Luther (1973 film)
DVD release cover
|Directed by||Guy Green|
|Produced by||Ely Landau|
|Written by||Edward Anhalt (script)
John Osborne (play)
|Distributed by||AFT Distributing Corporation|
|Release dates||1973 (North America)
April 1976 (Europe)
|Running time||111 minutes|
Luther is the 1973 film of John Osborne's biographical play, presenting the life of Martin Luther. It was one of eight in the first season of the American Film Theater's series of plays made into films. It was produced by Ely Landau, directed by British director Guy Green, and filmed at Shepperton Studios, England. The film presents Martin Luther and his legacy for the world to evaluate. The young knight narrator (Julian Glover) is an "everyman" character who confronts Luther on his advocacy for the putting down of the Peasants' Revolt of 1524–1526.
The time span covered by the film is 1506–1526: from Luther's completion of his novitiate in the Order of Eremites of St. Augustine in Erfurt to a time just after the birth of his first son Hans (b. June 7, 1526). It is narrated by Julian Glover, who portrays a young knight in the tradition of Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen. He takes Luther to task for failing to complete his "revolution" by supporting the peasants in their uprising: "You could have done it, Martin." Luther is confronted in the course of the film six other times, giving him the opportunity to defend himself in his own words. The metaphor of constipation and flatulence is employed to indicate Luther's progression from insecurity to confidence in life.
To the pealing of church bells, Luther begins to ascend into his pulpit to preach, but he is hindered by stomach cramps. It is 1525 at the time of the Peasants' Revolt. He looks out facing the camera and sees a wounded knight wheeling in a hand cart that holds the body of a fallen comrade. The knight sardonically regales Luther with some of his accomplishments but then accuses him of abandoning those who got his reformation for him. Luther denies this, and the knight dips his right hand into his comrade's blood and wipes it across Luther's white surplice, telling him he now looks like a butcher. Luther stares silently. The film will return to this scene at this very point after the presentation of all the events of the story that precede it (1506–1525).
The scene shifts to the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt in 1506, when Luther becomes a full-fledged monk of the Order of Eremites of St. Augustine at the completion of his novitiate. Following the vesting of the new monk the young knight takes on the role of narrator and commentator for the rest of the film, explaining that Luther had become a monk to protect his soul from demonic attack and that he sought to outdo his brothers in the "counsels of perfection" in order to suppress internal murmurings of doubt. Luther is shown serving his brothers in the refectory, cleaning the cloister's latrines, washing the dishes, shivering in cold as he tries to sleep in his cell, and pacing back and forth in prayer. An important line of Luther's at this point is, "I am afraid of the darkness and the hole in it ... and there's no bottom to it!" He is so overwhelmed by his own sinfulness that he all but bursts open when he is making his confession. In a daily office he leaves the stalls where his brother monks are chanting a psalm, and he collapses in a fit before the altar. The knight reports that he suffered in that way for months but that he was able to cope with his doubts by "dropping them" from out of his head and into his bowels, i.e., becoming constipated.
Luther is then shown in his cell just before his first mass. His friend Brother Weinand comes in to tell him that his father has come to attend. In the course of vesting Luther, Weinand has him confess the Apostles' Creed, repeating twice the article, "the forgiveness of sins" to bring home to Luther that he is expected to believe that his sins are forgiven if he confesses this creed. This is the first time in the film that Luther is confronted. In this confrontation Weinand ends by telling Luther, "God isn't angry with you. It is you that are angry with him."
When Weinand leaves, Luther imagines he sees Jesus Christ as a fearful judge seated on a rainbow with a sword poised to punish him. This image takes him into the saying of his first mass, which he does poorly by seeming to forget the words of the liturgy. He then faces his father at the reception in the refectory. When father and son are left alone, Hans Luther scolds his son for failing to keep the commandment to honor father and mother when he left the study of law to enter the convent. He also tells him that he believes that Luther is murdering himself in the convent. This is the second confrontation. Luther defends himself by affirming that he did see a vision in the thunderstorm that moved him to make a promise to St. Anne to become a monk. He also shares how he felt closest to his father.
