• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, November 30, 2017

    A.D. (2015) - Part 4

    This is part 4 of a series of posts covering A.D. episode by episode & are initial impressions not a review. You can read them all here.
    After my last piece on this series, I decided I couldn't continue just to mention the same three or four characteristics of this series over and over again every time I wrote about it. So I decided to try and bring something new this time. I was fortunate, therefore, that this episode was both the most interesting and the best of the series so far, and I'd suggest also better than any of the episodes from the original The Bible series (2013).

    For one thing it felt like it was this episode where the series' multi-ethnic casting really matured. It's been a key feature of course, both of A.D. The Bible Continues/Kingdom and Empire and The Bible before it, , notably the casting of black actors to play Samson and John son of Zebedee, but whilst that has been in some senses laudable, it's also felt a little forced, like a man trying to impress a woman by telling her how into feminism he is.

    This time, however, it felt more natural and it started to reap the benefits. In particular it seemed like the first time that John was allowed to really emerge from being one of the twelve to being a more distinct character. He's still very much playing second fiddle to Peter, but he had a bigger role than in previous episodes.

    More broadly the multi-ethnic casting gave a far more realistic feel to a busy, trade route city such as Jerusalem in an empire that extended into Africa, Asia and across most of Europe. There's a tendency as well to assume that the Jews were largely an ethnically pure race, but I'm not sure that this is much more than an assumption based on a purist extrapolation of Jewish law.

    The most interesting scene in the film was that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), a story that has long held a kind of morbid fascination for me. The Bible remains curiously silent on the question of who, if anyone, killed the pair and the film does a good job of capturing this. It won't satisfy those who think that Peter murdered the pair (or ordered others to do it), but those who think his anger contributed to an underlying health issue will like the ambiguity.

    What I particularly appreciated about the sequence, however, was the way it adopted aspects of the horror genre. In particular the music, special effects, reaction shots on onlookers' faces and the low camera angle of various shots gave this a real horror effect. The story feels like one of the last vestiges of the Old Testament stubbornly refusing to leave and the film makes the shocking nature of this contrast stand out. Easily the best sequence in series so far.

    Elsewhere, the relationship between Pilate and Caiaphas, which annoyed me to begin with is developing in interesting ways. Where at first Caiaphas seemed to have the upper hand and be nudging Pilate into executing Jesus, now Pilate is acting in a manner far more in keeping with the thug that emerges from the various documents that describe him and Caiaphas is becoming more the sympathetic victim.

    Here he's challenged by Joseph of Arimathea that if the relationship he has cultivated with Pilate means anything then it has to mean something now (that he is randomly executing young man until the man who tried to murder him is taken into custody). The result is an utter humiliation for Caiaphas meaning that this production perhaps portrays the dominance of the Roman leaders better than any other that comes immediately to mind.

    Lastly, we also get to meet Barnabas in this episode. What's interesting about this is that he is portrayed as a rich man, but one who feels that the disciples judge him because of his wealth. Barnabas' line here "I'm disappointed you assume my wealth sets us apart" sounds like it is working a little too hard to accommodate the subsequent wealth of western churches with the communal sharing of wealth to help the poor that is depicted in the early chapters of Acts, but it's interesting to see how the story develops on this point. I'm actually quite looking forward to the next episode.


    Sunday, November 26, 2017

    The Star (2017)

    One of the things that neither Bible film fans, nor the people who write about them like to admit, is that, more often than not, they are a form of entertainment. We should all know this of course; anyone who has seen 80 year-old stutterer Moses portrayed by a young Charlton Heston fresh from the gym is kidding themselves if they think otherwise. We excuse all kinds of unlikely dialogue on the grounds of artistic license and accept many of the lines publicists feed us about films raising difficult questions or exploring issues. It's not that Bible films cannot both do those things and be entertaining, but that often those of us who take them seriously forget that, for many, they are just about entertainment.

    Sony Animated Pictures' Christmas release, The Star, seems content simply to aim for entertainment. No-one would watch it's take on the Nativity story and think that this was how things really happened. The dramatic license makes no serious attempt to convince you that it has any kind of link to how historical reality. Instead it just aims for a fun, whilst not disrespectful, retelling of the story of Jesus' birth through the eyes of it's real main character, a donkey called Bo. Bo and his best friend Dave (a dove) end up getting adopted by Mary and Joseph in the weeks leading up to their trip to Bethlehem and unbeknownst to the holy couple bring with them a series of hazards which they somehow manage to, just about, keep at bay.

