Luther: A Review

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 2003, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The latest period movie to come out is “Luther”, a biography about Martin Luther as he starts the Protestant Reformation. The movie is remarkable in that hews closely to historic fact. But in doing so, it is an incredibly dense movie with whole themes contained in a couple of lines of dialog. I will attempt here to more fully limn what the movie so quickly sketches. What I will pass on is a detailed rendering of Luther’s complaints with the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the things the movie does not do is combine historical characters, except for one set. There are a couple of everyman characters, the peasant Anna and the Dutch monk, but virtually all the major characters are presented. The problem is that their screen time is so short that we do not get to know much of their personality. Thus below are thumbnail sketches of these players.

The elderly monk who mentors Luther was Johann von Staupitz, the provincial vicar of the Augustinian Eremites. Along with Frederick the Wise he founded the Wittenburg University in 1502. Luther was sent to Wittenburg as part of the new faculty and to eventually succeed Staupitz as lecturer on the Bible. His conversation with Luther about a righteous God and a loving God sums in a nutshell Luther’s theology and motivation.

The professor was Andreas Bodenstein, better known as Karlstadt. While he initially resisted Luther’s ideas, he came to embrace them with all the zealousness of a convert. Luther did not have the dramatic confrontation with Karlstadt portrayed in the film, but he did rebuke him for his excesses. He left shortly afterwards to found a series of communes to practice his form of reformation, none which lasted long. He ended up as a professor at the University of Basil.

Frederick’s agent was Georg Spalatin, his chaplain, secretary, librarian, and advisor. He met Luther at the University of Erfort while both were undergraduates. While the film implies that both went to law school, Luther became a monk before he actually did so. Acting though agents such as Spalatin was Frederick’s way of governing.

Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was one of seven people who chose the emperor, and as such was the second most powerful man in Germany. One of the reasons that Frederick initially supported Luther was that he was bringing fame and prestige to Wittenburg as opposed to the rival and older University at Leipzig. The church’s initial muted response to Luther’s challenge was because Emperor Maximilian had just died. The leading candidate to replace him, Charles, was already king of Spain, Naples, Burgundy and the Netherlands. His becoming emperor would mean that half of Europe would be ruled by one man, to the detriment of the Pope. Frederick was cool to Charles, so the Pope courted him as pivotal to stopping Charles. This was the main reason for the Golden Rose. The movie implies that Frederick’s collection of relics was housed at his castle. It was actually housed at the Wittenburg cathedral. Luther put his theses on October 31 was because the next day was the annual showing of these relics and the selling of indulgences attached to them. There is no record that Frederick and Luther ever met.

The man selling the indulgences was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar. His pitch and style are accurately portrayed by the film. Though it was not made clear by the film, Tetzel was working for the Archbishop of Mainz to payoff a loan from the Fugger banking family for the cost of getting the archbishopric. In as much the 95 theses were an attack on Tetzel’s methods, his decision to counterattack began the process that led the church to condemn Luther. Luther held no grudge against Tetzel, and even wrote a letter of commiseration to him upon learning of his fatal illness.

The elder cardinal was Thomas de Vio, known as Cajetan. His was the foremost theologian in the Roman Curia and head of the Dominican Order. Cajetan’s principal reason for being in Ausburg was to meet with the German Diet and preach a crusade against the Turks, who were then moving through Hungary. At that point, Luther was a side issue, though a dangerous one. Though the film portrays but one meeting between Luther and Cajetan, they actually disputed, against Cajetan’s orders from the Pope, over three days. This debate fell apart because neither could understand the mind set of the other. The bit where Cajetan angrily looks something up in a book alludes to an incident in this debate where Luther corrects Cajetan on an obscure point of canon law.

There is one actor who functions as several characters. He first appears as the Italian courtier Serralonga, a part of Cardinal Cajetan’s retinue. He next appears as the papal chamberlain Karl von Miltiz, a Saxon sent to woo Frederick to the papal cause. Though he failed, he spent the rest of his time trying to act as mediator between Luther and the Pope. The actor then appears as Jerome Aleander, the papal nuncio to Germany, in the scenes of the burning of Luther’s works and at the Diet at Worms (though he was not actually present during Luther’s speech). In his final appearance at the Diet of Ausburg he morps into Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio the papal Legate.

