Let Luther Be Luther



I recently had occasion to show a film about Martin Luther to the students in the class I teach, which was produced a few years ago, starring Ralph Fiennes in the title role, with a few other name actors (Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina, Bruno Ganz) in the film.  It was financed by a Lutheran organization.  The film is rather well done in terms of its production values, and Fiennes does a good enough job of portraying Luther, though he is too good looking and bit too dashing I think, for a Luther, but this is no real objection to his performance.  The costumes and the sets seem accurate enough, and the film itself has some artistic merits.  It genuinely treats people in the sixteenth century with some respect, and does not, at least to my mind, belittle Luther’s Catholic opponents (too much, at any rate).  But as an historical film it fails.  One Catholic writer was particularly scathing in his review of the film, though the almost inevitably dopey and ill informed reviewer in the New York Times seemed to like it, as did the slightly less ill informed reviewer in the National Review.  In trying think through why I believe it to be a failure, I am tempted to say that the subject matter is too complex for a film, that no one could depict the myriad of historical forces and personalities that made ithe Reformation possible in a two hour film.  But this is only partially true.  A film may have to take liberties for the sake of convenience, but at its best can give a glimpse of an historic personality, maybe even of the “personality” of the time he or she lived in.  A Man For All Seasons might be the best example of this, despite its omissions and oversimplifications. 

But as I think of it, Luther fails to do this without sacrificing the personality of the age, and of Luther himself in particular. Partly this has to do with the admirable trait of wanting to portray all the characters in the film in as good a light as possible.  The film’s depiction of Johann Tetzel is a case in point:  Alfred Molina makes him seem a bit sinister but at the same time a humane, and quite sincere huckster, a far cry from earlier depictions of the man.  And indeed, from what one can tell, his moral qualities were laudable enough, but his teachings on indulgences were in fact heretical, and condemned as such by the Church, a point not made in the film.  More puzzling still is the depiction of Leo X as someone who intended to revitalize Christendom by rebuilding St. Peters and who was concerned about “fornicators” in Rome.  Leo in fact was a personally moderate man, who took his own religious duties seriously, and had no mistresses or illegitimate children, as had Alexander VI.  But Leo was also a Medici, a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and his concern for his family’s position in Florence as well as his love of the arts (he was a great patron of humanism) meant that he spent the Vatican’s treasury on lavish projects and banquets, and generally neglected the affairs of Christendom.  Overall, he was a shameful failure as Pope, and though he was not a “fornicator” himself, he surrounded himself with plenty of them in the curia, as evidently they made better company at parties than more responsible, pious men.  He ignored Luther until it was too late, and in fact when the time came it was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who summoned Luther to Worms, not the Pope.  The only reason I can think this is glossed over is not a desire for historical truth, but the desire to be politically correct.  This is doubtless why we get such detailed presentations of the papal palaces, the political intrigue of papal politics, of intricate ecclesiastical protocol (Luther is ordered to lay face down on the ground before Cajetan, for example) but virtually nothing about the theological rationale of Luther or the Church.  It is all presented in pretty much sociological terms:  it was all corruption and misunderstanding you see; nobody was actually wrong about anything, and therefore Luther gets to be right without portraying the medieval Church as being too bad. 

Luther as priest in "Luther"

Luther as priest in "Luther"

This might be satisfying to the Lutherans who paid for the film, and it does make for a familiar narrative:  the plucky, courageous reformer stands up to the corrupt Establishment and wins, despite the odds.  The only difference with Luther is that this time our hero does it in funny clothes.  The problem with this narrative is that it makes Luther just another reformer, and whatever one thinks of the man, he was certainly not that.  He was, in fact, a revolutionary, one who helped destroy an entire civilization, and made possible the creation of a new one.  The way the film treats the Peasant War illustrates the problem of treating him in this manner.  Nothing that he preaches in the film (God of love not of fear, against corruption, hierarchy, social deference, tradition, etc.) explains why so many people should invoke his teachings in such a violent way, and why the Princes repress it so brutally (this is aside from the fact he favored such repression, whereas in the film he is portrayed as being dismayed by it). There is no hint that the very nature of his ideas—his constant refain about Christian “liberty,” about being freed from the shackles of the law, however he may have meant it (clarity of thought was not one of his strengths)—may have been a cause of such violence.  No, there is merely reform, those ready for it and those not ready for it, and we know whose side we are supposed to be on in that equation. And so all of the “shock and awe” of Luther’s violent revolution becomes domesticated to our own view of the world.

I am a Roman Catholic, so naturally these points stick out to me.  But I am not criticizing the film because it glossed over some of Luther’s less appealing aspects, because I want him to be painted in a sinister light. Rather, I point them out because some of those aspects go to the core of who the man was.  And what was he?  He was someone who was deeply serious, violently serious, unfortunately, someone who suffered what used to be called scrupulosity:  Luther saw nothing but sin in himself, and could see little else in the Church at the time.  (This must be why he came up with the idea of simul justus et peccator, as he simply could not see any good in human beings as they were).  When he looked at the medieval system of penance, with its masses for the dead, its pilgrimmages, indulgences and the like—and their inevitable abuses—it seemed to him the work of demons.  Who could think they were saved by these things, or feel like God loved them this way?  This is one of the things that the film get wrong, as do most people:  late medieval religion was actually rather hopeful, with its manifold helps toward salvation, and this is precisely what Luther hated about it.  Concentrating on these things, he must have thought, distracted people from realizing the true nature of things, from realizing the dark abyss that was the only alternative to the love of God in Christ, and which he thought could not be mediated by human beings.  The film, by contrast, plays up the supposed heartlessness of the medieval church, on display in the suicide whom Luther buries in Church grounds anyway, and in the little crippled girl whom he befriends.  My knowledge of Luther’s life is not the most detailed, but none of this motivated the Luther I am familiar with.  As far as I can tell, Luther was typical of  many overly sensitive persons who take themselves and their own intense experiences to be normative, and then find out nobody else in authority much gives a damn about their cause, or at least doesn’t take ultimate things (in his case, salvation) all that seriously, as life and death seriously as he did.  When he found that some of the least serious of all were Popes and other members of the hierarchy, it was probably inevitable that he would react the way he did, condemning the message along with the messengers.  Luther wanted people to feel as naked as he did before God, without any intermediaries, and he thought this was the only way.  I believe he was wrong, but it does him credit as a man (if not as a theologian) that he thought the issue of salvation was worth fighting over, worth “tearing the world apart,” as the film puts it, that it mattered whose beliefs were true and whose were false.  To pretend that it is otherwise diminishes all the characters in the film, the Catholic characters as well, if they were merely arguing over things that don’t really matter that much.

Luther nails the 95 Theses, but not the Solas in this film

Luther nails the 95 Theses, but not the Solas in this film

The only scene in the film that sort of gets to the heart of the historical Luther is when, just as he has come to Worms in 1521 to face the Emperor, he has a meeting with his old Confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who tells him that he has gone too far, that he is “tearing the world apart.”  He is shaving Luther at the time, and as he says this, Luther (Joseph Fiennes) grabs the hand which holds the razor and says, “Did you think that when you sent me out so boldly to change the world… did you really think there wouldn’t be a cost?”  This is better, but again, it smacks of 1960’s political slogans:  “change the world” is a pretty banal standard under which to march, and it doesn’t really describe what Luther wanted anyway.  He didn’t want to change the world, but get rid of it.  As he put it in one of his more scatalogically charged images, “I am like ripe shit, and the world is a great arse-hole. We probably will let go of each other soon.” (Such language, I should point out, was common his day; his opponent, More, indulged in the same sort of language when he wrote his own tracts against Luther.) Also, as scholars such as Martin Marty have pointed out, Luther was convinced he was living in the end times, a sentiment that was shared by many in his day, and this attitude fed the violent urgency of both his thoughts and actions.  But you get no hint of this in the film; the varied complexities of late medieval society are largely absent in this incarnation of Luther.  All of the rich, late medieval imagery, scatalogical and otherwise, is drained from Luther’s words and ideas, and so the potential historical richness is drained from the film’s depiction of him as well.  The Luther that inhabited this strange but fascinating and teeming world, the “medieval” Luther, if you will, is simply not allowed to appear.  He would be too offensive for us who are raised on the far side of the triumph of politeness and civility to identify with. 

Again, given the controversial and rather complicated nature of the events and ideas involved in his life, a certain dumbing down of his message was unavoidable.  But couldn’t they have mentioned “faith alone” at least once, or talked about the paradoxical nature of his beliefs, shown some of the contradictions which made him so frustrating a figure to friend and foe alike?  I imagine the reason for this is that it would have made him less appealing to friend and foe alike, less a hero and less a villain, and therefore harder to portray in art.  I understand the motive, and compromises with historical authenticity are inevitable, but I just don’t think they had to compromise that much. I am inclined to think that both the makers of the film and the people who financed it agree with W.H. Auden’s picture of Luther’s influence in his poem on the man, “Luther”:

The fuse of Judgment spluttered in his head:
“Lord, smoke these honeyed insects from their hives.
All Works, Great men, Societies are bad.
The Just shall live by Faith…” he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.
Bruno Ganz, as von Staupitz, looks on at Luther's trial, and thinks, "Wow, he was really great in 'Shakespeare in Love'!"

Bruno Ganz, as von Staupitz, looks on at Luther's trial, and thinks, "Wow, he was really great in 'Shakespeare in Love'!"

Luther was important, apparently, because he made possible a much nicer world, where people would no longer have to grovel before princes or popes, or otherwise be disrupted by the types of conflicts he ignited, where everyone can be, well, nicer to each other.  This may be a bit unfair,  but it is hard to reach any other conclusion about the film, devoid as it is of theological content or historical atmosphere.  I would probably put it in the same class as the recent biopic about William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, which practically turns him into a deist in order to make him palatable to a modern audience. (I think the name of Jesus is invoked once in the entire film, and not by Wilberforce, played by quite well by Ioan Gruffudd, but by rather by Wilberforce’s mentor, John Newton.  Not much of an evangelical, if you ask me!) Fr. Richard Neuhaus has pointed out that much of Luther’s life can be seen as an effort to “let God be God,” of clearing away the detritus of the Church, if necessary, to do this.  I am convinced Luther was wrong, terribly wrong in this, but I also am convinced the makers of this film would have been better served to simply let Luther be Luther, in all his riotous and revolutionary convulsions, and allow their audience to form its own judgment of the man, warts and all, rather than fitting him into a stock type of our own contemporary imaginations.

~ by Alypius on December 16, 2008.

One Response to “Let Luther Be Luther”

  1. […] The film has a typically warped, Hollywood view of the middle ages.  I have blogged before on the tendency of film to dumb down complex historical realities, and I do understand the need to […]

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