Making "Martin Luther - a Return to Grace"

John Braun (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

John Braun was a parish pastor for 15 years, then a professor and administrator at Northwestern College, Watertown, WI, for another 23. He has been a Vice-President at Northwestern Publishing House since 1995 and Executive Editor of Forward in Christ since 2006. His creative work contributed to four completed films, Road to Emmaus, Come Follow Me, My Son My Savior, and A Return to Grace - Luther's Life and Legacy. He is working on the forthcoming film, To the Ends of the Earth.

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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Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2017-10-25 1:29:28pm
Prof. Braun, are you involved in preparing for the next film, on the Apostle Paul? What is the current stage of work on that film?
John Braun 2017-11-03 11:32:31am
Yes, we are in the process of working through the script for the next film. This one is on the Apostle Paul and the working title is "To the Ends of the Earth." We hope to have the film read for release late next year.
Jeff Bukowski 2017-10-31 12:49:04am
Prof. Braun, thanks for your involvement in this! I look forward to seeing the different versions. I was wondering about the filming in Poland- did they use a local cast of actors and crew or did they fly everyone in? Were there any obstacles to filming overseas?
John Braun 2017-11-03 11:35:51am
I don't know all the specific details of the filming in Poland. I was not present when it was done. But I do know that the Botcher-Trinklein hired a crew in the UK to do the filming and that, except for Martin Luther, mostly local actors were used. Going to Poland allowed them to maintain the feel of the 1500's without the occasional McDonald's sign in the background.
Jeff Bukowski 2017-11-14 12:41:47am
Thanks for the info! That does seem like a great way to maintain the feel of the 1500's.
Emily Ash (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 5:50:01pm
Prof. Braun,

I appreciated the background and additional information on this new film on the life of Martin Luther. As I have just recently watched "A Return to Grace; Luther's Life and Legacy," I especially enjoyed reading about how the different versions of this film were thought of and put into action. I was also interested by your comments about Americans' knowledge on Martin Luther himself. As many of us have been brought up in the church, I often forget that Luther's life is not common knowledge. For this reason, the new movie has the potential to serve a great role in increasing the awareness of Martin Luther's legacy.

Upon further thinking in relation to your post, I am very curious about the impact this movie will inflict on our view of Luther. I know that for myself, I've never fully grasped the idea that this man went through countless struggles and hardships to spread his ideas about the faults in the church at that time. At any point in time, he could have easily given up his cause. By simply recanting his writings and strong words against indulgences, he could have lived a life without all these threats and hatred towards him.

In your piece, you said "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." I love the idea of this goal for the film! Not only could this film aid in outreaching about what Lutherans base their teachings on, but it also provides a lesson in history to others. It could also serve as a way for people of different beliefs to have more interest in our churches. Is reaching other communities (besides Lutherans) something that is being achieved now that the film is out?

Thank you for giving more information on this fantastic film!
John Braun 2017-11-03 11:39:47am
Thank you for your comments. The film has been widely viewed and will be available through Netflix after the first of the year. The Lord has extended the reach of our efforts beyond what we realistically hoped for in the beginning. For that we credit the Lord's blessing on the energetic efforts of Steve Botcher and Mike Trinklein.
Alyssa Tessmer (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-02 12:58:03am
Dear Professor Braun,

Thank you so much for this informative article! I recently watched the film, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was incredibly interesting to read what occurred behind the scenes to make this movie happen.

I was really impressed to see the effort the WELS took in order to use this film as an educational tool for adults and children alike. By having two different adaptations, the film was able to reach both the general audience (viewers of PBS) and confessional Lutheran congregations. Vignettes of the film were taken for the purpose of being used in Bible classes and worship. This allows pastors and teachers to isolate a certain part of Lutheran theology in order to better focus on its truth. Although the movie targeted adult audiences, the WELS made another adaptation that was appropriate for children. This shows the importance of Christian education -- something Luther promoted in his own life as well.

I was happy to see that the film was well received. You mentioned that the PBS audience gave many positive reactions. Do you know the religious demographic of that audience? Were most of the positive comments given by people who were already Christian, or did people of other faiths give feedback as well?

You mentioned that many different Lutheran churches worked together on this project. Not all Lutheran churches hold to the same beliefs -- did this show in the original version of the film? I only saw “A Return to Grace,” not “The Idea that Changed the World.” How significant were the differences between these two adaptations?

Again, thank you for your contribution to the conference!
John Braun 2017-11-03 11:58:43am
Thanks for your comments about the film. We are humbled by the positive reaction of so many.
As far as the demographic of the PBS audience, I can't give you any statistical breakdown, but the some of those who commented on the film after it's showing identified themselves as non-Lutherans. So we did reach some who were not Lutheran. Remember that Luther is not just a Lutheran figure in history. He is widely considered important, but for reasons other than Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and Scripture Alone. Some have suggested that his bold speech before the Diet of Worms was the beginning of the modern age, and there is some justification for that assessment. But because others viewed Luther through political and social perspectives, we thought it was important to share his spiritual story as widely as possible. We wanted to make sure someone said that Luther's reform flowed from his religious and Christian concerns.

I think assessing the differences between the two versions may depend on one's perspective. From my perspective, "A Return to Grace" comes from a more conservative confessional Lutheran perspective. Remember its target audience was Lutherans--some of whom know something about Luther and some who know only a little. From another perspective, the PBS version and "Return to Grace" version use the same general structure and timeline. The difference is that the PBS version turns more to questions some raise about Luther, such as, the criticism that he is antisemitic and that he was the force that unleashed other reformers to break from the Roman church (Reformed, Episcopalian, Anabaptists). When "Return of Grace" was finished, one comment was, "This film should be seen by every Lutheran congregation." We hope that might still happen.
John Marquardt (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-02 12:20:13pm
Prof. Braun,

This information on the making of the four different Luther films was very new and exciting to me! I had no idea the work of the WELS would be able to be shown through such large businesses. The fact that Netflix will be streaming the PBS version of the film and that Marcus is showing Martin Luther: A Return to Grace is phenomenal!. I want to thank you and all those you worked with for working to create this piece of literature which will be an influence to many who do not know the story of Luther and our heritage.

The world is full of work to be done, and not enough to do it. The ability of the internet and recordable material make the outreach of one individual or the work of a group so much more impactful. Do you know of any other film projects the WELS might tackle in the future? Based on the past results, do you think the WELS will continue in this medium for outreach?

Thank you again for all your work on the project, as well as for your informative post!

John Ntsun 2017-11-03 12:05:59pm
Thanks for your comments. What we have done is only a small contribution considering the huge amount of information available in print and through film. We are grateful to have been a part of this project and the opportunity to share our faith in this medium.

The challenge for any outreach material--especially film--is the cost of making it happen. Without Thrivent this film would not have happened and we are grateful for their encouragement and contribution. Other films such as "My Son, My Savior," and the others, including the new one in the works, "To the Ends of the Earth" have been made possible only through the generous gifts of individuals. We are extremely grateful for their gifts and the fact that they share the vision of the spread of the gospel through film. Any future projects will happen only if special gifts make them possible.
Rachel Schlawin (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-12 4:27:48pm
Prof. Braun,
Thank you for all the work you have done here and being so involved in the process. It is really wonderful to hear how God works in our outreach efforts, often in ways that we least expect it. God bless your future endeavors.
John Braun 2017-11-13 1:44:17pm
Sola Gratia; Sols Fide; Solat Scriptura; Solus Christus; and Soli Deo Gloria.

Praise God for his blessings on the efforts of so many who helped in the project.