" MARTIN LUTHER - (1483-1546) "

A 1953 Film by Louis DeRochemont
(Lutheran Church Productions)


This older but interesting film continues to circulate to reinforce the mythology concerning Martin Luther which continues to influence many Protestants and even some Catholics. It is worth noting that the consultant for the film was Dr. Yaroslav Pelikan, a distinguished Lutheran patristics scholar, who joined the Russian Orthodox Church shortly before his death in May 2006.

The producers of the Film claimed it was the result of "careful research of the facts" concerning Luther’s life. This is questionable because the "facts" it presents rather foster ignorance, stereotypes and caricatures of the Catholic Church and its practices. It exaggerates in declaring that the early 16th c. Church forgot the mercy of God and made men excessively fear God'’s judgment. Its verdict that the early 16th c. was an "age of superstition mixed with paganism, and fostering an unquestioning obedience of people" needs to be nuanced. There were also great Saints of the time, such as the two English martyrs St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher who vigorously fought Luther'’s errors.

The actor (Niall MacGinnis) depicting Martin Luther played the role admirably. To its credit, the film did indicate that Luther was the victim of scrupulosity, was neurotic, and had a restless mental pathological strain. The German priest found no satisfaction in the excessive penitential exercises with which he punished himself because of his fixation - "I am evil". Not being able to believe in a loving Father but rather perceiving Him as an angry judge who would condemn him to the torments of hell, he proved disobedient to his father confessor who tried in vain to calm his troubled soul.

In his trip to Rome, the abuse of the use of relics and "selling" of indulgences appears in the film to have scandalized the young Augustinian monk, but this appears not to be historical fact, but rather a retrojection by Luther to support his later attacks on indulgences (the theology of which he simply did not understand). In his pamphlet "HANS WORST" published in 1541, he admitted:

As truly as Our Lord redeemed me, I did not know what an indulgence was!

While in Rome he was actually more disturbed by the moral laxity he observed among the clergy. He developed an aversion to relics, indulgences, Purgatory, and prayer to the saints, which are all ridiculed in the Film as "good works" incompatible with his "salvation by faith alone" theology.

An Eastern Orthodox watching the Film would be as uncomfortable as Catholics with its dismissal of such good works as veneration of relics, prayer for the dead, and prayer to the Saints, which Luther declared "crutches to uphold a dying faith". Luther proceeded to develop his theology of "man only needs Jesus Christ" and "salvation by faith alone" [falsifying thereby St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:17 and Romans 3:28].

In the Film, the churchmen of the Papal court are portrayed, not unjustly, as greedy worldly prelates. The Medici Pope Leo X is depicted as collecting monies for the building of St. Peter'’s Basilica by granting indulgences to the highest bidder and declaring: "God has given us the Papacy to enjoy".

The Dominican preacher of indulgences, John Tetzel, "the fat Tetzel", comes off badly, too. He is portrayed as saying no confession was necessary to receive an indulgence and that the indulgence provides "full forgiveness for all sins", and "As soon as there is money in the chest, the soul flies to heavenly rest".

Luther is depicted as protesting the notion that with indulgences:

  • "one’'s sins are all forgiven; the Pope himself says so!"
  • "Tetzel! I'’ll put a hole in his drum!" - for Indulgences are "not supported by Scripture". They are rather "peddled, bartered, sold"...
  • [this is] "not salvation but the damnation of souls".

N.B. here: It should be noted that Tetzel did not actually preach such enormities, and if there were a crass misunderstanding about indulgences, it was due to others. So what is an indulgence? It IS NOT THE FORGIVENESS OF SIN, but rather the remission of the whole or part of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin in Confession. If that temporal punishment is not satisfied for in this life by penitential works, it must be satisfied in that state of purification in the after-life known as Purgatory. The underlying problem of Lutheran theology has been that Lutherans have not believed that there is a temporal punishment for sin that needs to be satisfied in this life. Interestingly, some Eastern Orthodox have adopted that Lutheran idea which only leads to the denial of Purgatory (the state in the afterlife where souls need cleansing from the stains of sin they did not make reparation for by good works in this life). Prayers for the dead – so common in the ancient Byzantine liturgy and services – and the offering of the Divine Liturgy itself for the dead (who need the prayers of the faithful to arrive at "a place of light, refreshment and peace", that is, Heaven) would make no sense if there were no Purgatory.