    As family entertainment it's not bad. The pacing is sprightly enough to stop boredom setting in, the characters are generally appealing without feeling overly cutesy (Ruth the sheep and Felix the camel aside) and there are a few funny lines here and there. Whilst none of it is as amusing as the opening sequence in Despicable Me 3, it's at least on a par with the rest of Despicable Me 3.

    The best thing about it, however, is its affectionate take down of both the typical biblical epic and the various ways in which the Christmas story has been told in the past. The opening title sets the tone, but it continues through the banter between Elizabeth and Zechariah ("I think I liked you better when you couldn't talk") and one of the camels' judgement on Herod's golden shoes ("That, Felix, is money and no taste"). Perhaps the best take down of all comes when Bo realizes the stable he has discovered is where Jesus is meant to be born. What really gives it away is that the poor animals that live there have suffered 9 months of bad sleep due to the star shining through a gap in their roof right on to the manger. It's a great spoof of the clichéd climatic shot in The Nativity Story (2006) and the works that inspired it and one of a number of places where the film playfully takes on the ways in which we have interpreted the original story, without trying to undermine its importance.

    The other thing that is interesting about the film is the way it handles Joseph's reaction to the news of Mary's pregnancy. Having watched almost every available Nativity film this year, most of them take an remarkably adult angle on this story, which feels very much part of the post-1960s shift in attitudes to sex. Typically Joseph is angry or hurt, but never seriously considers stoning her to death. His attitudes are very modern in ways that our ancestors, and perhaps our descendants would not recognize. If you've ever watched one of these films with kids, it's hard to explain to them the nuances of what is going on.

    As The Star is very much aimed at children (and younger, primary age children at that) it bravely decides to omit these very grown-up anxieties, save parents an awkward conversation, and focus instead on Joseph's concerns about how he can possibly father such a child. It's not a unique line of thinking - there's a similar line in The Nativity Story, for example, (a film which has clearly been a significant influence on The Star) - but I appreciate the focus this gives on issues that kids can relate to more readily ("Can I handle what is expected of me?"). It took me a while to get used to it, but it does allow us to see past what has become the dominant aspect of how Joseph tends to be viewed.

    Where the film falls down, for me, is where it tries to move beyond being an entertaining celebration of the story of Mary and Joseph, and force out a cheesy lump of exposition. Suddenly it feels like you have been ambushed by a large dose of unwelcome propaganda, like someone 'splaining the film's life lessons when you've already fully grasped it. Seasonal goodwill had previously enabled me to overlook the awful, mega-churchy sounding soundtrack. Now I'm not sure I feel as generous.

    Perhaps, though, I can forgive the film for that because of it's subtler moments. The nods to Lassie that are not wrung out for all they are worth, the Matera-like design of Bethlehem, and, most of all, the decent, honest, but realistic portrayal of Mary and Joseph who, in the midst of all the crazy animal antics, somehow retain a sense of poise and dignity. Thankfully The Star never lets you forget that behind all the entertainment, there is an important story that we need to celebrate and continue to share.

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    Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    The Great Commandment (1939)

    Which was the first "talking Jesus"? It's a question which is more complex than it might initially appear. Depending on how one defines what constitutes a Jesus film, where it plays, and the language in which Jesus is speaking there is a variety of different answers from 1935's Golgotha to 1961's King of Kings. And then there's the various silent Jesus films which were re-released with sound after the advent of the new technology. Do they count?

    Twelve years after the last, major silent Jesus film, DeMille's The King of Kings came the release of  The Great Commandment (1939). It's one of the many that can, perhaps, stake a reasonable claim to being the first Jesus talkie. It was also the first film made by Cathedral films; produced by John T. Coyle, assisted by Rev. James K. Friedrich and directed by Irving Pichel. The team would work together for almost twenty years creating a series of biblical and religious films which were shown in churches, cinemas and on television.

