into the colossal Peasants’ War culminating in 1525. At that point Karlstadt is no longer necessary to the plot and disappears.
In history he is a semi-tragic figure. Although he and Luther remained fond of each other Luther clearly made him a pariah with the people he influenced, which in electoral Saxony was nearly everyone. In addition Karlstadt was foolish enough to became identified with Thomas Müntzer, the great villain (to non-Communists) of the Peasants’ War. Karlstadt himself had become non-violent and in 1525 during the war even hid with his family in Luther’s home. Luther’s wife Katherina became Godmother to one of Karlstadt’s children. Because Karlstadt was ostracized by the Saxon princes his fortunes ever declined. He fled and resurrected his career among the Zwinglians in Switzerland. In Basel in 1541 he died at the age of 55 of the plague. He is an undervalued, very significant figure in the Reformation. Many of his ‘radical’ changes became the norm for some Protestant churches. No icons or images, no music, no infant baptism, no Apocrypha in Holy Scriptures, no elevated clergy. Moreover, very early in the Reform movement he performed the church service in German and offered Holy Communion to the congregation.
Q. Why has Karlstadt remained such a pariah? Even the murderous Müntzer has a following.
Quoted Sources: Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Abingdon Press, 1950 hardcover) and Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985).