In 16th century Germany, Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) abandons the law to become an Augustinian priest and theologian, under the mentorship of Fr Johann Von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz). He becomes disillusioned by the established practice of Catholic hierarchy selling so-called sacred relics indulgences - promise of God's forgiveness and time off their purgatory - for cash to the poor. He nails his 95 point thesis to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, which is seen as a heretical act and a challenge to Rome's Papal authority. When he refuses to recant, he is excommunicated and Germany explodes in religious violence.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
He took God at his word; he defied the self serving priests who had become arrogant and sought to enshrine their position of power, restricting knowledge, power and salvation to a favoured few. He paid the price of standing up to the establishment - and was killed by them. His influence changed the world. I'm talking about Jesus Christ. However, with the exception that Luther escaped crucifixion or burning at the stake (by the skin of his teeth) the two men's motivations and circumstances are remarkably parallel.
Luther is portrayed as a whistleblower to the ruling establishment, which in 16th century Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. It was a power to itself, with Popes more powerful and dangerous than emperors.
Luther-driven reformation of the Church is a part of history, and this film tries to be a cinematic history lesson; if accompanied by a handbook, it would be a good one. Not that the film is bad; on the contrary, there are some superb elements, including the production design and cinematography. Its looks carry us into the time and the place, even if the language and the accents spin us back out again. ("Your passport to eternal paradise," for instance, jars our sense of period, as does a phrase like "I could have sprung two others out of purgatory..." when Luther is ridiculing the sale of indulgences.)
I'm not being picky and petty for the sake of it; I understand that modern English has to be used to make the film accessible to a broad audience, but these careless moments, coupled with wildly fluctuating accents of the cast (like neutral English from Fiennes, German accented English from Bruno Ganz, illustrious English from Peter Ustinov) disturb the homogeneity of the experience.
But speaking of Ustinov, his portrayal of Prince Frederick, head of the university where Luther's revolutionary ideas were fermented, is sublime. His characterisation is built up with a mass of minutae, ranging from the physical (facial expression, small actions of hands, head, etc) to the vocal, where the most subtle inflections deliver a mass of information.
Joseph Fiennes, restricted somewhat by a character and a script that makes it hard to build a real person, manages to tell the story, even he can't quite evoke enough sympathy. Supporting cast are either Machiavellian dogs on Papal leashes, or warm and fuzzy followers. But the simplicity never gets in the way of a fascinating piece of history, written by a man who must be admired for many things, but (in my books) above all for translating the Bible from Latin into everyday German. It's not just that he gave the people a chance to actually read what the Bible says, but that he managed to take such a massive and important work from a dead language into an unforgiving one.
Review by Louise Keller:
Lovers of history will be the most drawn to Luther, a historical drama about the life and times of Martin Luther, who stood up for his devout religious beliefs, questioning what were the accepted religious practices of the day. A man of strong convictions, Luther is best remembered for nailing his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, which questioned the notions of being able to save one's soul by a silver coin. The certificates of indulgence peddled promised a 'passport to paradise' and offered absolution for any sin or sinner who could pay the asking price. Branded a heretic, Luther was excommunicated, never relenting to the pressure to revoke his words and books. In seclusion, Luther set about to translate the New Testament from Latin into German, so everyone could read the word of God for himself.
Joseph Fiennes brings intensity to the role of Luther, both physically and emotionally. His gaze is unflinching and his generous mouth appears to have a permanent hint of a compassionate smile. It's a fine performance, albeit bad hair occasionally detracts. The films depicts Luther filled with self-doubt and living in terror of judgement, but is inspired by the line of communication he discovers with the people. A theologian who fought his battles with the tongue, not the sword, he inspired the support and loyalty of many including his spiritual father (Bruno Ganz) and Frederick the Wise (Peter Ustinov), who did everything he could to protect him, even though he did not approve of his radical beliefs. Ustinov makes a splendid repast out of his role, rounding out his character with nuanced skill, and drawing us to him even as he smacks his lips like a spoilt child who lives life on his terms.
As entertainment, Luther faces several problems. Firstly, the issue of nationality and accents comes into contention, and although director Eric Till has opted for neutrality, some of the blatant English accents grate somewhat. The sudden introduction of romance with Claire Cox's Katharina von Bora, a nun on the run, is problematic in that there doesn't seem to be a place for bedroom frolics, when the tone of the story is more suited to the historic facts.
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CAST: Joseph Fiennes, Claire Cox, Sir Peter Ustinov, Benajim Sadler, Bruno Ganz, Alfred Molina, Torben Liebrecht, Mathieu Carriere
PRODUCER: Christian P. Stehr, Brigitte Rochow
DIRECTOR: Eric Till
SCRIPT: Camille Thomason,Bart gavigan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Fraisse
EDITOR: Clive Barrett
MUSIC: Richard Harvey
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Rolf Zehetbauer
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hoyts
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 3, 2005
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: MRA
VIDEO RELEASE: July 13, 2005