    That said, technically speaking, the film is not quite a proper Jesus film, but lies partway between a full Jesus movie and the kind of Roman-Jewish-Christian epic where Jesus' role is reduced to that of a significant cameo. Here Jesus does not feature until the halfway point and whilst we hear his voice, his face is shown only once as a fleeting reflection. Thereafter, we hear him speak, and even see things from his point of view, but his face remains off screen.

    The story revolves around a love triangle between two zealot brother who both have an interest in Tamar (Marjorie Cooley) a girl from their village. The elder brother Joel (John Beal) is in love with her, but she is betrothed to his younger brother Zadok (Warren McCollum). The dispute leads Joel to fall out with his pacifist scholarly father so he goes off in search of the charismatic leader from Nazareth about whom he has heard so much.

    Such a plot, where a zealot mistakes Jesus for a political leader before ultimately becoming one of his followers, was one that Coyle, Friedrich and Pichel returned to a number of times, most notably in the television movie I Beheld His Glory (1952) and the cinematic release Day of Triumph (1954).

    This early incarnation perhaps lacks the finesse and pacing of the latter version. There's not a great deal of chemistry between Joel and Tamar, and John Beal's boyish good looks make it hard to take his seriously as a hardened zealot rebel. That said, things pick up in the second half when Beal encounters Jesus. By giving only vague indications as to the story's date (30 AD) and location ("In between Jericho and Jerusalem") the film makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly whereabouts in Jesus' life Joel is encountering him. This adds a sense of tension and mystery to proceedings, even though the audience ultimately senses how things will end.

    This lack of a frame of reference is enhanced by the way the film selects material from the gospels. Aside from a couple of miracles, it largely utilises the sayings material, and even then the order of the material is jumbled up. The Beatitudes (Matt 5) come after the, much later, phrase "Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26). Material from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is mixed with parables from far later in Luke. The Jesus we encounter seems far closer than the one from the Q material unique to Matthew and Luke's gospel than any one of the canonical gospels.

    Joel is gradually drawn closer to Jesus, best expressed in a tracking shot of him whilst Jesus recites the Beatitudes. Shooting Joel from below he gradually moves from the outside of the crowd listening to Jesus to close to where Jesus is speaking. The lateral movement enables him to maintain a purposeful pace whilst his eyes remain purposefully fixed on his new master. There are a number of longer moving shots like this throughout the film often portraying a sense of togetherness of those captured together.

    One particularly striking example is a two minute long shot taken from Jesus' point of view. At first it is not even clear that this is perspective from which the shot is taken, but then the camera focuses on Joel's father before panning right to Joel and Andrew and then back to his father. The way the camera, and Jesus' gaze, links the two men and suggests a reconciliation which is never quite fully realised within the film itself.

    Perhaps the most significant of these extended shots occurs when Joel returns home for Zadok and Tamar's wedding, joining the guests in harmony before an abrupt cut to a close-up on Tamar's, slightly regretful, face. The scene is also significant for the emphasis it places on the Jewishness of its characters. The dress, music and dancing style of the characters may seem a little stereotypical, but it's an undeniably positive attempt to capture the Jewish nature of the story, and Jesus himself, just as the Second World War was beginning. Given the film's final scenes, perhaps it can be ready as a naive argument for appeasement, before the horrors of the Nazi regime had become apparent. Nevertheless, any such argument is based on and rooted in the Jewishness of Jesus and his early followers.


    Sunday, November 19, 2017

    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach
    The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967)

    Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is the film that put the "and" in Straub and Huillet. Whilst it was the third of Straub's films to be completed, they started working on it well before they created Machorka-Muff (1963) and Not Reconciled (1965) and thus it was the first film that they worked on together. It was also their first feature length film. Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled (both of which are included on Grasshopper's Moses und Aron disc release later this month) were 18 minutes and 55 minutes respectively.

