- Jul 6, 2003
Running Time: 124 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English, and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1
November 30th, 2004
In the informative, moderately entertaining bio-pic Luther, director Eric Till turns the clock back to the 16th century, in an attempt to chronicle the life of Martin Luther (1483-1546). The film starts off strong, by showing how Luther, the force behind Christianity’s “Reformation” during the period, had become disheartened by some of the Catholic Church’s policies. He took a particular dislike to the practice of people, most often the poor, having to “buy” their way out of sins by paying the Church to receive the Lord’s forgiveness. However, unlike most of those who felt the same way, Luther had the courage to speak out against such hypocrisy, regardless of what the consequences would be for him.
Obviously, Martin Luther’s opinions, and his willingness to voice them, made the Church’s hierarchy nervous. Indeed, the last thing the Vatican wanted was someone like Luther starting a backlash against them from amongst the masses. As it turns out, religious leaders were concerned for good reason, for since Martin was championing the cause of the common people, he would become an iconic figure among them, with his ideas and writings bringing about a radical shift in the structure of both political and religious institutions.
Now I am by no means an “expert” on Martin Luther, but from what I remember learning in college-level religion courses, this movie seems to be a fairly faithful chronicle of some of the key events in his life. Of course, the highlights of these are arguably his pilgrimage to Rome, his marriage to Katharina, and the moment when he nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a house of worship in Wittenberg (in the year 1517). Defiantly, he then awaits the inevitable – the dire consequences of challenging the wealthy, powerful heads of the Church. And when the hammer did fall, he showed his true character by refusing Kardinal Cajetan’s (Matthieu Carrière) demand that he recant his words, and ultimately sparking the Reformation.
However, despite the film’s apparent accuracy, it is inherently difficult to compress such a rich, accomplished life into a couple of hours. As such, the filmmakers had little choice but to fast-forward through many of the significant events in Martin Luther’s life without delving too deeply into the motivations and desires behind his actions, including all of the reasons he was promoting a reform for the corrupt Catholic Church. I suppose most of them can be inferred from what is in the film, but I still would have liked to see this dealt with a little more directly and in greater detail. Perhaps this should not be too much of a surprise though, as again, the events (and their subsequent effect on history) depicted herein are far too complex to be adequately covered by any one film
Another quibble I had with Luther is that it is a slightly uneven picture, which begins strong and then fizzles out towards the end. To put a finer point on it, the first hour, when Luther is trying to deal with the doubts he has about his faith, is both intriguing and entertaining. The overview of the political relationships at the pinnacle of the Catholic Church, which are threatened by Martin Luther’s growing popularity, is also quite interesting.
Unfortunately, after the halfway mark, the film begins to exhaust its supply of intrigue and excitement, as well as lose a bit of its focus. To be sure, it is still informative, and deals with Luther’s life as an “outlaw” of sorts, and how he translated the Bible’s New Testament into the German language, but it is simply less passionate and involving than the sequences that preceded it.
Turning to the performances, I think the film benefits immensely from the presence of Joseph Fiennes, who does an extremely credible job as the brave man of faith who refused to give up his beliefs, even when threatened with torture and death. Fiennes seems to take what he does really seriously, and I believe that he accurately manifests the immense frustration that Martin Luther undoubtedly had towards the Church’s practices, as well as his unwillingness to relent to the Church’s pressure. I also liked how Fiennes makes the character grow over time, from a once promising law student to a staunch advocate of reforming what he believed was a Church being run as more of a for-profit enterprise than an institution of worship.
The legendary Peter Ustinov (in his final role) is also excellent as Prince Friedrich der Weise, the man who serves as a protector/mentor of sorts for Martin Luther. In fact, he steals nearly every scene he is in, displaying true brilliance and a mastery of his craft as the elder statesman who risks his own neck to aid Martin.
The remainder of the supporting cast is very good as well, including Jonathan Firth and Claire Cox, who plays Luther’s spouse, Katharina. I would also be remiss not to mention a strong performance by Alfred Molina, who portrays Johann Tetzel, the Pope’s emissary and Martin Luther’s chief rival.
In terms of direction, veteran filmmaker Eric Till does bring the film in for a rough landing, but again, he also succeeds with most aspects of Luther, particularly in terms of its look. To this end, his cinematographer, Robert Frazier, expertly captured the gorgeous locales in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Italy on film, giving the movie an almost epic appearance. The effects of the grand landscapes and architecture are further magnified by a real attention to period-specific detail, including the characters’ haircuts and their rich, heavy garments. The added realism afforded by such attention to detail definitely deserves a mention, as it really brings the 500-year-old events to life!
