The cover art for the 2003 and 1953 editions of films about Martin Luther
That I am aware of there have been two major motion pictures about the life of Martin Luther (on top of numerous docudramas and documentaries), or more specifically, his role in the Reformation (which I still find a dubious title). There was a 1953 black and white film starring Niall MacGinnis and a more recent film starring Joseph Fiennes released in 2003. Even though I’m not someone who views the Reformation with the same celebration as some of my fellow disciples, I own and have watched both films several times and wanted to offer a brief highlights of both films, particularly in comparison to each other.
If you want the quick scoop, here’s my bang on the Wittenberg door (sorry): The 1953 movie is better history, but the 2003 movie is better cinema. Let me explain.
Both movies cover essentially the same material historically, from Luther’s decision to leave law school and enter the monastic life as an Augustinian. It covers his receiving his Doctorate in Theology, to his tower experience (though there’s no actual tower), to his hammering his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg door, and onward we go.
While the 2003 edition is certainly a much better cinematic production, the 1953 edition does a much better job at showcasing Luther’s personality. He is shown to be very intelligent but impulsive and yes, a bit arrogant. My favourite scene in this regard is when Luther finds out his colleague Dr. Andreas Karlstadt had been invited to debate notable scholar Johann Eck. When he is told this by Karlstadt Luther explodes in anger yelling at Karlstadt that he doesn’t have the academic chops to debate Eck. It’s a hilarious scene as they argue back and forth. To put it into context, it was Dr. Karlstadt that awarded Luther his doctorate in the first place!
In the 2003 edition while Luther is shown to be prone to anger, it seems a bit more controlled and more thought out. In 1953 he admits to “doubting the learning” of one of his fellow professors. So, the 1953 Luther is presented as a more flawed – more real – individual. The acting in a 1953 is certainly cheesier than the 2003 edition and Niall MacGinnis overacts several times almost to the point of making me laugh.
Another scene that I particularly enjoyed in the 1953 edition was a scene where they shows Luther adding the word “sola” (alone) to Romans 3:28 in the latin vulgate edition of the bible. This is, as you likely know, a controversial issue. Luther would answer his critics by saying he was translating the sense or meaning of the text, fully aware of the fact that the word itself is not there (this can still be a valid form of translation and is still used today). Perhaps in an effort to avoid citing the controversy, the 2003 edition omits any reference to this directly, instead using some sermons and speeches to introduce Sola Fidé.
The 2003 does illustrate one thing particularly well which is the corruption that was alive and well in the city of Rome, not so much the Vatican, but the actual city life, such as brothels for clerics. Finally, the 1953 edition does a much better job at explaining why Rome was so upset at Luther, while the 2003 edition sort of dumbs it down a bit to the basic issues; though I think it actually makes it a bit too simple and just confirms stereotypes that are largely unhelpful in contemporary debate (not that a film should be your basis for debating anything except acting, sound and cinematography). 2003 also explored Luther’s strained relationship with his father, while to the best of my recollection, 1953 does not address the issue at all.
It is important to note that both films have Lutheran connections, so it seems like they were both trying to portray their progenitor in the best possible light. If you have time, watch both, you’ll enjoy them both and enjoy the contrast. 1953 is a bit more biopic, including a narrator as was very much the style back then, whereas the 2003 edition is much more of a cinematic hollywood endeavour.