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The film's production credit reads: "Produced by RD-DR Corporation in Collaboration with Lutheran Church Productions and Luther-Film-G.M.B.H." Fritz Stapenhorst's credit reads: "Film editor and assistant director." The following written prologue appears after the opening credits: "This Dramatization of a decisive moment in human history is the result of careful research of facts and conditions in the 16th century as reported by historians of many faiths." A voice-over narration is provided intermittently throughout the film, indicating the passage of time and relating historical background not presented within the dramatization. Gregorian chants are sporadically heard on the film's soundtrack. As noted in the film's end credits, interiors were shot at AFIFA studios in Wiesbaden, Germany.
The film's pressbook, reviews and contemporary news items reveal the following information about the production: Martin Luther, which cost $500,000 to make, was produced under the auspices of the Lutheran Church in the United States, but was shot entirely on location in Western Germany, at that time a separate country. The pressbook notes that because Erfurt, Elberback Cloister and Eltville Castle were unavailable due to their location in Communist-held East Germany, substitute locations in Western Germany were chosen. Maulbronn Cloister near Stuttgart was substituted for Erfurt, and various locations in Wittenberg substituted for the others. Only the exterior of Wartburg Castle, the actual site at which Luther translated the New Testament into German, was shot because Wartburg was also located in East Germany. The hall in which the Diet of Worms was held was destroyed during World War II bombing and thus was recreated in a studio.
The international cast consisted of mostly German and English actors. Star Niall MacGinnis was a noted British stage actor from the Old Vic. Actress Annette Carrell is listed in press releases as the only American in the cast, but several school children who recite in one scene were American. According to the pressbook, the children and "several American bit players" were selected by the office of Martin Poch, a Missouri Lutheran pastor who was chief of the U.S. Air Force chaplains in Europe.
As noted in reviews, the film closely followed recorded historical facts about Martin Luther (1483-1546), whose writings and teachings provided the impetus for a new period of European history now known as The Reformation. During that era, Luther's followers and other similarly minded Christians turned against the then-predominant Roman Catholic Church and began theological movements from which modern Protestantism was born. As in the film, Luther was a brilliant theologian who rejected many of the abuses of the contemporary Papacy and higher clergy.
Although Luther rejected many aspects of the physical trappings of the church, he is most recognized for his aversion to the granting of indulgences [a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin], a practice within the Catholic Church that granted penitents relief from some or all of the punishment for their confessed sins. More particularly, Luther objected to the sale of indulgences that took place in Germany in 1517, granted by the Medici Pope Leo X. Luther's posting of the 95 theses on the door of a Wittenberg church ultimately led to a widespread acceptance of his views. The film closely follows actual historical incidents subsequent to his posting of the 95 theses, including his appearance at the Diet of Worms, his writings and excommunication from the Catholic Church, translation of the Bible into German and his endorsement of the Augsburg Confession in 1530.
Most reviews lauded the film's historical accuracy, although some indicated that Luther's real personality was considerably more churlish than what was presented onscreen. Luther's famous retort at the Diet of Worms, "I cannot, I will not recant" and much of the dialogue throughout the film was taken directly from historical writings translated into English. The film's main characters were also based on actual historical figures. Publicity for the film stated that the original Guttenberg press on which the first bibles were printed, on permanent exhibit at the Museum at Mainz, was used in the film during a montage about the spread of Luther's writings.
When the film was released in the U.S., it garnered considerable attention, both for its financial success, highly unusual for a religious-themed film, and for some controversy surrounding its representation of Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. According to news items, the Catholic laymen's group The Knights of Columbus took out newspaper ads against the film, but other trade news items reported that members of various Catholic groups had seen the film and acknowledged its merits as a work of art, even if they did not agree with its point of view.
Although the film was not condemned by the National Catholic Legion of Decency, the Legion noted that it "contained theological and historical references and interpretations which are unacceptable to Catholics." Rather than listing the film as "condemned," though, the Legion included it in a "special classification," and noted that it could be seen by Catholics "who have a certain maturity and proper perspective of history." One Variety news item noted that the Catholic weekly The Tablet proposed that efforts be made by Catholics to encourage theater owners to exhibit films produced from a Catholic point of view, including The Immortal City. News items also noted that the film was "nixed" by the Quebec Cinema Censors Board on the grounds that it had shown the pope in a bad light and might prove offensive to the largely Catholic population of the Canadian province. Countries in which news items stated that the film was banned included Peru, Egypt and the Philippines.
Several news items in contemporary American and British publications list Martin Luther's domestic box office gross as either $3,000,000 or $3,500,000. Although one source lists it as the 7th highest-grossing film of the year, it was not listed in Motion Picture Almanac's top twenty list for either 1953 or 1954, and the $3,500,000 figure, which would have placed it within that year's domestic top-ten films, has not been confirmed in any industry statistics. Many news items did, however, note that the film was very successful wherever it played. The states rights picture was picked up for distribution in many international territories by Twentieth Century-Fox.
In 1955, a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that 20,000,000 persons had seen the film in its theatrical release and that the film would soon be released in a 16mm version and made available to churches, schools, community groups and interested private individuals. In January 1956, Hollywood Reporter noted that Rev. Albert R. Ferguson of the National Council of Churches of Christ had released a statement stating that 5,000 16mm prints of the film had been sold, at a price of $150 each.
Controversy over the film was revived in 1957 when it was scheduled to be broadcast on television on WGN-TV in Chicago. According to a Daily Variety article on February 20, 1957, a group of local Catholics protested, after which the station cancelled the scheduled December 1956 broadcast. After the cancellation, Commonweal, a national Catholic weekly magazine, published an editorial condemning those who protested, writing "They have damaged the fabric of our society because they have placed in jeopardy the still undefined `freedom' of the TV screen...TV stations have shown that they are peculiarly susceptible-all too susceptible-to pressure from the audience." The Daily Variety article continued that Lutheran groups subsequently copied the Commonweal editorial and passed it out to encourage others to see the film.
Martin Luther was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black & White (Fritz Maurischat and Paul Markwitz) and Best Cinematography, Black & White (Joseph C. Brun). Other films about Luther include the 1924 Martin Luther, His Life and Time, adapted by Rev. M. G. G. Scherer for the Lutheran Church (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30) and Martin Luther, a 1983 German television mini-series directed by Kurt Veth, starring Ulrich Thein as the title character. Although an article in New York Times in April 1952 indicated that French filmmakers Jean Delannoy and Pierre Fresney were planning a biographical film about Luther, that production was apparently never made. The 2003 German-made film Luther, based on the 2001 John Osborne play of the same name, directed by Eric Till and starring Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Alfred Molina as Johann Tetzel, was also based on Luther's life.