Violent mob of peasants
The European cast -- leads and supporting actors -- is superb. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly intense as the volatile young Luther. Bruno Ganz is outstanding as Luther’s mentor Staupitz. Alfred Molina is suitably malevolent as Tetzel. Uwe Ochsenknecht is arrogant enough and wrong-headed enough as Pope Leo X. Not one false note is in the cast other than the terribly weak depiction of Frederick the Wise. The real Frederick, almost Machiavellian for a Saxon, had enormous influence and was both admired and feared all over the empire. In the movie he is a bewildered old man peeking out of his hidey hole. How could this clueless man have saved Luther?
Some critics would disagree about others in the cast. Claire Cox is their frequent target because she plays the ex-nun Katherina von Bora as too flirtatious. That criticism is nonsense for a girl who was thrust into the nunnery against her will at the age of 5. Another target is Torben Liebrecht’s portrayal as the withdrawn, weak-looking emperor Charles V. This portrayal is in fact accurate and necessary to the plot. Charles V was in 1521 an inexperienced 21-year-old who even in later life spoke sparingly and was very uncomfortable in the German-speaking portion of the empire (which he would soon turn over to his brother Ferdinand).
Luther at Worms 1521, before Emperor Charles V and the princesAnother criticism about the use of supporting characters is their abrupt disappearance. As soon as they no longer advance the plot they are gone, never to return. It is possible that some important characters like Karlstadt continued in later scenes before editing cut the movie to two hours. A restored version, i.e., director’s cut, of about four hours is pleasant for this observer to contemplate. Commercially that can not be justified. The current version barely broke even.
The plot flows smoothly for a time of great affairs with so many events occurring simultaneously. Dialogue remarkably is rarely dry or jolting in spite of many necessary explanations. Sets are lush, even stunning. If there is one element lacking for this time of transition from the middle ages to the early modern times it is the ubiquitous presence of armored knights. All princes were in a cloud of knights and advisors. This absence however has little effect on the movie as entertainment and would have introduced even more complexity.
Fabricated characters Hanna and GreteThe movie does indulge however in fabricated scenes and even fabricated characters. The invention of the poor woman Hanna and her crippled daughter Grete is arguably extraneous, even cloying. On the other hand, the characters do symbolize the needy being victimized by both the Roman church and feudalism.
As to the question -- Is Luther (2003) worth watching as entertainment? – the answer is a solid yes. Whether it is worth watching as history is the subject of our next and last blog on this movie.
Q. Do you believe a movie about historical characters can be enjoyed just on its artistic impact?