|By: Dr. Ted Baehr; ©2003|
|These two great leaders in Christianity have something remarkable in common this month. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the subject of a well-constructed documentary, and Martin Luther is the subject of a wonderful historical drama. MovieGuide® calls these “must viewing” for Christians!|
After years of neglect, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been re-discovered. In recent years, MOVIEGUIDE® has awarded a dramatic feature on Bonhoeffer as well as a documentary. One would think there was no more to be said; yet Bonhoeffer, a documentary by Martin Doublemeyer, shows that there is much more to be said.
This extremely well-constructed documentary highlights facts in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and his struggle against National Socialism that are extremely interesting and important. Furthermore, the documentary contains a lot of archival footage which is well worth viewing.
Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged home. His father was a renowned psychiatrist. He expressed faith as a child and chose to go into the ministry, which surprised his parents. At Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he traveled to pursue further studies, he was known for his strong commitment to Jesus Christ. He also became enlivened by his contact with the African American church in America. Coming back to Germany, he spoke out against Adolph Hitler a mere three days after Hitler assumed office. He evolved into one of the great speakers against National Socialism at a time when 90 percent of the church, both Protestant and Catholic, were supporting Hitler.
This documentary is must viewing for those who have faith in Jesus Christ, for those who want to see the true role of the Church in society, and for those who need to understand that we should not worship politics.
At one important point in the movie Luther, a wonderful historical drama about the life of the 16th Century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Luther admits to the German Emperor that he may have been too harsh when attacking some of the Roman Catholic leaders. Later in the movie, in fact, he realizes, and painfully regrets, that some of his actions in support of controversial ideas have led to many deaths during the peasant revolt in Germany, which was inspired by his writings and fed by the intemperate zealotry of some of his supporters.
At the same time, however, the Luther presented by this movie returns several times to the central issue that occupied his mind, and changed the world: the primacy of God’s Word, the Bible. “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason… I will not recant,” Luther tells the German and Catholic authorities accusing him of heresy. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” For history tells us it was the demands of study for academic degrees and preparations for delivering lectures as the teacher of biblical theology at Wittenburg University that led Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. His study of the Bible, the source of Christianity, convinced him that the Church had lost sight of the central truths of the faith. Sola Scriptura!
The movie Luther covers the early years of Martin Luther’s life, from his days as a monk in the early 1500s to the proclamation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530, which founded the Lutheran Church in Germany. It begins with the thunderstorm that led Luther to cry out to St. Anne, the patron saint of the miners he grew up with, “Help, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk.”
At the monastery, Luther is wracked by guilt because he feels completely unholy in the face of the God of Justice. His mentor orders him to pursue an academic career to relieve the strain. Soon, however, the young theology teacher is making fun of the corrupt Catholic Church in Rome, whose corruption Luther saw first-hand. He begins teaching his students and the people in Wittenburg about the mercy and compassion of God, while complaining about the Church selling forgiveness of sins to the people for money.
All of this angers the Pope and many of his officials, who are trying to collect money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They charge Luther with heresy, and the climax of the first half of the movie occurs when Luther refuses to renounce his writings, unless convinced by Scripture.
Joseph Fiennes does an excellent job of portraying this revolutionary historical figure, whose Protestant Reformation clearly led to the founding of America and the establishment of representative government in both England and the United States. Although he appears to be a bit too thin and young looking by the end of the movie, there are surviving portraits of Luther from the early 1520s when most of Luther takes place which approximate Fiennes’ features. Supporting Mr. Fiennes, as Luther’s supporter, Prince Frederick the Wise, is the legendary, always enjoyable Peter Ustinov, star of such classic historical movies as Spartacus and the great Quo Vadis.
Director Eric Till, who also did the MOVIEGUIDE® Award-winning TV program Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, does a marvelous job of capturing the settings and atmosphere of 16th Century Germany and Italy. The movie is engrossing throughout, even though the high points and climax in the second half of the movie don’t match the powerful drama of the scenes where Luther refuses to recant.
MOVIEGUIDE® can find little or nothing wrong, factually speaking, with the historical portrayal of this part of Luther’s life, but Luther is told from a Lutheran, Protestant viewpoint. Hence, the movie may offend Roman Catholics, especially when Luther cracks some jokes about the Catholic leaders he opposes, including Pope Leo X. The ending of the movie also has one cardinal complaining, at Leo’s death, that, if Leo had been more like Luther, perhaps Roman Catholicism could have been reformed. Of course, after Leo’s death, the Catholic Church did indeed undergo reform within the movement known as the Counter-Reformation.
Luther clearly shows that Martin Luther’s career led to an increased respect for the mercy of God and the importance of God’s Word, the Bible. It also informs viewers, in an end credit, that Luther helped spread a new understanding of religious freedom throughout Europe. This is true, but only to a certain extent, because, for the next 150 years or so after Luther’s death, Europe was gripped by religious wars in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.
In other words, a schism in a church can be an awful thing, especially when it leads to violence. That’s why Christians must be careful about the consequences of their actions when they decide to publicly criticize or condemn a fellow brother and sister in Christ, even if that fellow Christian is wrong, sinful, or flirting with heresy, although we are called by Scripture to stand for the Truth when absolutely required.
Regrettably, the movie says little about the other great foundation of Lutheran and Protestant belief—that each and every Christian is saved, and justified or declared righteous, by God’s grace through faith, not by works. This is a major failing in Luther, even though the movie stresses faith in God through Jesus Christ. The movie is still well worth watching, however, because it shows, in a compelling and dramatic fashion, how Luther’s faith in God changed the history of the world.