    It's fitting because Chronik tells the tale of Johann Sebastian Bach from the perspective of his wife Anna Magdalena and whilst the film never suggests Anna was a collaborator, there are scenes both of them working in close proximity and of her playing on her own. The vast majority of Straub and Huillet's work tended to be adaptations of a single work (in addition to Moses und Aron they also adapted Schöenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen (1997), as well as the Corneille play Othon (1969) and works by Brecht [History Lessons, 1972], Kafka [Class Relations, 1984] and the Italian poet Cesare Pavese [From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979; These Encounters of Theirs, 2006]). Here, however, Chronik uses a variety of smaller sources, as whilst the film bears Anna Magdalena's name and is narrated by an actress playing her (Christiane Lang), none of her writings remain save a brief note at the bottom of a receipt. The note in question is shown part way through the film, as are a number of Bach's documents and other papers relating to him. The shots showing these are relatively short in comparison to the scenes of Bach and the musicians he is working with performing his work.

    These scenes are notable for a number of reasons. In nearly all cases the scene consists of a lengthy single shot, and in generally the camera remains relatively static for the whole shot. One notable exception is the opening shot which starts with a close up on Bach (played by specialist musician Gustav Leonhardt) as he plays the opening solo part of "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5", before quickly zooming out to reveal his accompanying musicians at the moment at which they join in.

    Another thing that is unusual about Straub's shots, both here and in many of his films, is the camera angles he adopts, most notably his diagonal shots. As Richard Roud explains "throughout the film he plays with binary symmetry, left-right polarity, and the changing direction of his diagonals both in the camera set-up and in the camera movements. In fact, one could comfortably claim that there is never an eye-level, straight-on shot in the film: the camera is always a little above or below the actors, either to the left or right." (Roud, 78)

    But perhaps what is most striking about these shots is the way they ignore photographing any kind of audience for the performance. The focus is solely on the musicians (save for one piece which focuses instead on the organ pipes). Occasionally Anna's comments suggest an audience was at least present, but frequently even that knowledge is denied to the viewer. This has a great impact on how the film's audience react to the various pieces. Shorn of a stand-in audience to show us how to react, our reactions are our own. The focus is on the musicians and their own subtle movements.

    The other things that these cameras catch is the carefully chosen locations. As Barton Byg explains Straub and Huillet's "choice of location is never arbitrary and is indeed preceded on the screenplays in some instances. The films then implore the physical traces of history that human activity leaves behind and confront these spaces with texts or musical pieces" (Byg, 55).Here we are treated to a series of 18th century church interiors as well as various shots inside the family home (though I do not believe this rooms shown here are the Bach's actual home).

    That said, it would be a mistake to think that the film is an exact facsimile of how things really happened. Aside from the wigs, Leonhardt does not resemble Bach physically at all. On top of this, whilst Straub/Huillet's later films were more faithful to one particular source, here Anna's narration is drawn from, and inspired from various documents. Furthermore, the flat, unemotional delivery with which the actors deliver their lines (even when discuss the deaths of their children) is unlikely to have been how the real Anna would have referred to her lost children.

    All of which very much puts the emphasis if the film on the music, the "most important element" according to Roud "but not its only subject" (1972: 65). It is also "a love story...a documentary on the actors and musicians of the film...[and] a film with social and political aspects" (Roud, 1982: 65). These and other aspects are all brought together under the film's title character. It might seem surprising to those who have not seen the film that it is named after Bach's wife and not the man himself. Yet as rigorous and "stripped down" as Straub and Huillet's film is, it still remains a subjective account. The story is told as a series of flashbacks as remembered by Anna Magdalena. She is the film's focus, even if her husband dominates the screen. Indeed "the central question posed by the film...is how the music of Bach (as a cultural treasure, religious expression, or simply pleasing music) can at all be connected to the physical life of a historical individual." (Byg, 62)

    One scene is particularly notable in this respect. At the end of one of the longest of Anna's monologues, in which she recounts the deaths of three of her children and the family's move to Leipzig, we see Bach playing and conducting a choir and orchestra in the presence of the Prince. But here the other musicians are kept off screen. Even more strikingly, rather than the scene being filmed inside a church, stately house, or historical communal building, the exterior of Leipzig town hall is back-projected behind Leonhardt. The result looks extremely false, as if expressing Anna's disturbed state of mind at the time.

