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    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


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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



    • At 6:02 am, November 04, 2017, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      "The Tudors" gave us a compelling warts and all depiction of Saint Thomas More. I wish that someone would make a warts and all biopic or miniseries about Luther. The hagiographies really are tiresome at this point.


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