Tuesday, September 11, 2007

a few random thoughts on Luther

. . . the 2003 movie, that is. Julie put it in our Netflix queue at some point, and we received it about seven weeks ago. I was interested in seeing it, but we had the chaos of her gall bladder issues to deal with; and aside from that, our evening schedule has been unpredictable, adjusting here and there to fit whenever Jenna goes to sleep. Then the other day Julie mentioned that she didn't really want to watch it, so we wouldn't get into a debate over the contents. Fair enough. I decided to watch it last night without her before sending it back.

In general, I think it's a decent movie. I'm not going to say much more than that about the artistic or technical aspects, except that I think Doc Oc (Alfred Molina) as Tetzel was a great choice :-) I wonder a bit about the portrayal of Luther himself. It was done well, but I'm not sure it quite captured his personality. I guess I'd always thought of him as having a stronger personality, which I guess is a polite way of saying, I would have expected him to be a bit louder and more obnoxious. Maybe it's just a stereotype, half-inspired by his appearance (he looks stouter in portraits than in the film); in any case, he comes across mostly as a meek, quiet person, with occasional controlled outbursts. We do see some rather hysterical private arguments with the devil, but even those seem a bit off. It's hard to put my finger on the exact contrast with what I was expecting. He sometimes comes across as mentally imbalanced, but perhaps not violent enough. (I don't think they included the episode where he throws an inkwell at the devil.)

The presentation of the conflict is about as good as I could have expected. In the scene where he crawls up the steps in Rome (I forget which building it is), it seems to me that the others around him exhibit heartfelt piety; Luther himself is mostly distracted by the commercialism of the clergy and the street vendors. There is a wide array of Catholics portrayed--opportunist clergy and monarchs, charismatic hucksters, those who follow Luther, and others devoutly sympathetic but nonetheless maintaining their loyalties. Luther is clearly the hero of the story, but at the same time he is by no means perfect. His words and subsequent absence spark peasant revolts, while his return and condemnation of their actions spark subsequent slaughter at the hands of the princes. In this, you get an impression of Luther as a reluctant leader, who comes back to prominence to straighten out the distortion of his teachings that happens in his absence. I'm not sure this sequence was intended to communicate what I got out of it--that as much as he talked about people reading and interpreting for themselves, it really did end up requiring strong leadership to keep things from getting out of hand.

From an Orthodox perspective, the movie seems to have captured most of the conceptual issues. Luther begins by addressing himself to an overly legalistic, overly commercialized expression of Christian tradition, not practiced to the same degree throughout all the Western Church, but problematically applied at the top. He finds the answer by appealing to Scripture alone, but his teachings are easily carried by others far beyond what even he intended. This foreshadows the fundamental weakness and the future trend of Protestant theology, in that it lacks sufficient controls to restrain every theological whim. The political dynamics of Western Europe at the time play a pivotal role in the success of the Reformation, as princes are pitted against pope and emperor. Eastern Christianity gets the passing reference that it got in fact during the Reformation--mostly as an example of non-Roman Christians who must show that grace exists outside the Church.

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