Many distortions in the movie are clearly for the sake of simplifying a time of great affairs with many events occurring simultaneously. The movie uses dramatically-licensed tricks of compressing time, combining characters to thread scenes together, juxtaposing and juggling elements in time and creating conversations that are not illogical but for which there is no proof.
Frederick the Wise (Peter Ustinov) lamenting the future
One scene in particular is brain-warping. It concentrates a swarm of falsehoods. The scene occurs after the 1525 Peasants’ War. Luther finds Frederick the Wise alone in his study. Frederick whimpers, “Martin Luther?”, and then exclaims, “We meet at last!” Luther presents him with his translation of the New Testament into German. “This will separate us from Rome forever,” laments an amazed but troubled Frederick. He goes on to predict all the dire things that may happen.
What are the historical truths?
- Frederick the Wise was already dead and buried in the castle church in Wittenberg.
- A powerful prince at the time was virtually never alone; certainly Luther could never have approached Frederick in such away.
- It is unrealistic for a powerful prince to be in cluttered, drab quarters.
- Even opponents to the Reformation generally agreed Luther never exchanged one word with Frederick.
- Luther’s New Testament had been printed nearly three years earlier in September 1522.
Other smaller ‘lies’ or omissions:
- For this time of transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern times, knights were ubiquitous. They were an ever present group of generally dissatisfied, very violent, heavily armed men. The most dreaded knight in the empire, Franz von Sickingen, brought entire cities to their knees. He and his gadfly Ulrich von Hutten made it known to both Frederick the Wise and Luther that they supported Luther.
- The cruel, unjust confinement of boys in monasteries and girls in nunneries is not amplified. Besides Katherina von Bora, another famous escapee was Ulrich von Hutten who fled his monastery well before the Reformation.
There is however one Big Lie in the movie: Luther (2003) connects the unruly behavior in 1522 in Wittenberg spurred by Karlstadt to the eruption and tragic culmination of the Peasants’ War in 1525. The dialogue leaves no doubt at all that Luther’s stand on the Bible is accountable for the chaos and slaughter of 100,000 peasants (many of them children, according to the movie). The VHS/DVD Product blurb leaves no doubt either, stating “Even when threatened with violent death, Luther refuses to back down, sparking a bloody revolution that shakes the entire continent to its core.” This is an immense, indulgent lie, invalidating the movie as history.
Is Luther (2003) then worth watching? Yes, the dramatic story, authentic locations and acting are excellent. Just watch it with this caveat: The movie is in the long tradition of Hollywood spectaculars that do not allow facts to get in the way of a good story.
Q. Does an inaccurate ‘historical’ movie or ‘historical-fiction’ book do more harm than good?