Luther, the Film

He’s Not the Only One Depressed: Luther, the Film

The one line that most viewers of the Luther film will remember, and there were not that many viewers – “Most days, I’m so depressed I can’t even get out of bed.” This from the father of the Protestant Reformation as he suffered the heaviness of a church gone to seed.

Somehow that one line gets at everything in this film, both its good intentions and its mediocre execution. The danger of biopics like this one is that the screenwriter is forced to think like the actual historical personage. I doubt there are very many writers who could put words in Luther’s mouth that would sound like things he might actually have said. Bart Gavigan and Camille Thomassen fall rather short of the challenge. This is, of course, why Mel Gibson intends that the characters of his upcoming film Jesus will stick to the words of Scripture, in Aramaic.

Many aspects of this film succeed as historical reconstructions, from the costumes to the set designs to the recreation of a few events – like the Council at Worms. Yet, every time I started liking the film, something embarrassing happened – like John Tetzel portrayed as a snake oil dealer telling a mesmerized crowd, “These monks are standing by to write your names” or Katharina von Bora telling Luther they will make “joyous music together.” People don’t really talk like that, not now, not ever; at least not without blushing.

I saw this film the first time with a handful of Lutheran friends. We stood in the hall after the showing in a sort of obligatory talk-back for ten minutes awkwardly praising Luther’s many accuracies, grateful that a film about a real Christian playing in a real theater didn’t paint him a buffoon. However, I had been told beforehand that the film stayed true to events. And, one would expect that it would since its financing came from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. One might also expect that it would be very tame, which it is, something designed to “edify” and, I suppose, promote Lutheranism in some way, which it doesn’t really; that is, unless Garrison Keilor decides to have Pastor Inquvist take some of his Lake Wobegon faithful to see it.

More to the point than anything my Lutheran friends have said before and after the film is the silence coming from everyone else. When I saw it that first time, my little party of six was the only party in the entire theater. That’s never a good sign. Even the last total bomb that I braved, Cold Creek Manor, attracted a few daters looking for an excuse to cling to one another. I alone was clinging while watching Luther, clinging to my foolish tongue each time the soundtrack urged me to feel something. My heart was never strangely warmed by the film, so I felt very little. I was interested from time to time by the visualizations of a history I only knew from books, and I was gratified that teachers would have an updated tool by which to teach Reformation history, but not warmed. Judging from the dismal turnouts across the land and Luther’s quick passing into the land of video sales, I am not alone.

We might be tempted to attribute the poor showing and the numerous bad reviews given the film to the spiritual malaise of our culture, but no. My guess is that the upcoming Jesus film by Mel Gibson will break attendance records. People are hungry for some spiritual energy. They want to be elevated. A few years ago, I sat in a packed theater on the liberal East side of Milwaukee and listened to a spontaneous outpouring of applause and weeping at the conclusion of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. The same thing happened on a smaller scale this past year when I saw a beautiful little film by Tom Tykwer called Heaven.

The problem here is that we have one of the greatest men who ever lived relegated to a film as flat as the famous table at Worms. If an Irish journalist like Veronica Guerin has her life retold in a B-grade film, no one complains. They are grateful to hear and see the story. But this is Martin Luther, for pity sake. Not a soul could possibly have left a theater after this film thinking, “Well, no wonder he turned the world upside-down. No wonder so many shed their blood preserving this man’s legacy.”

I have seen and written about nearly all the really great Christian films ever made from Robert Bresson’s haunting Diary of a Country Priest to things more accessible and recent as Chariots of Fire. Beyond the force of the genuinely authentic, what makes these films so great is that they pull us toward Christ. All the great films have some kind of incarnation in them. God manifests himself in some way or another. It may be overt miracle like the healing of Ben Hur’s mother or sister in the old William Wyler classic or the miracle of providence that propels Eric Liddel around the Olympic track in Chariots of Fire clutching a note from an American runner that says, “As the Good Book says, ‘I will honor those who honor me.’” But it is something.

This Luther film lacks this something. It stays cerebral, appealing primarily to those who want a history that aligns with accepted dogma and tradition. It is respectful and superficially accurate and anything but a holy fire. I had no inclination after the film to go home and speak tenderly to my wife or embrace my children or pick up my Testament and read. More is the pity.

Perhaps a film like this needed to be made by an atheist who stumbled across the wonder of Luther the man and Christianity the religion. The best comment about this film that I heard came from someone who knew little of Luther or Lutheranism beyond the dry little church his grandmother attends. He said he was glad to learn a little about the Lutheran faith, so he forgave the film its faults. Thank God for that much.

The worst side of the Luther film may be that it confirms many people in their belief that Lutherans are a parochial and safe bunch, dipping only a toe into the water of culture, then pulling back and wiping it with a proud smile.