The knight begins the next segment with the statement: "So the praising ended, and the blasphemy began." Johann Tetzel is portrayed preaching indulgences with great pomp and circumstance. He makes the bold claim that his indulgences would even provide forgiveness for one who offered violence to the Virgin Mary. In the next scene Luther comes upon his mentor Vicar General Johann von Staupitz as he dozes under a pear tree. Staupitz confronts Luther for a third time with the accusation that he resents authority and makes it look ridiculous by his meticulous observance of his monastic rule. Staupitz urges Luther to articulate his position among his peers in Latin rather than in the vernacular German that would encourage the peasants and young knights to revolt.
Luther then is shown preaching a sermon on the eve of All Saints' Day, 1517, in which he graphically tells how he discovered the gospel of justification by faith alone while sitting on the latrine. He declares that someone has to "bell the cat," and with that he goes out to post his Ninety-five Theses. Luther is then confronted for the fourth time by Tetzel and Thomas Cardinal Cajetan de Vio at Augsburg in the fall of 1518. Cajetan warns Luther that if he does not retract his "errors and sermons" that the unity of Christendom would be sundered. Luther refuses, and Cajetan concludes, "That man hates himself, and if he goes to the stake, Tetzel, you can inscribe it: 'he could only love others.'"
The next scene shows Luther burning the bull Exsurge Domine in defiance of the pope. He then falls to the ground in a fit for a second time in the film. In a prayer he reminds God that the cause he is fighting is God's not his. He wonders if God is dead, concluding that God cannot die but only hide himself.
The famous session of the Diet of Worms is portrayed when Luther appears for the second time. The inquisitor is portrayed as Johann Eck. Luther is now confronted for the fifth time by Eck, who interrupts his "Here I Stand" speech with the warning that the common man is so greedy as to be incited to revolt if he does not recant. Luther refuses, and the momentousness of that action is emphasized in the film. The young knight exults in the moment: if Luther wanted to he could have led a successful revolt against established authority. The knight breaks off his ardor by disgustedly stating that Luther issued a plea for the extermination of the rebels, his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Luther is portrayed as standing before the emperor and the princes declaiming a portion of his notorious tract. The emperor and the princes walk past Luther with their swords drawn to put down the peasants.
Luther is then shown wandering through a devastated marketplace where peasants had been slaughtered. He is brought once again to where he had been confronted by the young knight, who wipes blood across his surplice: Luther is confronted for the fifth time. Luther defends himself with the assertion: "God is the butcher. Address your abuse to him." Luther then tells the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, concluding that God gives life when nothing seems imminent but death.
Luther is confronted for the seventh and final time by old Staupitz who has come to visit Martin and his wife Katie. Luther admits that the peasants had just cause but that as a mob they were against Christ. Staupitz is relieved to hear that Luther was not sure when he took his stand at Worms. Luther prays, "Help my unbelief." Katie comes in with their infant son Hans, who cannot get to sleep. Luther repeats his superstition that passing air in the devil's face wards him off: going from being anal retentive to being anal expulsive shows one has overcome one's doubts and fears. In the final scene Luther takes the baby into his pulpit and assures him that "the dark isn't quite as thick as all that," that they should hope that Christ will be true to his word, "A little while and you'll not see me, and then again a little and you shall see me" (John 16:16).
- Johann Tetzel is wrongly represented as being present at Luther's meeting in 1518 with Cardinal Cajetan (de Vio) at Augsburg. He was never present at this meeting.
- Johann von Staupitz is represented as alive in 1526 when, in reality, he had died in 1524.
(in order of appearance)
- Peter Cellier as Prior
- Leonard Rossiter as Brother Weinand
- Stacy Keach as Martin Luther
- Patrick Magee as Luther's father
- Thomas Heathcote as Lucas, a friend of Luther's father
- Julian Glover as Knight
- Matthew Guinness as reading monk
- Hugh Griffith as John Tetzel
- Maurice Denham as Johann von Staupitz, Vicar General
- Alan Badel as Cardinal Cajetan de Vio
- Robert Stephens as Johann von Eck
- Bruce Carstairs as Duke Frederick, Elector of Saxony
- Malcolm Stoddard as Emperor Charles the Fifth
- Judi Dench as Luther's wife
- Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985–1993), 2:203.