All in all, I do not think Luther is a “great” film, but it does enough right to make it worth a viewing, and is better than the average bio-pic. Indeed, Luther offers a fairly entertaining and informative viewing experience, especially during the first hour, as well as a rather accessible explanation of how Protestant theology came to be. As a result, although it would not hurt to be familiar with Martin Luther before seeing this film, you don’t have to be. If you have an interest in the history of Christianity, Europe, or Martin Luther himself, I would recommend giving it a look.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Luther is offered by MGM in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), which has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen displays. The overall results of this work are impressive, and a wonderful showcase for the gorgeous European locations and fabulous cinematography by Robert Frazier. To begin with, as is commonplace for recent productions, the visuals are nearly devoid of dust and scratches, with even film grain appearing only minimally.
The image also boasts a black level is both consistent and deep, so detail is not consumed by shadows during dimly lit sequences. Fine detail is also quite good, so the rich, varied textures of the characters’ clothing can almost be felt. Similarly, colors, including flesh tones, are nicely saturated, without any noticeable anomalies like dot crawl, which brings everything from the lush greens and warm earth tones of the European landscapes to the cold grays of the castles home in a very accurate and satisfying manner.
Finally, it gives me pleasure to report that the bane of videophiles, edge-enhancement, and other artifacts normally attributed to MPEG compression, are nowhere to be found. Thus, on the whole, this is a very good transfer by the folks at MGM, which allows viewers to focus their attentions on Eric Till’s retelling of the life and times of one of Christendom’s most prominent figures.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
The DVD for Luther contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that does right by the source material, with its even frequency response, spacious soundstage, and even a fair amount of rear channel use. To be sure, the surrounds are not engaged at all times, but in addition to heightening the tension of the few action sequences, they do a good job of giving the listener a sense of the scale of the environment characters are speaking in, mildly enhancing the presentation of the film’s music, and generating ambience.
Dialogue is also delivered crisply, free of distortion, sibilance, or other distractions, which is important, since most of the audio information is in the form of dialogue. It is evident on a smaller scale, but yet another positive aspect of the track is its bass response, which appropriately emphasizes some of the sound effects in the film, such as the sound of horses galloping and the lightning strikes that nearly fry Martin Luther in the opening scene.
Finally, the wonderful choral score by Richard Harvey is also reproduced nicely, and benefits from the aforementioned spaciousness of the soundstage. Not only is it spread nicely across the front speakers, but also properly balanced in the mix, never overpowering the dialogue or other sound effects. Overall, this is a very solid Dolby Digital offering, and like the visuals, it presents the source material in a manner that leaves little room for complaints.
Clocking in at only a minute or so per segment (3 or 4 segments per person), these “interviews” are quite disappointing, and it is no small wonder they are not even listed on the keepcase! The segments featuring Alfred Molina and Claire Cox are especially brief.
--- Joseph Fiennes as “Martin Luther”:
During his segments, Joseph Fiennes discusses the relevance of the film, his approach to playing a contemporary version of Luther, and on working with Peter Ustinov.
--- Sir Peter Ustinov as “Friedrich The Wise”:
The legendary actor briefly describes how he prepared for his role, and discusses how he enjoyed working with Joseph Fiennes and how uncomfortable the costume designers’ accuracy made him.
--- Claire Cox as “Katharina Von Bora”:
Claire Cox reveals her thoughts on the Luthers’ family life, and talks about what it was like working with Joseph Fiennes.
--- Alfred Molina as “Johann Tetzel”:
In his very short interview excerpts, Mr. Molina discusses his preparation for the role, and offers an opinion on what kind of man the real Johann Tetzel was.
The trailer for Luther is available.
(on a five-point scale)
Film: :star: :star: :star: 1/2
Video: :star: :star: :star: :star: 1/2
Audio: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Extras: :star: 1/2
Overall: :star: :star: :star:
THE LAST WORD
While Luther is not a great movie, and it loses focus slightly towards the end, there is a lot that is good about it, including its attention to detail, its apparent faithfulness to history, gorgeous visuals, and solid performances from some very skilled actors. If only Luther were able to maintain its energy and focus throughout, I think it could have been great. Unfortunately, the film’s second half does not match the intensity or intrigue that is to be found in the first hour.
As far as the DVD is concerned, the film’s images and sounds are reproduced nicely. This is particularly true of the visuals, which offers a thoroughly enjoyable presentation of the picturesque European locations, both exterior and interior. The extras, however, are extremely disappointing, consisting of only the trailer and some really brief interview excerpts (which are not even mentioned on the keepcase)!
On the whole, however, Luther is a fairly interesting and accessible treatment of a very important historical figure. Moreover, as “bio-pics” go, this is one of the better ones that I have seen recently. If you have an interest in history, particularly that of Christianity, 16th century Europe, or Martin Luther, I would recommend giving this one a rental!