History and religion have been forever changed because of Martin Luther. Born in a time of oppressive poverty and ignorance, when the Roman Catholic Church ruled the Christian world, the reformer offered spiritual enlightenment to the common people through his translation of the New Testament into the German language. The newly invented printing press allowed the masses to examine the Holy Scripture for themselves for the first time. This biographical movie titled only with his surname, dramatizes the life of one who would be remembered as (quoting the tagline): a rebel, a genius, and a liberator.
Depicted as a man tormented by his inner questions, Luther (Joseph Fiennes) gives up a career in law to dedicate his life to God. Within the walls of the monastery the young pupil is encouraged to broaden his horizons in order to find his answers, by his mentor Father Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz).
When a trip to Rome, with its sellers of holy relics and brothels for clergymen, fails to strengthen Luther's faith, the kindly father sends him to Wittenberg. Here the soul searcher will preside over the local church as well as attend the city's university. To quiet the young monk's self doubts, von Stauptiz tells him, "We teach best that which we need to learn most." The gentle leader also explains he is sending the divinity student to the "source," because the school houses a precious copy of The New Testament.
In this fresh environment of educational opportunities, and with a job that continually puts his convictions to the test, a more experienced and confident Luther emerges. His scholarly accomplishments soon have him promoted to a teaching position at the university, while his study of the scriptures has him preaching to his congregation about a God of love, instead of one to be feared.
But Luther's growing popularity is put to the test when he speaks out against the Church's practice of selling indulgences. Posting a plainly written document (known as the 95 Theses) on the door of the cathedral, Luther's criticism captures the attention of the lowest community members to highest-ranking Catholic officials.
Instead of opening up a discussion about the possible abuses of this tradition as he had hoped, Luther is summoned to Rome and threatened with excommunication unless he revokes his words. Thus begins the battle between the Holy Father and the seemingly insignificant German theologian.
Even though Luther finds an unexpected ally in the reigning Prince Friedrich of Saxony (played by Sir Peter Ustinov), he is still faced with accusations of heresy. As he publicly stands trial, Luther's private quest for truth sparks an open rebellion amongst his countrymen too. The ensuing war breaks into bloodshed, rocking parishioner to pope, and peasant to king.
Beautifully constructed, the movie Luther combines the highest production quality with top-notch performances by actors who are likely best known to European audiences. Although a few mild profanities, allusions to some sexual sins, a married couple dressed in nightclothes hugging in bed, and a negative portrayal of the Catholic hierarchy at that time, may cause some parents a moment of pause, the greatest concern will be the violent depictions. While not excessively graphic, these include a suicide, a hand scorched during an inflammatory hellfire speech, a burning-at-the-stake, hangings, and the broken bodies of the thousands of those who fell victim in the revolution.
Yet the film provides an incredible example of holding fast to what you believe in, even in the face of death. It also shows how one person's steadfastness in a time of great tribulation can offer others the courage to stand up as well. Raising the question of what price any of us would pay for religious freedom, the story reminds us that no mater what you might be labeled, "to go against conscience is neither right, nor safe."
DVD Notes: Luther