    Despite all of the above Chronik has been described as Straub and Huillet's most accessible film. This is, no doubt, reflected in the fact that most people are at least slightly more aware of Bach's music than they are of, say, Schöenberg's atonal operas or Brecht's novels. Whilst it's austerity and complex ideas mean it's never found a wide audience, it does open up on repeated viewings. And unsurprisingly it has a good deal in common with Straub and Huillet's adaptation of Moses und Aron that was released just a few years later.
    Byg, Barton (1995) Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Roud, Richard (1972) Jean-Marie Straub. New York: The Viking Press.

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    Thursday, November 16, 2017

    Paul, Apostle of Christ: From Saul to Paul?

    A month or two ago a teaser trailer for next year's Paul, Apostle of Christ popped up on YouTube, before promptly being taken down. Well now it's back and available for all to see. I've embedded it below. There's also been a press release which is reproduced in full at my friend Peter Chattaway's Patheos blog. It doesn't reveal a great deal we didn't already know except perhaps to confirm what I predicted in my previous post on this film, namely that "the earlier scenes will be shot in flashback from Paul's final days in prison". Anyway here is the trailer.

    The final image of Paul is obviously the most dramatic: the bald-headed, long-bearded Paul starring fiercely into the camera. Paul here is played by James Faulker (right in above image), who I suppose is probably best known these days for his role in Game of Thrones, but who also have Roman-era form in both I, CLaudius (1976), Peter and Paul (1981) and the 2010 version of Ben-Hur. For me though, he's mainly a bit-part actor in all the usual British TV drama series (The Bill, Minder, Bergerac, Lovejoy, A Touch of Frost, Heartbeat, Spooks, Downton Abbey) or a comic talent as best showcased in his role in the Bridget Jones trilogy. So it will be interesting to see him in the lead role in serious production.

    Having said all that about Faulkner, it would be easy to miss the less dramatically imposing figure of Yorgos Karamihos (left in above image) who is credited as Saul of Tarsus. Karamihos appeared in that other recent version of Ben-Hur, from last year. It's interesting that they have chosen two actors to play the one part and I can't help wondering if the change in name (which occurred when Saul decided his mission was to the gentiles, not at the point of his conversion as is commonly thought) will coincide with the change in actor.

    The film is lined up for release (in North America at least) for the 28th March 2018.

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    Saturday, November 11, 2017

    Moses und Aron (2010)

    As this is a film blog, rather than an opera blog, reviewing a filmed version of a live theatre performance of Schöenberg's opera Moses und Aron is a little outside of my normal habitat, although it's not without precedent. Nevertheless with a new version of Straub and Huillet's 1973 film being released on DVD later this month, I thought it would be useful to look at some other adaptations of a complicated piece, starting with the 2010 filmed version, directed by Willie Decker.

    There has been a significant growth in films of 'live' theatre performances in recent years. Going to the cinema to join in on someone else's trip to the theatre was largely unheard of a decade or so ago, yet today it's common, if not a regular occurrence, at many cinemas. By the time these performances are recorded (even if only at the point it is committed to DVD) these have moved, to a certain extent,  from the theoretical category of a broadcast into the realm of documentary. Whilst it's perhaps more of a continuum rather than two distinct poles of "drama" and "documentary" this kind of performance is far less concerned with convincing its audience that the narrative's central characters are the people they are portraying.

    In a way, this takes us back towards some of the concerns that Straub and Huillet are exploring. Both 'films' give their actors costumes and sets, without expecting their audience to be able to entirely suspend their disbelief. Interestingly, in this respect it's Decker's film, which is closer towards the documentary end of the spectrum, that utilises a more typical acting style. Lead actor, Dale Duesing, for example, does a fine job of portraying the agony Moses feels at having experienced God but lacking the necessary skills to convey it to the people he has been called to lead.

    The opera was staged in Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle and Decker's opening shot gives a sense of the venue's industrial past as both an exhibition venue and, later, a compressor hall. In contrast, the staging, is innovative and modern. From first view two steeply diagonal rows of seats face each other with only a narrow "stage" between them, but as things progress the seats move back and forth to create a greater (or lesser) performance between them. The orchestra sits off to the side, oftentimes concealed and, from time to time, the camera shoots across the stage from behind them.

