In 16th century Germany, Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) abandons the law to become an Augustinian priest and theologian, under the mentorship of Fr Johann Von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz). He becomes disillusioned by the established practice of Catholic hierarchy selling so-called sacred relics indulgences - promise of God's forgiveness and time off their purgatory - for cash to the poor. He nails his 95 point thesis to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, which is seen as a heretical act and a challenge to Rome's Papal authority. When he refuses to recant, he is excommunicated and Germany explodes in religious violence.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
He took God at his word; he defied the self serving priests who had become arrogant and sought to enshrine their position of power, restricting knowledge, power and salvation to a favoured few. He paid the price of standing up to the establishment - and was killed by them. His influence changed the world. I'm talking about Jesus Christ. However, with the exception that Luther escaped crucifixion or burning at the stake (by the skin of his teeth) the two men's motivations and circumstances are remarkably parallel.
Luther is portrayed as a whistleblower to the ruling establishment, which in 16th century Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. It was a power to itself, with Popes more powerful and dangerous than emperors.
Luther-driven reformation of the Church is a part of history, and this film tries to be a cinematic history lesson; if accompanied by a handbook, it would be a good one. Not that the film is bad; on the contrary, there are some superb elements, including the production design and cinematography. Its looks carry us into the time and the place, even if the language and the accents spin us back out again. ("Your passport to eternal paradise," for instance, jars our sense of period, as does a phrase like "I could have sprung two others out of purgatory..." when Luther is ridiculing the sale of indulgences.)
I'm not being picky and petty for the sake of it; I understand that modern English has to be used to make the film accessible to a broad audience, but these careless moments, coupled with wildly fluctuating accents of the cast (like neutral English from Fiennes, German accented English from Bruno Ganz, illustrious English from Peter Ustinov) disturb the homogeneity of the experience.
But speaking of Ustinov, his portrayal of Prince Frederick, head of the university where Luther's revolutionary ideas were fermented, is sublime. His characterisation is built up with a mass of minutae, ranging from the physical (facial expression, small actions of hands, head, etc) to the vocal, where the most subtle inflections deliver a mass of information.
Joseph Fiennes, restricted somewhat by a character and a script that makes it hard to build a real person, manages to tell the story, even he can't quite evoke enough sympathy. Supporting cast are either Machiavellian dogs on Papal leashes, or warm and fuzzy followers. But the simplicity never gets in the way of a fascinating piece of history, written by a man who must be admired for many things, but (in my books) above all for translating the Bible from Latin into everyday German. It's not just that he gave the people a chance to actually read what the Bible says, but that he managed to take such a massive and important work from a dead language into an unforgiving one.
Published July 28, 2005
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LUTHER: DVD (M)
CAST: Joseph Fiennes, Claire Cox, Sir Peter Ustinov, Benajim Sadler, Bruno Ganz, Alfred Molina, Torben Liebrecht, Mathieu Carriere
PRODUCER: Christian P. Stehr, Brigitte Rochow
DIRECTOR: Eric Till
SCRIPT: Camille Thomason,Bart gavigan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Fraisse
EDITOR: Clive Barrett
MUSIC: Richard Harvey
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Rolf Zehetbauer
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hoyts
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 3, 2005
PRESENTATION: 16 X 9 widescreen; 5.1 Dolby surround sound
SPECIAL FEATURES: Talent profiles; bonus movie trailers;
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MRA
DVD RELEASE: July 13, 2005