Film provides a glimpse of an early schism

Prince Frederick the Wise (Peter Ustinov), admires Martin Luther's courage as the 16th-century monk causes waves.
Prince Frederick the Wise (Peter Ustinov), admires Martin Luther's courage as the 16th-century monk causes waves.
Published December 1, 2004

Anglicans and Lutherans have formally joined forces in Canada but remain quite ignorant of each other’s history. This is especially true of their significant, albeit distinct, formative and shared experience of the 16th-century Reformation.

Lutherans have viewed the nuptial motives of Henry VIII with dismay. His reasons for re-establishing the Church England have sometimes appeared to them as “Catholic Lite” — with no substantive difference. Anglicans, on the other hand, have cast a disparaging eye on Martin Luther, viewing him as a potty-mouthed German buffoon whose views of both the English monarchy and church were often uncomplimentary.

Anglicans, at least, will find a partial remedy for dated prejudices in the release of Luther. This is a beautiful English-language movie filmed in Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic, and funded with German and American money. It premiered recently in Canadian theatres, a full year after its debut in the United States, with a substantive story line and a cast of several well-known actors.

Times have changed for viewing a film of this kind in Canada. When a general circulation, black and white movie entitled Martin Luther came out in 1953 it was banned in Quebec. We are now a very different secularized, multi-cultural and multi-faith nation. With the arrival of this modern Luther production, ecumenical audiences can together discover one of the most influential figures in human and religious history.

Luther, though rather maudlin in places and obviously partial to its subject, puts a human face on a complicated man caught up in complex times. The story moves energetically and the script is not weighed down by heavy narrative or theology.

Joseph Fiennes ( Shakespeare in Love ) is credible portraying the driven and very human Luther; a man who disobeyed his father’s wishes that he be a lawyer and became, instead, a priest and a doctor of theology.

Bruno Ganz as Luther’s confessor, Johann von Staupitz, and Sir Peter Ustinov, as his supporter, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, are convincing in their roles, adding substance and balance to the story.

Alfred Molina credibly plays the entrepreneurial priest Johann Tetzel, whose indulgence sale in Germany was the spark triggering Luther’s latent animus against what he viewed as a decadent church that manipulated simple peasants into believing they could buy time from purgatory for their loved ones. Claire Cox, a regular with the Royal Shakespeare Company, adds depth, poise and beauty in her role as Luther’s wife Katharina von Bora, an ex-nun who married the reluctant renegade.

Luther’s experiences of profound despair (his self-described anfechtungen ) are authentically shown. So also is the travesty of a peasant’s revolt, which he inadvertently helped to foment, and from which he defected. Unfortunately, there is no reference to his anti-Semitism and the profoundly destructive impact that had on subsequent German history.

Anglicans should view this movie (a DVD version was scheduled for release last month) to get to know Luther’s story better and to enhance their understanding of the continental Reformation. They will ultimately discover in Luther a man of passion but also of moderation; whose catholic values would not differ much from those held by many Anglicans.

Wayne A. Holst is a parish educator at St. David’s United church, Calgary. He was a Lutheran pastor for 25 years and has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

Related Posts

Keep on reading

Skip to content