Cast & Crew
In 1505, brilliant German law student Martin Luther shocks his friends when he abandons his studies and gives away all his possessions to become an Augustinian monk. Searching for spiritual meaning, Martin embraces the strict discipline of monastic life, but his troubled demeanor and severe asceticism concern his superiors. Two years later, after Martin is ordained an Augustinian priest and celebrates his first Mass, he tells Vicar von Staupitz, the head of his order, that he cannot love God because God condemns evil and man is evil. The Vicar is disturbed by these comments, but decides that Martin's views will change if he is kept busy teaching and studying. Some time later, because Martin seems more at peace, the Vicar sends him on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he receives spiritual indulgences, a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, for prayers and rituals he performs. Upon his return, Martin expresses skepticism over the granting of indulgences and the Church's position that only Latin, and not the people's language, can be used for Scripture and the Mass. He also expounds to fellow priests that the Scriptures alone can lead to peace and salvation. In 1511, his school friend Spalatin, who has himself become a priest, suggests that Martin teach at the University of Wittenberg, which Duke Frederick, Elector of Saxony, hopes to turn into a university to rival Leipzig. In 1512, after Martin receives a Doctorate of Theology, Frederick offers him a position. Around this time, Martin begins to speak against many of the physical trappings of the church, including the display of reliquaries, vessels containing relics of the saints, often used in the granting of indulgences. He also tells von Staupitz that words from St. Paul's "Epistle to the Romans" stating "the just shall live by faith alone" are his favorite words from Scripture. In 1517, the newly elected Pope Leo X tries to replenish the church's treasury, depleted due to his expensive expansion and decoration of the Vatican, by selling indulgences. In a bargain with the archbishop of Leipzig, the Pope decrees a special jubilee indulgence with the proceeds to be divided between the Vatican and the archbishop. By terms of the indulgence, those who purchase it will be granted forgiveness for all sins, even without confession, in the past and in the future, for themselves and loved ones. Although the local bishop refuses to allow the sale of the special indulgences in Wittenberg, many citizens go across the river to Mainz. This greatly disturbs Martin, who preaches against "peddled" indulgences. Despite Spalatin's concern over Martin's vocal opposition to the indulgence, Duke Frederick supports him. On 31 October 1517, Martin tacks up a notice on the Cathedral in Wittenberg. The 95 theses enumerated in the notice are written in Latin and intended only to stimulate theological debate, but soon the document is translated into German and is widely disseminated. The Bishop of Mainz is furious over Luther's position against indulgences and threatens to charge him with heresy. Pope Leo initially dismisses the theses as unimportant until he learns how much the sales of indulgences have fallen. Within two years, Martin's followers have made Wittenberg a center for new theological interpretations. One day Carlstadt, one of the professors who embraces Martin's views, happily reveals that he has been asked to debate the issues at Leipzig. Martin is furious that Carlstadt, whose debating abilities are far beneath his own, will be pitted against eminent theologian and debater John Eck. Deciding to invite himself to the debate, Martin travels to Leipzig with Carlstadt and another colleague, Phillip Melanchthon. During the debate, Martin says that it is faith alone, not the church that is most important and argues that even the pope has no authority over the simplest man armed with Scripture. After Martin says that he agrees with principles laid out by John Hus, who was burned as a heretic in 1414, his Vicar releases him from the Augustinian order. Martin, who is still a priest, leaves Leipzig among cheers from the common people and continues to rebel against papal authority, writing that every man is his own priest before God. Eventually, Pope Leo decrees that all of Martin's writings must be burned, and Martin is given sixty days to recant his words. In December 1520, Martin burns the Papal decrees. Although Duke Frederick is not a follower of Martin's teachings, he offers him protection and suggests that Martin should be allowed to defend himself at the Diet of Worms, a theological council. The next spring, Martin enters Worms among cheers by the people, thus angering Emperor Charles V, who fears Martin's popularity. At the Diet, rather than being able to express the totality of his views and debate them, Martin is quickly asked two questions: Does he admit that the books of his writings are his own and will he recant those writings. After answering yes to the first question, Martin asks for more time to consider the second and is told to answer the next day. After a night spent praying for guidance, Martin returns to the Diet and says he cannot and will not recant. Charles V then gives Martin twenty-one days, after which he will be hunted as an outlaw and condemned to death as a heretic. Frederick, who is against the verdict of the Diet, arranges for Martin to be abducted on his trip home and offered sanctuary at Wartburg Castle. After ten months, Martin completes a translation of the New Testament into German. Meanwhile, Martin's close followers, Melanchthon and Carlstadt, argue over the direction of the movement Martin started. Melanchthon is disturbed by violence against the church, which Carlstadt seems to endorse. When Martin finally returns to Wittenberg, under the Duke's protection, he angrily dismisses Carlstadt. Martin then preaches to his followers to turn away from violence. Over the next few years, Martin's teachings become dominant throughout Germany and much of Europe, prompting many similarly minded priests and nuns to leave their communities. One former nun, Katherine von Bora, wants to marry Martin. He tries to dissuade her because of their age difference, but they eventually marry. By 1530, a Diet at Augsburg is proposed to discuss reforms. Because Martin is still, technically, an outlaw, he is unable to attend. Martin, who would prefer to work within the church, is initially worried that the document signed at Augsburg will divide his followers, but eventually is content when all but a few dissenting German princes sign the articles of faith written by Melanchthon, the Augsburg Confession.
Joseph C. Brun
Dr. Paul C. Empie
Pastor Peter Heinemann
Dr. Oswald C. J. Hoffmann
Dr. Jaroslaw Pelikan
Louis De Rochemont
Melvin F. Schlake
Karl Eduard Schulz
Dr. Johannes Stuhlmacher
Dr. Theodore G. Tappert
Best Art Direction
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.