The Film goes on dramatically to depict the "Reformer" as "searching out for God'’s truth" and posting his 95 theses to invite scholarly debate on Indulgences. Pope Leo X is said to have responded, "What drunken German wrote those?" and the buffoonish Tetzel bemoans the fact that "our sales have fallen off" and threatens, "I'’ll burn him, too". The Catholic champion, theologian John Eck, cleverly links Luther with the declared heretic John Huss (but the Film shows well enough the growing radicalism of his opinions, which, by the end, clearly question the very nature and authority of the Church).

The role of the Pope is displaced by the primacy of the individual conscience: "The Pope has no more power over my conscience. Heresy? So be it - it is still the truth". Luther becomes the hero of German mobs who now believe that every man is his own priest before God. Clearly, the fires of German nationalism are lit, together with a growing political opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The exasperated Pope Leo X finally excommunicates Luther, "a wild boar laying waste the Vineyard of the Lord", but Luther replies by burning the Bull of Excommunication, and developing his basic theological position:

"I attack Popery which ruins souls and the bodies of other men. I cannot recant unless you can convict me by Scripture, and not by Popes and Councils... My conscience is captive to the Word of God; I cannot and will not recant."

Luther then declares his famous "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen". [The Film fails to acknowledge that these words are not authentic - Luther never uttered them - but they have resounded for centuries to augment the myth of Luther as a heroic Protestant defender of conscience against Roman tyranny].

As the Film continues: Luther’s religious movement aided by princely politicians, is hi-jacked by persons more extreme than himself, who engage in a violent Iconoclasm wherein all the externals of religion and aids to devotion: vestments, candles, crucifixes, statues, stained glass windows, fastings, and vigils – are all junked in a fury of destruction: for only faith is necessary! Luther himself, as a "moderate", appears shocked by the even more radical and fanatical religious revolutionists who plunge Germany into war.

Unfortunately, the Film ignores the horrific details of the Peasants’ Rebellion wherein hordes of peasants, misunderstanding Luther'’s utterances about the freedom of the children of God, arose in rebellion against their masters in Church and State. Hundreds of monasteries, convents, and castles were reduced to dust and ashes. Luther turned upon the peasants with a savage ruthlessness [not shown in the Film]. He urged the nobles to kill these "children of the devil" and to track them down like dogs. His advice was followed literally. A hundred thousand peasants were murdered with atrocious cruelty. Far from regretting such an orgy of wanton slaughter, Luther prided himself upon it, saying:

"I, Martin Luther, slew all the peasants in the rebellion, for I said that they should be slain; all their blood is on my head. But I cast it on the Lord God, Who commanded me to speak in this way."

The Film depicts Luther mildly rebuking the religious extremists, emphasizing love of neighbor, and entering into a touching marriage with an ex-nun Katherine von Bora, who fearlessly disregarded "the Pope'’s ban and the Emperor'’s curse". Luther is portrayed as saying, "I did not intend to create a new Church, but only to institute reforms in the hope that Rome will accept the teachings of Scripture".

Towards the end of the Film, the die is cast: John Eck declares Luther guilty of 404 heresies; the Emperor Charles V pleads with the Protestant nobles in vain for unity, as the Muslims are threatening the very gates of Vienna. The Emperor will not compromise on the necessity of the Lutherans' to abandon their heresies, and we hear the Lutherans reply that: "You cannot command our conscience; we are free Christian men".

The Film ends with a declaration of "Lutheran Victory" and with a great chorale singing "A Mighty Fortress is our God".

In the end it is a pity that the anti-Catholic aspects of a Film from 1953 continue to harm the genuine Catholic-Lutheran oecumenism that happily began to develop a few years later with the Second Vatican Council.

The foregoing is, I think, a fair point-by-point account of a rather interesting film intended to give dramatic emphasis on a portrayal of Luther as a defender of Christian conscience, Christian liberty, and Christian faith. Actually, despite the mythological inflation of Luther in the Film, he was no such thing. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would agree that Luther’s teachings on:
  • "salvation by faith alone";
  • the complete corruption of man by sin;
  • his denial of free will;
  • rejection of monasticism and the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience;
  • dismissal of prayers for the dead, invocation of saints, and veneration of relics;
  • the elimination of the Apostolic Succession and sacrificial priesthood;
  • and a heretical doctrine on the Eucharist (his so-called "consubstantiation"),
separate him from the previous 16 centuries of Christianity in both East and West.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
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