Pope Leo X was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medici family. A humanist by temperament, he helped reestablish Rome as a cultural center. It was this and his luxurious living that broke the papacy. (The rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica began decades before and would not be completed till a century later.) Leo did not take Luther’s challenge seriously, dismissing it as a squabble among monks, fully expecting that the church would ride out this challenge like previous attempts of reform.

The emperor, Charles V, was just twenty-one at the Diet of Worms. He was raised in Burgundy and his principal language was French, and spoke little German. His opposition to Luther was rooted in that Luther’s theology would overturn much of the philosophical underpinnings of his rule. His response was constrained because of his conflicts with France and the Turks which meant that he needed German money and military support. It would not be till 1546 before he would fight the Protestants. Though initially successful, by the end of 1552 it had come to naught.

Catherine von Bora was a nun in a neighboring province which still held to the papacy. Which is why she had to be smuggled out in empty herring barrels. The movie has Luther marrying about the time of Leo X’s death. In actually, the marriage occurred four years later.

The movie does not present why Luther’s ideas were so warming embraced. The point not commonly recognized is that the Protestant Reformation was as much a nationalistic revolt as it was a religious revolt. There was a large reservoir of resentment towards the Roman Curia both for the amount of money it was extracting from Germany and for the amount of control it exerted over German affairs. Luther’s attack on indulgences was merely the trigger that unleashed this resentment, and his theology of salvation by faith gave it the ideology needed to justify the break.

The issue with the 95 theses was not the attack on Indulgences, most agreed that there were abuses that need to be curbed, but that they contained an attack on the authority of the Pope. There is some doubt that he actually nailed them to the church door. The first reference to this act is in a biography of Luther done after his death. Letters he wrote at the time indicated a desire for a more private and scholarly debate. Moreover, they were written in Latin.

The other piece of the legend found in the film is his final words at the Diet of Worms. The words “here I stand, I can do no other," do not appear in the people’s notes and the official transcript, but showed up later in a printed account of the meeting.

Other pieces of dramatic license include the scenes in Luther’s cell. He did suffer from depression and feelings of unworthiness and a sense of persecution by the devil, but no reports of hysteria that were portrayed in the movie. At his first Mass as priest, he did have a moment of self doubt and paralyzing awe, but did not spill the sacramental wine. The man in the golden armour that Luther sees in Rome is meant to be Pope Julius II, the predecessor to Leo X.

Luther was in on the planning for his abduction after Worms. The Imperial escort had been sent off with a message. Moreover, he did not entirely disappear, but was merely in an undisclosed location, and kept a heavy correspondence while at Wartburg. Junker George was his alias during the entire time he was at Wartburg. The movie implies that he did not leave Wartburg until or just after the Peasant Revolt. The truth is that he left two years before.

It should be noted that Luther’s translation of the Bible was not the first into German, though it was the first to do so from the original languages. Its power on the German language is a side effect of the larger forces of the Reformation.

The trailing scroll overstates the importance of the Ausburg Confession. Instead of ushering a sense of religious freedom, the Ausburg Diet actually confirmed the condemnation of the Worms Diet nine years earlier. The main importance of the Ausburg Confession is that it in writing it, it solidified the unity of those princes, thus preserving the Reformation movement. The rest of the scroll is substantially correct.

Given the breath and depth of the subject matter the movie covers, it does a decent job. It is loaded with symbolism, some of which I covered above, some I didn’t, and some I likely missed. And as such it presents a launching point for many different investigations of this crucial time.



Durant, Will. The Reformation: A history of European civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Schwiebert, E.G. Luther and His Times: The Reformation From a New Perspective. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950.

Todd, John M. Luther: A Life. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co.., 1982.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

back to article index