Film Review

Guest Film Review: Hero and Villain – The Story of Martin Luther

Film Review by Ryan Sagert

film review: Martin Luther
Library of Congress: No Known Restrictions

The story of the Reformation was one of faith, politics and philosophical change, which took place in the mid-16th century in what was then and is today Germany. At its most basic, the Reformation was a movement, headed by Martin Luther to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church, then the political and religious head of Europe, for its right to sell indulgences, which was the forgiveness of sins for fiscal profit. On a historical level, the Reformation marked the end of blind faith and ushered in the age of reason. 

Martin Luther Reformation
Library of Congress: No Known Restrictions

The movie Luther, made in 2003, is a cinematic interpretation of the occurrences of the life of Martin Luther, from the nailing of his 95 theses to his marriage to Katharina Von Bora.

Overview of Martin Luther’s Life

Martin Luther was a priest in Germany whose religious and philosophical objections to the workings of the Catholic Church sparked the Protestant Reformation.  His main concern was over indulgences, the sale of which was headed by Johann Tetzel, who maintained along with the Pope that God’s forgiveness for dead souls could be bought through the church. Luther wrote and nailed his 95 theses or objections to the teachings of the church on the front door of his church in Wittenberg.

As a result of his actions, Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Pope and forced to appear at the Diet of Worms to further determine his fate. While at the council, Martin Luther stated that he was the author of the 95 theses adding that he needed time to consider if he regretted authoring them. Over the course of the next couple of days, the council determined that Luther was to be confined and arrested, and they declared Luther as an outlaw.

Martin Luther Bible translation
Wartburg Castle: Library of Congress, No Known Restrictions

Bible Translation

While in confinement, Luther translated the Bible, which was then only read by members of the clergy in Latin, into the vernacular German.  The translations were often seen as a cause of the 1524-1525 peasants’ war in which literate peasants were able to fully question the secular and religious interpretations of the Bible. The revolt, however, was not caused by Luther but many acts of violence were nevertheless committed in his name.  When Luther did not support the cause of the peasants’ rebellion, it was in large part given up.

After Luther was released, he married Katharina Von Bora, who was 26 years old to his 41. Their marriage broke the tradition of priests being forbidden to marry, further shaping the identity of the Protestant church.

In later years, Luther was known to be anti-Semitic and his opinions surrounding Jews were subject to great controversy.

More About the Movie

The movie about Luther was effective at portraying Martin Luther as a man plunged right in the middle of one of the most defining moments in history, perceived as both a villain and a savior.

It quickly became apparent in the film that the 16th century in Europe was a time of stern religious conviction in which you were either brought up to serve in the church or you were wholly dependent and served the church out of fear of damnation. One thing that stood out to me as frightening was how dark and gloomy the sermons of the church were as opposed to the usually bright messages conveyed today. Threatening damnation to those who did not serve and buy indulgences, as well as the Vatican’s message that the only way to salvation was through dedication to the church, was enough to bring a young Martin Luther to the forefront of history.

Luther’s initial decision to post his 95 theses was indeed a bold if not somewhat rash decision, especially considering the imposed piety of the priesthood. It was apparent that Luther was a man at war with his own demons, a man who battled constantly in search of not what was commonly accepted at the time but rather for the truth. When asked to study at the university, Luther responded that he would feel a fraud as a priest because he himself had questioned the scriptures. In that sense, Luther is kind of an unlikely hero, in that stood up for what was right but also recognized his own shortcomings. Of course, in a sense, it also makes Martin Luther an instant revolutionary in that he knew that he was unsatisfied with the dealings of the church and that it was his mission to set out and correct their teachings.

Luther’s decision to translate the Bible into German and then to use the printing press as a means to make his work available caused as a result a lot of internal tension amongst peasants who were then able to read the Bible for themselves and then question the church’s teachings for themselves.

Luther’s place in history is that of the reluctant hero, a man so firmly dedicated to his own convictions that he was unable to see just where they were taking him – and history, for that matter. If it weren’t for Luther’s actions, the world would remain a step away from the reason that became so dominant around the Enlightenment. Without an objective interpretation of the Bible Europe would have remained in the Dark Ages of dogmatism that had engulfed the continent for centuries.

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