The Back Story
Making Return to Grace started simply enough. A committee was working with Steve Boettcher and Mike Trinklein on a series of short films (Road to Emmaus; Come, Follow Me; and My Son, My Savior) for the WELS. After one of those meetings we began to discuss projects for the celebration of the Reformation. There was no urgency because the Reformation was comfortably years away.
We nodded our heads and agreed that we should do a film on Luther. But it was only talk and a common agreement to do something. With that very general agreement, the WELS Reformation Committee held its first meeting in October 2009, and in 2010 the committee adopted a proposal to produce a Luther movie for 2017. At the time, we conceived it as a short film of about 30 minutes to match the other films we produced.
The decision finally became more than talk, when Steve Boettcher and I met at the WELS convention in New, Ulm, Minnesota, in 2013. We discussed how we could go from talk and generalities to concrete reality. The first step in our plan was to create a historical base for the film. I agreed to create the narrative that could provide the story line for the film. That narrative needed to be historically accurate but it also had to make Luther a real person — human — so that people could identify with him. At the same time Steve and Mike explored issues for the filming of the project.
One huge obstacle had to be solved if we were to move forward: funding. Where would we find funding to make the film? Other Lutherans were thinking about observing the Reformation but, like us, no one had enough money to undertake such a project, even on the smaller scale we imagined. Then Thrivent called together Lutherans from many Lutheran church bodies to discuss how they might help individual church bodies celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation, but there was not enough money for any single church body to produce a Luther film.
In 2014 Thrivent reconvened the Lutheran leaders and suggested they would be interested in funding not only the projects of the individual Lutheran bodies but also a project all Lutherans could use. They asked for proposals. In October 2014 Steve Boettcher, Mike Trinklein and I brought the idea of a Luther movie to Thrivent as a pan-Lutheran project. The proposal outlined a Luther movie entitled Reformation: The Idea that Changed the World. It was different from the 30 minute project we had imagined. Instead the movie was to be a 2 hour documentary to be broadcast on PBS and shown at special screenings for Lutheran communities. Thrivent agreed to fund the project if all the other Lutheran bodies also agreed. They did. Funding was no longer a problem.
Since Boettcher-Trinklein produced an Emmy Award winning series, Pioneers of Television, for PBS, they were confident the Luther documentary could succeed using the same format — commentary with video clips and a narrator. For the Luther project, Lutheran scholars from all the church bodies would not only oversee the project but would also provide commentary for the documentary. Boettcher-Trinklein Television had creative control over the film. As the interviews began, it was clear that we needed to include more scenes from Luther's life. We believed that those dramatizations would allow Luther to come to life rather than simply be discussed through the interviews with scholars. Mike Trinklein created the script for the documentary. He added translations of some of Luther's writings and letters to add realism and allow the personality of Luther to come through in his own words.
The inclusion of Luther's biography meant finding settings and actors. Steve and Mike chose to go to Europe to film the documentary sections. They filmed most of them in Poland, which offered sites free of most tourists and retained the appearance of historic sites of the Reformation.
By this time the historical narrative, written as the base for the biography of Luther, had developed a life of its own. Northwestern Publishing House was interested in publishing the narrative, and it became a new biography of Luther, Luther's Protest: From 95 Theses to Reformation.
Educate and Witness
Deciding to create a documentary on Martin Luther required some careful thought. More books have been written about Martin Luther than on anyone else except Jesus. We understood the difficulties in sharing the documentary on Luther. For some Luther is a political icon and a significant historical figure. Yet his Christian faith is little known. Many Americans confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. If they know the difference they know very little about 1517, Martin Luther, and the Reformation of the church. Even among Lutherans, most people know only the basic highlights of Luther's life and have little sense of his struggles for the truth of the Bible.
We set two goals for the film about Martin Luther. First, we wanted to educate Lutherans about Luther but, more importantly, to create an appreciation for the gospel of Christ Luther recovered and defended. Second, we wanted to help non-Lutherans understand Luther and the Reformation, and here too, more importantly, to provide a witness to the gospel we treasure.
The story of Martin Luther is an engaging story that can appeal to a wide audience. He's an underdog who stands alone against powerful opposition and yet triumphs. His bold words at Worms still reverberate for Lutherans and others who know of them. Yes, Luther's story resonates but sometimes for the wrong reasons. We needed to stay close to the center of Luther's struggle — the gospel. Ordinary everyday people will listen to the story but not if it becomes too historical, too academic, or too theological. Story and personality become hooks to keep the audience watching.
We wanted to avoid Lutheran jargon and theological terms while at the same time speaking the gospel in simple language that a broad audience could understand. The danger with the format we chose is that the academic commentary might tip the balance and turn off the audience. Steve and Mike did a masterful job of making Luther a real person on screen who could articulate the gospel clearly. Luther communicated. The film's Luther spoke to the viewer. He became human amid struggles and heartaches.
The End Game
Footage from locations in Europe, interviews, and the narration of Hugh Bonneville were edited together to create a 104 minute movie as originally conceived, Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World. The target for this film was the PBS audience but not specifically the confessional Lutheran audience in our churches. As part of Reformation celebration, WELS asked for and received funds to create a more confessional Lutheran version by adding additional commentators and re-editing the film. The result was another 104 minute film, A Return to Grace; Luther's Life and Legacy. This film was distributed for congregational use in theaters through Tugg and has become an important opportunity to tell the story of the Lutheran Reformation to confessional Lutheran congregations around the country. A four lesson Bible study grew out of the film for congregational use so they could expand the educational impact of the film. The Bible study includes portions of the film as introductions to each lesson.
Both of these films are over 100 minutes in length and not targeted at children. Thrivent also provided WELS funds to create a version of the film for children. This third version of the film is called, God's Plan for Luther and Me. It is a 25 minute film with a different narrator, more appropriate for children. Northwestern Publishing House (NPH) combined this version of the film with classroom activities, songs, and art and titled the combined package Luther Then — Lutherans Today.
We also received funds for one more version of the film — a fourth. Using the footage from the longer films, Boettcher+Trinklein Television created twelve short 3-4 minute vignettes on important Lutheran truths. These short vignettes can be shown in Bible class, worship settings, or other gatherings within the congregation. NPH added two versions of a Bible class for each of the vignettes — one a short 5-minute study and the other a regular expanded Bible study.
God has answered our prayers for the film and its message even beyond our limited vision. A Return to Grace has been among the most viewed films that Tugg has promoted. Through it we have presented the gospel to thousands of people. The PBS version has also exceeded our expectations. The PBS audience for Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World was significant and we have seen positive reactions from around the country. In addition Netflix will stream the film internationally, and Marcus Theaters will show the film A Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy at all its theaters on the weekend of the Reformation celebrations this year. We are grateful for the extra efforts of Boettcher+Trinklein Television for pursuing all these possibilities. We are especially grateful to Thrivent for funding this project.
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