There is a crucial scene in Luther, a film about a major catalyst of the Reformation, in which the primary conflict of the film and its characters are laid as plainly as possible. By the time this scene arrives, Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) has nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church his “95 Theses” which outline what he feels are the Roman Catholic Church’s abuses. He is brought to Rome and told by Girolamo Aleander (Jonathan Firth), the Cardinal’s aide, “you have one word to say [to Cardinal Jacob Cajetan (Mathieu Carrière)] and one word only: Revoco—I recant.”
We next find Luther lying, servilely, before the Cardinal. When he arises as instructed, he asks, “Which of my teachings is offensive to Rome?” The Cardinal explains that, “Pope Clement’s decree, Unigenitus, clearly states that the merits of Christ are a treasure of indulgences.” To this, Luther replies, “I think you’ll find it says, ‘The merits of Christ acquire the treasure of indulgences.’” When the Cardinal asserts that it is the Pope who interprets scripture, Luther reminds him that, while “he may interpret…he is not above it.”
Regardless, the Cardinal defends the use of indulgences because of the comfort they bring to “simple” Christians. Luther, of course, simply wants to spread “the truth” to as many as possible. The truth, explains the Cardinal, is that the Turks are pushing toward the eastern border of Germany and that there is a “world of souls” to the west that does not know of Christ.
The film does not attempt to hide the fact that it was made possible with funding from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Though, it also doesn’t gloss over the slaughter brought on by Luther’s beliefs and writings (however misrepresented or confused). These events force Luther to confront the question of whether or not his verbal and written assaults against the church were voiced at the best possible time.
Even if we are not interested in the film’s religious or political aspects, it is difficult for us not to find the underdog element compelling. Fiennes himself expresses this in an interview included with the MGM DVD when he explains that Luther is “very much about the minority—the suppressed….” It illustrates that “…you can’t keep man down and you can’t control him. Sooner or later, he will gain knowledge and, through the knowledge, power to be liberated….”
In the end, I found Luther neither as inspiring as Gandhi nor as interesting as Boycott. I don’t place it far behind those, though. The movie accomplishes something commendable (an apparently fair account of an interesting man) with no embarrassing moments.