Martin Luther: A Man of Conviction
By Hannah P.
One of the most inspiring films I have ever seen is the 2003 film Luther , a moving biopic starring Joseph Fiennes. I was riveted every moment of the film, and came to appreciate Luther as one of the greatest reformers and spiritual leaders of all time.
To see how the film portrays Luther, and to verify its accuracy, one must first know about Martin Luther himself. He was born into a German peasant family in 1483. His father, Hans, wanted Luther to rise above his circumstances and become a lawyer, and worked hard to send him to good schools. Luther had an excellent education and excelled in school, eventually entering the University of Erfurt in 1501 at the age of seventeen. But in the summer of 1505 Luther’s life changed. Caught in a terrible thunderstorm and fearing for his life, Luther vowed to God to become a monk if spared from the dangerous storm. God answered Luther’s prayer and Luther fulfilled his promise, joining the Augustinian friary soon afterwards.
At the monastery Luther performed every task, ritual and rite with fervor and zeal. He feared for his soul and felt deep guilt for his sins. At this point in Luther’s life he viewed God as a God of justice and punishment who reigned with an iron fist. Luther hated this God, knowing he could never live up to His holy demands. But Luther didn’t give up; he just worked harder, nearly killing himself with some of the harsher rituals of the monks, such as fasting and self-mutilation. Worried about Luther’s health, the friary leaders sent Luther to Rome in 1510. Being sent to Rome was an honor because of the many sites of spiritual importance located there. Luther visited many holy relics and sites while in Rome, but began to question the necessity of all of the Catholic rituals. Church leaders there did not appreciate his piousness or offer him answers to his questions. Luther’s confusion mounted until he began to teach at the University of Wittenburg in 1512. Teaching helped Luther make his spiritual breakthrough, he was able to read the Bible for himself and through his studies Luther’s many questions were finally answered. The most important thing Luther discovered was that God offered salvation to people as a gift, it wasn’t something people earned through rituals and good works, as the Catholic Church taught. People needed Christ, and Christ alone to get to Heaven.
In 1516-1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel came to Germany on behalf of the Church to sell papal indulgences. The Pope had drained the Church’s treasury with his lavish lifestyle, and needed money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In order to obtain this money the Pope initiated the sale of indulgences, pieces of paper containing the papal seal, guaranteeing the purchaser pardon from sin. When Luther saw the sale of indulgences he was appalled. He knew no piece of paper could pardon someone from sin. In response to the sale, Luther wrote his famous 95 theses. These were attacks against the Roman Catholic Church and its abuses of power and spiritual authority. Luther also rejected many commonly held beliefs such as transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine turned into the actual body and blood of Christ during communion), and four of the seven sacraments, after finding no proof of their requirement in the Scriptures. This was the beginning of Luther’s rise to fame. He began to write books, pamphlets and letters on his discoveries and ignited a firestorm amongst the people. The Catholic Church was infuriated with Luther and they branded him a heretic. In 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther, putting Luther in danger of being captured, tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But Luther had an ally amongst the German nobility, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony. Frederick’s admiration of Luther led him to help his cause. He arranged for Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms (a gathering of the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire), and in April 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet. During the Diet, Johann Eck interrogated Luther, presenting Luther with his books and asking if they were his. Luther acknowledged that they were, but refused to recant his beliefs. Luther’s response angered the Diet and he was declared an outlaw. But the Church was unable to capture Luther and try him for heresy because Frederick III intercepted Luther on his journey home, hiding him away from his enemies at the Wartburg Castle. At the castle, Luther translated the New Testament from Latin into German so that the common people could read it for themselves. But in spite of Luther’s work he longed to be outside the castle walls, preaching and teaching God’s word.
Luther found a reason to leave the Wartburg Castle in 1522, after a series of attacks against the Catholic Church occurred. Andreas Karlstadt, a man Luther had worked with at the Wittenburg University led these attacks. Misinterpreting Luther’s ideas about freedom as support to their cause, many peasants united and rose up against the Church, leading to violence and destruction. Luther was horrified at what he saw upon his return to Wittenburg and urged the crowds to give up their revolt. But “The Peasant’s War” broke out in 1524, and Luther’s refusal to support the revolt resulted in the beginning of the downfall of his popularity. Luther began to work towards reform in less direct ways, backing away from the spotlight. He married a former nun named Katharina von Bora in 1523 and they began a family together. Luther continued to work and teach until his death in 1546.
Martin Luther could be portrayed many ways; his complex personality and extreme views gave a darker side to his compassionate nature. He wrote and said things that helped many in their spiritual journeys, but he also wrote and said things that led to spectacular acts of violence. The 2003 film about his life is a picture of Luther during his rise to fame. It shows Luther as a young monk, struggling with God and unable to find peace, as a young preacher, strong and courageous as he tries to help the people of Wittenburg, and as a weary man after “The Peasant War.” It shows how Luther’s compassion and desire to help others affects the people around him; he is revered and admired by his parishioners, and later by the people who’ve read and loved his writings. One of the best things that Luther did in his life was to give people hope, hope that they could receive salvation if they but asked for it. He helped remove the curtain that the Catholic Church had drawn between the people and God during the Dark Ages, teaching that people should have a personal relationship with God, unmediated by any other. This message, along with the other teachings of Martin Luther’s that removed the many unnecessary rituals of the Catholic Church, helped give people who might otherwise not have had hope, the joy of a personal relationship with God.
When Luther was hidden away from the world in the Wartburg Castle and the public thought he was dead, the zealous revolutionaries who misconstrued Luther’s message began to lash out at the Catholic Church. Taking Luther’s desire for reform to mean a desire for rebellion and revolution, they attacked churches, monasteries, and targeted Catholic leaders. Many innocent people were killed and when Luther returned to Wittenburg, the scene that met him was almost too much to bear. Luther took immediate action, desperately trying to stop the destruction. The way he went about it in the film is subtler than what actually happened. In reality, Luther urged the German leaders to crush the rebellion, fearing that the peasants would hinder his spiritual reformation. In the film, Luther’s actions against the peasants aren’t shown, but his lamentations about the consequences of the revolution are displayed vividly. His remorse for the direction his reformation has taken is sincere and the audience sympathizes with him.
My favorite scene in the film is one towards the end after Luther returns to Wittenburg. In the scene Luther presents his translated New Testament to Frederick III (played by the late Peter Ustinov) as a gift. Frederick warns Luther that the Catholic Church will see the translation of the Bible into the common language as a threat, but then joyously reaches out his hands to receive the New Testament.
The portrayal of Frederick III is one of my favorite elements of this film; his courage to defend Luther and his strength to hold fast to his own beliefs makes him a hero. He is intelligent, kind, civil and mannered, never losing his temper or raising his voice when angry, contrasting well against Luther’s passionate nature. Frederick protects Luther, hiding him away from the Inquisition and supporting his work in Germany. It is refreshing to see Frederick III depicted in such a light, and it offers viewers another champion to root for.
In this film Luther is painted as a troubled man whose discoveries inside the pages of Scripture helped him to finally find the answers he needed. Because of the extensive research that I did on him, his life, views and times, I can say with certainty that the film is historically accurate and covers the most volatile time of Luther’s life well. What makes the film so inspiring is the fact that it focuses its attention on Luther’s triumphs and strengths, instead of his failures or weak points. Despite the fact that Luther was an imperfect human being, he was also a great man who changed the world forever. His sincere desire to help others find salvation led him to take extraordinary measures, and his influence can be seen throughout modern history.
(Formerly published in the Costume Chronicles - http://www.costumechronicles.com/ - )