At least among sociologists of religion, if not journalists, it has become something of a cliché that liberal churches inevitably lose members while conservative ones continue to grow. Perhaps the most vivid—indeed garish—example of this trend would be the Church of England (and its Episcopal offshoots in North America and Australia). The English nation comprises about sixty-seven million inhabitants, but despite the inertia of history and the power of a state-sanctioned Establishment, barely over a half-million attend an Anglican service in England on any given Sunday. But evangelical storefront churches in east London are growing, seemingly at exponential rates. It would seem that when it comes to church attendance, what is doctrinally convenient is not the same thing as what is theologically compelling.
But if observers credit the Anglican communion with being ahead of the game in luridly public acts of self-implosion, they must at least give the Lutheran churches in Germany and the United States credit for providing a cinematic corollary to this sociological maxim. In an apparent effort to stem the tide of Lutheranism’s own diminishing church membership, the Lutheran-owned insurance company Thrivent (with additional grants from the state-supported Lutheran Church in Germany) has sunk a considerable amount of its fortune into supporting—indeed largely underwriting—the costs of a new movie on Martin Luther, titled simply Luther.
Suspecting the movie might prove a total bomb, I attended it on opening day, at a large suburban cineplex; and although the parking lot was filled, I saw fewer than a dozen moviegoers in that particular screening room. Later that same week one of the professors at the seminary where I teach accompanied his class in Reformation Theology to the movie, and only three people besides the seven hapless seminarians and two of their teachers were in attendance. No surprise there, for the film is monumentally dull, primarily because the screenplay makes no effort whatever to give the viewer any notion of what the real Luther was like. It must be some kind of achievement to spend that much money on a Lutheran-sponsored movie and yet still insure that not once in the entire film does the character of Luther so much as quote, even in passing, from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or even enunciate that lumpy word “justification.” Thus the famous interrogation between Luther and the Dominican monk Johannes Eck at the Diet of Worms in 1521 (when Luther made his famous “Here I Stand” speech, thus making irreparable the rupture between Rome and the budding Reformation) comes across not as a theological dispute but more like the grilling of a Hollywood director before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the postwar era.
Under that rubric, the Catholic Church must serve as (of course, what else?) the medieval equivalent of McCarthyism. But without Luther’s theology of justification as a backdrop, I cannot help but think that the typical consumer of Hollywood fare might prefer Rome to Wittenberg. Or at least the Rome of papal palaces (of which we see plenty), for papal quarters are doted over in this film as if we were watching a kind of “Lifestyles of the Papally Rich and Famous.” Wittenberg, on the other hand, comes across as almost invariably gray, rainy, dirty, and sordid, most especially after the Radical Reformers wreak their destructive havoc. Although the movie does not have Pope Leo X say the line long attributed to him upon his papal election (“Now that We have come into the papacy, let Us enjoy it”), the avuncular Leo does seem to be rather enjoying himself, especially when he gets a chance to feed his pet birds in a cage larger than most people’s living rooms. Luther’s own prince of Saxony, Frederick the Wise (played by Peter Ustinov with his typically bemused, if world-weary, cynicism), coos over his collection of relics like Citizen Kane lovingly preserving his boyhood snow sled, Rosebud. (Frederick also was largely responsible for unleashing, with Luther’s active encouragement, the slaughter of the peasants of Saxony when the Reformation started getting out of hand, but in the movie both the prince and Luther seem quite caught off guard by an event that they had in fact actively instigated and supported.)
By the time Luther decides to marry the runaway nun Katherina von Bora, the viewer even begins to suspect that the (equally state-supported) Catholic Church in Germany might actually be the real underwriter of the film, for Luther’s wife comes across as a nagging shrew who even hectors her husband in their marriage bed on the first night after their wedding. Making Mrs. Luther seem like a sex-starved Long Island housewife, rolling-pin always in hand, might not be the best argument in the world for celibacy, but she certainly should give pause to advocates of a married clergy. Nor do Luther’s spiritual struggles seem very real once St. Paul’s theology has been airbrushed away. His famous duels with the devil in his monastic cell, for example, are made to look like the writhings of a schizophrenic locked inside the isolation ward of a mental hospital.
But what probably should most appall Lutherans about this flat presentation of Luther’s life is that, whenever the plot starts to get too complicated to fit into a two-hour movie, the writers and director resort to shameless hokum. Instead of a movie that takes the Reformation doctrine of justification to heart, we are given Luther as a Christ-like moonbeam in the manner of Franco Zeffirelli’s portrayal of St. Francis of Assisi in Brother Sun, Sister Moon. The actor playing Luther, Joseph Fiennes (of Shakespeare in Love fame), looks much more like a typical Hollywood rendition of Jesus than like Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of the portly Luther. And throughout the movie, almost as a leitmotiv to keep the viewer’s interest up during the distracting and complicated plot, Luther radiates a wonder-working sanctity, appearing more like a medieval saint than the relic-smashing Reformer known to history: almost from the start of the film, we are shown a crippled girl who gradually learns to walk by the simple expedient, it would seem, of meeting up with Martin at key moments in her young life. Not exactly a miracle, admittedly, but in Hollywood terms, it sure looks like it.
The real surprise comes at the conclusion when the credits roll, for then the viewer learns for the first time that the film was underwritten by Thrivent and the Evangelical Church of Germany. If these two groups supported this film to win over new followers to Lutheranism, or even to win respect for Luther’s theological witness, they should ask for their money back.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.