Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Bruno Ganz, Jonathan Firth, Sit Peter Ustinov, Claire Cox
Director:  Eric Till             
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamoprhic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features:  Cast Interviews & Trailer
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: November 30, 2004

Film ***

Martin Luther is clearly one of the most pivotal figures of the last millennium.  I was surprised that those lists overlooked him.  Like Charles Darwin, everything in the Western World was different after he came along.  He was hardly the first disgruntled Catholic to make waves, but several new factors swept his ideas along, notably the printing press and the rise of individuality.  His translation of the entire Bible into German, while not flawless (what translation is?) suddenly put the scriptures into the hands of every German, and the princes who were eager to end the Catholic Church's vast control of land and money saw Luther as an opportunity change the landscape of Europe to their advantage. 

It was the start of the largest split among Christians since the "great schism" between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox in the eleventh century.  If you are partial to Catholicism, you probably see Luther and his ilk as "protesters" and thus it was the "Protestant Revolt" and the "Catholic Reformation."  If you are "Protestant" then you see this as the "Protestant Reformation" and the "Catholic Counter-Reformation."  Most historians avoid this conflict and just term it The Reformation.  Even Catholics (like me) must admit that Luther did force the Church to change for the better.

Nothing was easy for poor Martin.  His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but when he was caught in a terrible storm, he promised to become a priest if the Lord delivered him through it.  The storm itself is depicted with frightening realism in the film itself, and Luther's passion for God was clear even then.  He lost his nerve during his very first mass and dropped the chalice, and then when controversy swirls around him, his best friend and leader of his order expels him to protect him. 

Actually, the posting of the 95 theses by itself was not so incredible; it was a normal way of asking for a debate.  The initial thrust of his rebellion was to stop the selling of indulgences.  People were convinced that they could buy salvation for themselves or anyone else.  Luther did not think that the Pope was aware of this practice, but in fact the pope was behind it all, trying to raise money to rebuild St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.  There is no question that the church in general and Rome in particular had strayed far from Christ's original message.  Rome had brothels just for clerics, for example, and phony relics were for sale everywhere.  Since there was no Disney World, entrepreneurs would create fictitious holy sites and fill them with bones or other belongings from saints who may not have even been to that country or may not have existed at all.  Luther's original intention was to stop these practices, but the church's refusal to even entertain his complaints made him more bold, and he challenged many other practices such as celibacy and the general structure of the church itself.  The subsequent peasants' uprising, which he inspired but then helped to stop, was a foreshadowing of the French and American Revolutions in which everyday people stood up for themselves.  Luther was radical but quite sane. 

The film is an excellent blending of the spirits of Amadeus and Beckett, though not as good as either of those films.  Also, while it is noted at the end that Luther had great impact on many aspects of society, the film t does not mention that the Church did make many reforms which he had pushed for, nor does it reveal the political aims of the German princes, but makes them all seem like true believers.  It only barely mentions Luther's greatest controversy, his doctrine of salvation by faith alone.  But the film is well acted, with an incredible soundtrack featuring some of Luther's own hymns.

Fiennes is completely believable in the title role, and Sir Peter Ustinov is excellent as always, portraying a sly but protective German prince, who protectively and proudly refuses to allow Luther to go to their "inquisition" in Rome which would probably result in his death.  This was a very modern and bold move running parallel to Luther boldest moves---translation of the Bible into German, for which Germany itself could be punished, and marrying a former nun.  Claire Cox is wonderful in her brief but magnetic portrayal of Luther's passionate and steadfast wife, imploring him not to come to the rescue of a friend who is going to the Netherlands to preach the Reformation gospel, telling Martin to let them burn someone else instead of him.

Video ****

Clear, beautiful landscapes and scenery, well edited, and no visual flaws, even in dark scenes such as when Luther is in his cell.

Audio ****

One of the best aspects of the film, the excellent soundtrack and sound editing shine brightly through all channels.  The rear channels are well utilized for weather and crowd scenes, but the dialogue still cuts through cleanly.  One of the best mixes I have heard.

Features **1/2

Sadly only a trailer and short interviews with each star, which cannot be viewed sequentially.  Say what? 


Whether you view him as a hero or a heretic, Luther is an excellent movie which accurately portrays the conflicted, passionate, impatient reformer.  Some important history is left out as often happens with historical movies that do not want to run too long and lose their audience.  Check it out!

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