The Martin Luther of Niall MacGinnis is a thoughtful monk disturbed by doubts. He is more resolute than fiery. Even in the ‘big scene’ with the emperor he is more sincere than defiant. MacGinnis delivers it compellingly in a mood that builds into overt defiance only during his famous conclusion:
“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Therefore I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."Even in this well researched 1953 version it seems the producers missed an opportunity by failing to portray the emperor as the 19-year-old he was. The historical Charles V (raised in the Netherlands) was unsure of himself in alien German-speaking Worms. Rogue knights who supported Luther like the nearby and very dangerous Franz von Sickingen must have given the young emperor nightmares. His immaturity let Luther slip through his fingers. (Frederick the Wise was not certain of his timidity however, so he had Luther ‘kidnapped’)
Annette Carell as Katherina von Bora confidently confronting Luther, her potential bridegroom
Though some characters are so bland they are indistinct, the cast is nevertheless fine. If critics thought Claire Cox was coquettish as Katherina von Bora in the 2003 movie, what must they have thought of Annette Carell in this 1953 movie? What celibate ex-monk could resist her sultry mannerisms? Luther obviously could not. Six children in the first nine years of their marriage suggest the relationship of the ex-monk and the ex-nun was often far from a prayer meeting.
Annette Carell as Katherina von Bora, Luther's triumphant bride.
The most confusing portion of the movie is the concluding 10 or so minutes. The movie leaps five years ahead to 1530, determined to introduce new characters and squeeze in the events of the Augsburg Confession. This was a meeting of the great princes of the empire with Charles V, supposedly to state and resolve their religious differences. Charles V was no boy now. He had defeated France, even sacked Rome. In spite of it all, nothing was resolved. Luther himself was banned from the meeting. Prince Johann of Saxony, Frederick the Wise’s brother and successor, stood firm as a rock on Lutheranism. He was backed by the Elector of Brandenburg and the firebrand, Landgrave Philipp of Hesse. Perhaps viewers can glean this standoff from the movie but the payoff seems trivial.
Overall, the movie is commendable as entertainment. Voters on IMD rate it highly. On a scale of 1 to 10, 44 percent of viewers rated it superior (9 or 10). Median was 8. Luther 2003 was rated superior by 24 percent. Median was 7. The PBS documentary of 2002 garnered 18 percent superior. Median was 7.
Q. What does it say about art that contemporary viewers of the ‘Luther story’ rate an old black and white movie higher than a contemporary state-of-the-art color film?