    There are various other innovations as well, though some are hardly original, such as cast members starting the performance in their seats, the use of seats on both sides also meaning that the actors ascend both sides of aisle stairs in certain scenes. In Act I much of the action takes place within a semi-transparent box which fills the stage. It's large enough that at times the entire cast stand inside it, and dominant enough to symbolise the people of Israel's captivity in Egypt. It also forms a convenient surface on which to project the images of Moses's two miracles occurring. In stark contrast to the more minimalist treatment of these incidents in the Straub/Huillet film here they are projected to such a huge size that the psychological impact of these miracles is still the focus. They two dominate the Israelites, yet the transparency of the box's sides gives an ethereality to the images. Were they something real or imagined?

    The film's other props and furniture are similarly modern, ambiguous, functional and symbolic: Moses' staff resembles, in some ways, a giant pencil and is used to draw on occasion; the golden calf is neither gold. nor particularly impressive; instead of two tablets of stone Moses drags a huge sheet with the words written on them instead (pictured above). There are few other props.

    Schöenberg's second act is, perhaps, best known for its orgy scene and the four characters described simply as "four naked virgins". Here, by the end, they are hoisted on people's shoulders and smeared in blood (which looks perhaps, a little too like red corm syrup). The extend scene's function in the script is to emphasise the people's need for something more tangible in which to place their faith, and the sense of what happens when it does, but I'm not convinced how well this scene works here. Does making these images so inedible not also accuse us of the same offence? Perhaps that is the point.

    As is typical of most stage versions of Schöenberg's opera his unfinished third act is omitted. This means the performance ends with Moses as something of a broken man. Despite his best efforts to communicate to his people the essence of God, in fact, arguably because of it, they have ended up in idolatry, death and mob rule. The unscored final act sees Moses seize power once again and is arguably a more subversive ending. Ending the production after two acts makes Moses seem like a victim, whose lofty ideal has failed, but who remains sympathetic. His very idea of understanding God without resorting to imagery undone by the power of the imagery of the production.

    Two other filmed live versions of the opera have also been released on DVD in recent years. Reto Nickler's 2006 version, performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera dwells on the opulence of its location in the Vienna State Opera House in its opening moments. This contrasts strongly with the appearance of Moses, Aron and the rest of the company, who are costumed in the style of European Jews attempt to escape Nazi-era Germany (as Schöenberg himself was at the point at which he was struggling to complete his opera). Francois-Rene Martin's 2014/2015 version also seeks to harness powerful imagery including huge backdrops of mountain ranges, bright white suits for some of the chorus and the presence of a lone naked woman on the DVD cover. I'm not sure Schöenberg's Moses would have approved.

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    Friday, November 03, 2017

    Martin Luther in Film

    Image from the 1913 film Die Wittenberger Nachtigall

    Somehow the commemorations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, specifically the German Lutheran Reformation, had almost passed without me realising it. I got there in the end, but it was only when I saw Kevin McLenithan's piece on Luther films for Think Christian, that I realised that of course this is something that I should have thought of doing. There's another good piece on the subject from Stephen Brown in The Church Times: The hero monk of Hollywood.

    I suppose, then, that this is a bit of a copycat job, particularly as I don't have anything like the grasp on the subject matter as I do with the more biblically based hagiopics. However, I do have an advantage over both McLenithan and Brown - I have seen the most recent entry in the, um, canon, the German miniseries Reformation. So here's a whistle stop tour of the cinema of the German Reformation.

    Doktor Martinus Luther (1911)

    No known copies remain of this, the earliest film about Luther which premiered in Berlin in 1911 and was distributed by Deutsche Bioscop-Gesellschaft (Wipfler, 2011: 37). Its eighteen scenes, running to about 600m (20 minutes) emphasised his marriage and family life (Wipfler, 2011: 81). Interestingly the publicity for the film was at pains to stress that the film was "strictly objective - entirely free of attacks on members of other faiths" which suggests that Luther's critique of Cathiolicism might have been somewhat curtailed.

