The enormous popular success of Mel Gibson’s execrable The Passion of the Christ (2004) opened up the market for films on religious themes. This is an intriguing development, since the mainstream movie industry – regardless of the personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of those who are its captains in any given period – prefers to stay away from overtly spiritual subject matter. However, money talks.
Luther, a largely German production made for the English-speaking market with an international cast two years before Gibson’s smash hit, was the first to benefit from this change in the marketplace. A couple of more movies as dreary as this, and the industry is certain to return to its Godless norm.
Luther was promoted with the tagline: “Rebel. Genius. Liberator.” This places it within hailing distance of the mythologisation performed on Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). However, while Eric Till’s film is substantially more honest and accurate in its dealings with history than Scorsese’s, it is consistently duller than even the flattest patches in The Aviator.
Luther earnestly sets about defining the particular faith of its titular hero (played by Joseph Fiennes). His dedication to the word of Christ – and to rendering it in German for the masses to read – puts him at odds with a corrupt Church that prefers its elitist, aristocratic rituals for the chosen, segregated few.
Inevitably, screenwriters Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan weigh up Luther’s possible loss of humanity due to his single-mindedness, and eventually redeem him with the comely Katharina von Bora (Claire Cox).
Also canvassed is the revolutionary significance of Luther’s teaching, as distinct from the fanatical, extremist following (embodied by Jochen Horst as Karlstadt) that it inspires.
Aged 76 when this film won its international post-Christ release, Till is a veteran who has spent most of his life making Canadian and American telemovies. Here, he renders the material of Luther’s life and times as an indifferent pageant of committee hearings, incarcerations, mob scenes and merry dances.
The acting is a dog’s dinner: while Fiennes evolves from monkish, scared rabbit to relaxed man of the people, Sir Peter Ustinov (in one of his last screen roles as Frederick the Wise) rolls every line on his tongue and hams it up in the Olivier-approved mode of theatrical histrionics.
There has not been a costume biopic quite in this special category of badness since Nostradamus (1994).
© Adrian Martin March 2005