DURHAM Protestants have traditionally celebrated Oct. 31 as the anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that divided Western Christendom and gave birth to such diverse religious groups as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Mennonites.
On Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and so sparked a religious reform even he could not control.
But Luther’s public life began five years earlier, 500 years ago, on Oct. 19, 1512, when he finished his theological education and was installed as a professor of Bible at a new and still unprestigious Catholic university in Saxony.
No one, least of all his patrons, expected this soft-spoken young man with a tenor voice and a bubbling sense of humor to turn into a religious bomb thrower whose theological convictions would alter the religious and political structures of Europe for five centuries. Indeed, no one could have been more astonished than Luther himself.
Luther’s enemies characterized him as a man lacking in religious seriousness, an arch-heretic who attacked Catholic teaching concerning indulgences in order to win a bet.
No one inspired a more ferocious loyalty among his followers than Luther. His friends called him a prophet and teacher of true Christianity, who inaugurated a new age in the history of the church. He was hailed as a champion of the freedom of the human conscience, as a defender of German national identity, and as the skilled translator whose German Bible lies at the foundation of the modern German language.
Mass media in the English-speaking world have found Luther’s story fascinating. While at least three movies have been made of his life over the last 60 years, each fails to capture Luther in all his charismatic complexity.
The first appeared in 1953 and cast Irish actor Niall MacGinnis in the title role. MacGinnis captured the warmth of Luther’s personality, though not his irrepressible sense of humor. His portrayal underlined Luther’s stubborn and uncompromising refusal to bow to the worried pleas of his friends or the threats of his enemies.
In 1974, Stacy Keach portrayed Luther and Dame Judi Dench played his wife, Katherine. The original play by John Osborne portrayed Luther as an angry young man in a hurry, whose conflicts with the Catholic Church seemed to be an extension of his fierce conflicts with his father.
Eric Till’s 2003 movie featured Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick the Wise. Till saw in Luther’s story a conflict between a repressive conservative institution (the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (the Reformation, which with all its violence and disorder marked for Till an advance over the conservative structures it attacked). For Till, Luther is a symbol of an enlightened spirit in an unenlightened age, an age not altogether unlike our own.
Judging from these three movies, finding and portraying the “real Luther” in film has not been a task for the faint of heart. Yet wherever the German language is spoken, wherever Protestants (and Catholics) gather for religious services or social action, and wherever the political history of Europe is told (including its darker sides), the ghost of Martin Luther is present and cannot be avoided.
It’s too bad that no movie has as yet been able to capture more than a small part of that culturally important story.