Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World is a film funded by Thrivent to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. First Lutheran Church in Ponca City secured a local movie theater and opened it up for free to anyone who wanted to see the movie. (Go here to learn how to host a screening and for further information. It will reportedly be shown on PBS. I suspect its longer life will be on DVD eventually.) So we attended the screening.
The movie is not a drama about the life of Luther, as earlier Luther movies have been. This is a documentary with dramatic re-enactments. There is a narrator throughout (Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville), with experts discussing the different facets of Luther’s life and career. Meanwhile, we see these episodes acted out, with the requisite settings and effects. I’m not a huge fan of this hybrid of documentary and drama, but this one works as well as I’ve seen. Luther’s life is so interesting and so inherently dramatic that the narrative is gripping and entertaining, even though it is continually interrupted by the scholars. (Review continued, plus trailer, after the jump)
Actually, I liked the scholars and their insights. They gave the film a scholarly weight and a grounding in history that is often missing in pure dramatizations of history. One always wonders, for example, in the Joseph Fiennes Luther, did that really happen? Or was this incident added to tell a better story? There is little doubt about the historical facts in this documentary, with the scholars explaining even the uncertainties in Luther’s story. LCMS scholars are well-represented among the experts, but we also hear from WELS and ELCA professors. We also hear from the Reformed scholar Carl Trueman (whom I often have quoted on this blog) and, astonishingly to me, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, a conservative Catholic (whom I met when he was the Archbishop of Milwaukee) who spoke quite frankly about the corruption of the medieval church and spoke highly of Luther’s devotion to Christ.
Another touch of authenticity was that every word spoken by the character Luther was taken from the historical Luther’s actual writings or conversations (many of which were transcribed by his students or friends).
The dramatizations are effective. Luther is played by Padraic Delaney, who played George Boleyn on The Tudors. I’m not sure that he has the presence and the combination of joviality and passion that I associate with the great Reformer. But he can act. And the costumes, settings, and staging do make it all come to life.
The history is thorough. We see the Marburg Colloquy, for example, when Luther debates Zwingli over the presence of Christ in Holy Communion. The documentary does a good job of handling Luther’s dark side, such as his reaction to the Peasant Revolt and his late writings against the Jews. At the same time, it emphasizes Luther’s theological integrity, his neighbor-centered ethic, and his cultural contributions.
My only real criticism of the production is of the makeup people. Specifically, whoever was in charge of wigs. Luther’s tonsure looks like he is wearing a wreath on his head. And Charles V’s hair and beard is not much better.
Watching this dramatized documentary is like reading a good book on Luther.
Here is the trailer: