Jonathan Firth as Aleander
Most critics found Jonathan Firth’s portrayal of the Vatican diplomat Aleander pleasant. He was ubiquitous in the movie. He advised the pope. He advised cardinals. He advised the emperor. He played a major advisor for the emperor at the confrontation at the Worms Reichstag in 1521. He was several historical figures morphed into one. Of course a nuncio would not advise the emperor and in fact Aleander was not present during the actual confrontation in Worms.
The historical Aleander was however in Worms at the time and his dispatches to Rome are highly entertaining. One dispatch breathlessly reported, “All of Germany is in an utter uproar; nine-tenths of the people are shouting, ‘Luther,’ and the other tenth--if Luther is of no consequence to them--at least have ‘Death to the Roman court!’ as their slogan…” The real Aleander, disdained by the emperor and the princes alike, was terrified. Hardly the slick ubiquitous operator portrayed in the film.
Benjamin Sadler as Spalatin
The character of Spalatin played by Benjamin Sadler is used like the character of Aleander. In the film Spalatin threads scenes together and as the secretary of Frederick the Wise he is an information bearer. Spalatin is portrayed as somber and humorless in the film. Letters of his time reveal he was in true life humorless and even thin-skinned. He began his service to Frederick the Wise as a tutor to the royal boys in a petulant way. The boys were interested only in the rough ways of the knights. Frederick the Wise however was an excellent judge of men. Though Frederick cherished knightly virtues he knew some men did not and were nevertheless men. He gave Spalatin more responsibility than tutoring because what Spalatin possessed was integrity, great tact and high intellect.
Spalatin was also completely loyal and trustworthy to both Frederick the Wise and Luther. He was a colorless man among firebrands and correctly portrayed as bland. From the perspective of historical accuracy however the portrayal falls short. Spalatin was not at the Wartburg. He did not just run into Luther in the countryside, town squares etc. He did however correspond constantly with Luther. Hundreds of letters exist, almost entirely those from Luther to Spalatin. Spalatin’s hundreds of letters to Luther are implied. Spalatin’s face-to-face encounters with Luther were not rare, but they were usually dinners with Luther at the old Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg. And of course he attended the wedding of Luther to Katherina von Bora.
Bruno Ganz as Staupitz
The character of Johann von Staupitz was anything but bland. Staupitz was Luther’s spiritual mentor. More than that, as documents prove, he was wise with a biting sense of humor. Once when Luther complained his work load was going to kill him, Staupitz quipped that God could use workers in heaven too. Another time (this incident portrayed in the film) as the young Luther agonized over God’s harsh judgment of him, Staupitz snapped that God did not hate Luther but rather Luther hated God!
The Swiss actor Bruno Ganz excels in the part. His performance is the most nuanced in the film. Cooper-like he is communicating his thoughts even when he has no dialogue. The part is moderately accurate, covering actual interplay between the wise Staupitz and the fiery, troubled Luther. Staupitz however is also used as thread, appearing in situations that have no historical support. He was in fact the Vicar-General of the Augustinians. In addition, as an old reliable friend he served Frederick the Wise's blossoming young university. The historical Staupitz was far too busy to be Luther’s chaperone.
Q. What does it say about film critics that they laud the most inaccurate portrayals?