Here I stand: Martin Luther on film

Here I stand: Martin Luther on film October 31, 2012

So while the rest of you are focused on Halloween, we Lutherans are busy celebrating Reformation Day. To be sure, some churches moved their celebrations to earlier in the month or last Sunday, but my congregation is keeping it real with services at 7:00 PM tonight.

You might be surprised how much Lutherans mark the day. Back in my single days, my wonderful Catholic housemate used to let us use her piano while we sang hymns at our annual party. Some mark it in celebration, others in a more solemn fashion. But how is it covered in the media? (I like to tease that the failure of the media to write about liturgical holidays constitutes a “war” on them — a la the “War on Christmas.”)

Well, it’s not a major media occurrence. But I did rather enjoy this Religion News Service piece from a few weeks ago and meant to review it. Today is a better day to do it.

The piece ran in the “Culture” section under “Entertainment and Pop Culture.” Headlined, Searching for the real Martin Luther, the piece begins with some history on Luther’s public life and then goes on to explain how both his critics and theological fans view him — without pulling any punches. Then we get to the real point of the piece — how the English-speaking world has portrayed Luther in film:

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.

The second movie, released in 1974, featured an impressive cast, including Stacy Keach as Luther and Dame Judi Dench as 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.

The third movie, directed by Eric Till in 2003, 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 (in this case, the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (in this case, 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.

Perhaps out of respect for the serious tone of the plot, Fiennes played Luther as an intense, uncertain, humorless and generally liberal cleric, who could tear a passion to tatters, but whose claim to suffer fits of depression sounded more like acute dyspepsia than a bout of soul-wracking melancholy.

Still, there must have been more to the “real Luther” than the uncertain young friar Fiennes creates. Neurotic introverts seldom change the world. And whatever his flaws, Luther was no introvert. He was a great rollicking figure, a creature larger than life, who filled a room with his presence before he uttered a word. He enjoyed good beer, lively conversation, and the sound of hearty laughter. Till’s Luther was certainly brave and in many respects admirable, but remained throughout a diminutive and monochromatic copy of the colorful and boisterous original.

In the end, only MacGinnis in the 1953 film portrayed a leader someone would be willing to follow. Twenty years later, Keach’s leadership, such as it was, was all passion and angry denunciation with no clear direction forward. And Fiennes seemed far too uncertain to lead. But MacGinnis’ Luther attracted followers by the force of his personality and set them in motion on the trail he was blazing.

The piece goes on to discuss how difficult it is to portray the “real” Luther and why it’s a shame that no movie has yet captured it.

Liturgical holidays are very difficult to cover for the Godbeat. Frequently it can seem like you’re just reporting on the same Christmas Eve or Easter traditions over and over again. The lesser holidays are frequently ignored. But I rather liked this approach — taking a somewhat obscure aspect of the celebrations (and watching these movies is something I can assure you my friends have done and do) and just finding something interesting to say about them.

So it’s just a small point, but one that’s interesting and even interests a general audience that might not be part of the typical celebrations.

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  • Rev. D. Keith Beasley

    In the 1980s Concordia Publishing House co-produced “Martin Luther-Heretic” with the BBC. Starring Jonathan Pryce as Luther, it is much more watchable than the 1953 movie & actually does a good job of showing Luther’s transformation.

    As for the Luther to follow, Pryce might be the guy.

  • Julia

    It would be interesting to sometime see an article that explains the practice of posting theses in a public place as a challaenge to debate. A Jesuit relative of mine told me this practice was formalized in the current defense of a PhD thesis. I have attended a few in my time and they are interesting to watch – university professors and students can have at the person who is defending their propositions. My Jesuit cousin said that he remembered when these defenses wore done in academic Latin – whether it was a Catholic university or not.
    Anyway, I’d like to see an explanation of the practices in Luther’s time and the significance of tacking up the theses on a church door. Maybe that was the traditional place to post them? Or was the chosen location significant?

  • I know it’s outside the scope of the story, but I sort of wonder what MacGinnis thought, as an Irish Catholic, about playing arch-schismatic Martin Luther. (Or was he Catholic? His IMDb entry says he was born in Dublin and educated at a Jesuit school, but he served in the Royal Navy during the war. Strange for an Irishman. Anybody know more about him?)