Martin Luther in Motion Pictures: History of a Metamorphosis

By Schaefer, Trevor | Lutheran Theological Journal, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Martin Luther in Motion Pictures: History of a Metamorphosis


Schaefer, Trevor, Lutheran Theological Journal


Esther P Wipfler, Martin Luther in motion pictures: history of a metamorphosis, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.219 pages.

The author is an art historian in Munich. She tells us (135) that this study of the image of Martin Luther in film goes back to 1998 when she was commissioned to study viewer response to the image of Mrs Luther in film, on the occasion of the 500th birthday of Katharine von Bora. It is a scholarly account, with nearly a quarter of the book, 53 pages, taken up with endnotes. However, it is well illustrated with still photos from the films under discussion, all in black and white.

The book includes the three well-known Luther films in English, Martin Luther (1953), Luther (1973), and Luther (2003). As expected, there are numerous versions of his life from Germany, including two rival versions from 1983, the year of his 500th birthday, from the West (FRG) and the East (GDR). There is a French version, Frère Martin (1981), and a number of silent films, including a charmingly named Wittenberg Nightingale (1913).

The word 'metamorphosis' in the book's title refers to the changing images in the German films from 1913, where the love story of Katharina and Martin is given prominence, through the German nationalist hero of 1927, to the contrasting images in the double feature from 1983. It is also seen in the Americanisation of Luther in 1953, and his psychoanalysis in the 1960s in German by Leopold Ahlsen and in English by John Osborne. The French film showed only the young Luther and the 2003 version, a 'new emotionalism'.

The Wittenberg Nightingale (1913) depicts Martin in romantic fashion as a Latin scholar, a wandering singer at courts, and a 'lusty wooer' of Katharina von Bora, whom, contrary to fact, he meets already in his student days. Katharina's life story is told in parallel to Martin's (39).

Frère Martin (1981) shows only Luther's early life up to his return to Wittenberg in 1522. The writer of the screenplay sought to contrast Luther, 'a liberated, vigorous man, bursting with life', with the French reformer Jean Calvin, 'that tortured ascetic of a reformer' (57).

The double feature of 1983 in East and West Germany were both made for television productions. The five-part series made in the GDR ran for seven hours, the longest of all the films described in this book. …

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