    Martin Luther: His Life and Time (1923)

    Like most of the silent films about Luther this one was made in German and directed by Karl Wüstenhagen, who also took the role of Luther. Unlike those other films, this one placed a heavy emphasis on the reformer's childhood. A reel or so of the film can be seen at YouTube - which originally ran to much longer - which is split between scenes of Luther's childhood and the matyrdom of Jan Hus a century or so beforehand (1415). It's one of the few times one of the other reformers ends up on screen. As Brown observes "who has ever seen a biopic about Calvin, Zwingli, or Knox?" (Brown). The original ran to 1961m - just over 6 reels or around 2 hours, so whilst the available 16 minutes covering Luther's youth may (or may not) be all that remains, it was just a reasonably proportionate introduction to a fuller treatment of his life.

    Luther: Ein Film der deutschen Reformation (1927)

    Hans Kyser wrote and directed this version which, according to this trailer on YouTube is due for a DVD release later this month after a restoration project by the German Federal Archive. Like Wüstenhagen's film, the opening scenes feature Luther's childhood before progressing to the scene where Luther promises to join the monastery if only he survives the thunderstorm in which he finds himself. But beyond his abduction after the Diet of Worms the story does not cover much of Luther's later life despite its 2 hour running time.

    Martin Luther (1953)

    Perhaps the benchmark for films about Luther is this 1953 film starring Niall MacGinnis (available at The Daily Motion). The opening credits stress its "careful research" and the film attempts to bolster that impression in various ways as the film unfolds. A key element in this is the authoritative, dispassionate narration that occurs throughout the film, providing details such as the precise date that Luther nailed his theses to the door, or context such as the fact that the door was "the customary place to post announcements". MacGinnis does a good job as a bullish, and not necessarily particularly likeable Luther and the early scenes do a good job of showing Luther's doubt and crisis of faith that drove him to find the answers that morphed into the driving force behind his work.

    Martin Luther: Heretic (1983)

    Norman Stone directed this television film (available at YouTube) to commemorate another reformation-related 500th anniversary, that of Luther's birth. It starred the ever watchable Jonathan Pryce as Luther, two years before his breakthrough with Brazil (1985). At 64 minutes, it's the shortest of the sound-era films, and the challenge of covering the critical areas of the story with the available time leads to some interesting decisions. The scene where Luther nails his theses to the Cathedral door lasts only few seconds, although in contrast to many versions of the story, it does actually include Luther's narrating some of these theses over a montage of them being printed and distributed. Two years later Stone would go on to make another TV film about another famed Christian author, C.S. Lewis, in his version of Shadowlands. He also directed Man Dancin' which attempted the same Passion Play/Christ figure combination as Jesus of Montreal, only set in Glasgow.

    Luther (2003)

    In all the books I have about historical films, this is the only film that gets a mention, and even then only once in Alex von Tunzelmann's Reel History: The World According to the Movies (History Grade B-, Entertainment grade D). As she points out this film's Luther (Joseph Fiennes) is grumpy not least because "Pope Julius II [is] blinging around town in shiny gold armour" (Von Tunzelmann, 2015: 96-97). Of all the films about Luther's life this is the one with the most impressive cast. In addition to Fiennes there are also turns by Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and Bruno Ganz. The production values are high and, for me, it has the most compelling version of the "I can do no other" speech. Fiennes, who starred in last year's Risen, would later summarise his role as "a man who stuck to his beliefs in the face of a massive hierarchy.”

    Reformation (2017)

    Produced by German television company ZDF and screened recently on BBC4, Reformation is a more gritty and violent take than any of the others. The threat of torture hangs behind every scene, and is to the fore in many. The focus here is broader than just Luther with part 2 of the miniseries focusing more on Thomas Müntzer, Karlstadt (who the programme calls by another of his names, Bodenstein) the Peasants' War and the Radical Reformation. Indeed if anything Müntzer comes out as more of a hero than Luther himself, recasting him as a modern fore-runner of modern day equality, daring to take things where Luther feared to tread. The film also places a far greater emphasis on the roles of both Luther and Müntzer's wives. For those in the UK, it's available on iPlayer until 15th November.


    Brown, Stephen (2017) "The hero monk of Hollywood" in Church Times, 30 Jun. Online edition available at:

    McLenithan, Kevin (2017) "Martin Luther at the Movies" at Think Christian. Available online:

    Von Tunzelmann, Alex (2015) Reel History: The World According to the Movies, London: Atlantic Books

    Wipfler, Esther Pia (2011) Martin Luther in Motion Pictures: History of a Metamorphosis, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht