At one point in the new film, Luther, which stars Joseph Fiennes, the main character proclaims, “People think of me as a fixed star….I’m a wandering planet.” This historically accurate and very modern-sounding proclamation tells us a great deal about Luther, about the steady alterations in his theological thinking, and about his self-knowledge. But the film itself gives us a rather static Luther, both personally and theologically.
It’s a shame the film is so dull. The filmmakers clearly take Luther seriously not just as a rebel but also as a religious figure. And, in the captivating personality and dramatic life of Luther, they have an ideal subject for film. But neither the plot nor the performance of Joseph Fiennes as Luther manages to be more than mildly interesting. Luther ranks among the most complex figures in the history of Christianity: A capable scholar who railed against reason as a whore; a rebel against papal authority who castigated peasants for choosing pastors of whom he disapproved; and a tireless preacher of ineradicable sinfulness and predestination who could gently counsel trust in Divine Providence. Fiennes does shift moods in his portrayal of Luther: the naïve Luther of his early monastery days; the stand-up comic in the classroom; the teacher is a Jay Leno style stand-up ridiculer of papal corruption; the clever Luther of the pivotal hearing/inquisition at Worms; and the devil-afflicted, nearly hallucinogenic Luther of the same period. But Fiennes is not able to display more than one emotion at a time and so his character never grips us. The film softens Luther’s rough edges. Like most men of his time, Luther was given to earthy language, expletives, and blunt imagery. His penchant for the scatological provided ample material for the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s book, Young Man Luther.
For the most part, the film is historically accurate, although one doubts that Luther ever used the term “obsess” as a verb. “We obsess about relics,” he shouts during a sermon. The film nicely captures a number of biographical details, including an opening scene of Luther’s decision to enter the monastery during a thunderstorm. Also well done is the sheltered, young monk’s trip to Rome, where he first encounters the scandalous abuse of indulgences. At the famous scala sancta, the holy steps that according to legend were the stairs from Pilate’s palace, the very steps traversed by Christ, priests lifelessly register the names of loved ones, tap urgently on the coin- deposit box, and promise the penitent, “the soul will be out of purgatory by the time you get to the top.” “Rome is a circus,” Luther bemoans. “They even have brothels for clerics.” Later, Luther mocks, “18 of the 12 apostles are buried in Spain.”
The film is also unsparing in its depiction of the chaos, fury, and destruction that Luther’s rebellion caused among the peasants. To drive this point home, the film invents an inordinately sentimental plot line in which Luther befriends the peasant mother of a mute, disabled daughter. Luther strives to set the mother straight on the inefficacy of indulgences but the pillaging let loose by Luther’s own preaching has disastrous consequences for the family.
Here the film touches upon the great disappointment of Luther’s later years, his failure to create the kind of religious reform he so desired, even among his own followers. Luther, as the historian Richard Marius puts it, ended up fighting not only against the Catholic Church but also against the “myriad contradictory voices rising in the implacable centrifugal forces within the movement he had begun.”
At the end of Luther, the filmmakers inform viewers that Luther’s life paved the way for “religious freedom.” There is a shred of truth in this; Luther did defend conscience, as did others before him. Still, the accentuation of this theme is deceptively simple and all too comforting to modern sensibilities. In the film itself, Luther insists that there is salvation outside the bounds of the Catholic Church but not outside Christ. Luther’s goal was not to preach toleration, but to capture what he took to be a more pristine version of the truth of the Gospel.
The real problem with the film, however, is not theological, but dramatic. The film confirms the sad truth that even when Hollywood tries to offer an accurate and sympathetic depiction of a religious life, it still suffers from an impoverished historical imagination.
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author ofShows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.