Reviews of All the Luther Movies 1953 to Today

Clark Schultz (Lake Mills, Wisconsin, USA)

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About the presenter

A grauate of Northwestern College and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Clark Schultz vicared in Green Bay, then served Northwestern Prep in Watertown, Wisconsin, first as dormitory supervisor, then as recruiter. In between he was pastor in a home mission. He now is in his 13th year teaching religion and coaching both soccer and theatre at Lakeside Lutheran High School, Lake Mills, Wisconsin. He and his wife Kristin have two sons.
Friends, as a lover of movies in general and of superhero movies specifically, I am honored to write a brief review about the three Luther movies. Though he never wanted the fame or glory, Luther is the champion of the Reformation and a hero to many. Combining my two movie interests, it is only natural for me to review the Luther movies in the same way I reviewed another series of hero movies, Batman. Please do not think I am making light of Luther by making such a comparison. Growing up, my first encounter with Batman was the 1960's Batman movie. It was campy but had its moments. Growing up in an Lutheran elementary school, we too would watch the old black and white Luther movie in October around Reformation time. This 1953 movie had great action, but at times seemed a little dated and over the top with the acting and accents. Skip ahead to the next time Batman shows himself on screen with Timothy Burton's 1989 Batman, I was wowed to see the caped crusader make the jump from the TV to the big screen. The same feeling can be said for when Luther makes the jump back to the big screen but this time IN COLOR with the 2003 Luther movie. Finally, when one watches the more recent masterpiece of Christopher Nolan's Batman, you can see every polished detail on screen. This was a true representation of how the character should be portrayed. And this is exactly what Boettcher/Trinklein did with this new version of the Luther movie. They finally got Luther right!

So pop some corn, sit back, and enjoy my reviews. Like all critics, I do not claim my views are infallible and the only source of knowledge. They are just the thoughts of this humble pastor who was asked to do something he loves — watch movies! Also for obvious reasons, with it being the the newest of the three, I will have more to say about the latest incarnation of Luther on the big screen than its predecessors. The reviews will be in the order I watched them.

A Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy – 2017 – Running time 105 minutes

The 2017 Luther film

The new Luther movie starring Padraic Delany as Luther was not what I expected. I went into the theater thinking I would be seeing a biographical picture similar to the 2003 Luther movie starring Joseph Fiennes as Luther. Instead, it was filmed in the style of a documentary although there are key scenes filmed in a biographical manner about Luther's life. An all star cast of Lutheran theologians, pastors, professors, synod presidents, and even Cardinal Dolan were interviewed to discuss the actions and importance of Luther's life. President Schroeder addressed the question as to why have a Catholic Cardinal in this film. He simply stated, "Even a Cardinal recognizes Luther's impact on the world."

There are two versions of the film that Thrivent funded. The script to the movie I saw, A Return to Grace, is loosely based on Pastor John Braun's book. The second version of the film, The Idea that Changed the World, is less theological in nature and recently aired on PBS. The ratings did very well. The overnight ratings surprised the network reaching somewhere between 5 and 7 million people. One can head to the PBS Facebook page and read the hundreds of comments. This film will also repeat five more times on PBS before being made available on Netflix in 190 countries. To God be the Glory!

After viewing this movie, the audience can first be proud to be Lutheran. Secondly, they gain a better understanding that all that Luther did shapes what we do today in family, marriage, and in the German language itself. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Finally one grasps the reality that Luther was, yes, just a man, but a man God used to restore the central truth of Scripture to his people.

A special shout out to the folks at the Watertown, Wisconsin, churches for allowing me to attend their showing of the movie at the old Towne Cinema.

A few other bits of trivia for you:

  1. The narrator in the movie was Hugh Bonneville, who played Lord Grantham in the mega-hit TV show Downton Abby.
  2. The film was shot in Poland. Why there? Poland was not devastated by the WWII bombs, thus much of the architecture from the era of Luther's life in the film looks authentic to the times.

The 2003 Luther film

Luther – 2003 – Running time 123 minutes

I remember the buzz about this movie as we had not seen Luther on the big screen for 50 years. Thrivent Lutheran had marketing items such as calendars that one could see plastered all over churches and classrooms. The movie also had some clout because it starred award winning actor Joseph Fiennes as Luther, with another famous actor, Alfred Molina as Tetzel. While the movie is more fast paced than the 1953 version and IN COLOR, Luther comes across as kind of a monotone aesthetic. The portrayal of Luther's theology is pretty shallow. This movie is slanted with more emphasis on the drama of Luther's life and not on the theology or the reformation that made Luther famous. That said, some of the bigger moments that lead to the Reformation such as the Diet at Worms can be seen and enjoyed. The movie is not a bad way to get your feet (or sandals) wet with Luther.

Martin Luther – 1953 – Running time 105 minutes

The 1953 Luther film

The singing of Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is our God" as the dramatic conclusion of this film gives can give one goosebumps. It also took me back to the first time I remember seeing this film as a child. It was my first real introduction to who Martin Luther was. The film covers the time from 1505 with Luther entering the monastery to 1535 with the dramatic climax of the film being Luther's "Here I Stand" speech. The film's script is fairly accurate. Noted Irish actor Niall MacGinnis portrays Luther as more of a grump who takes himself pretty seriously. That is a direct contrast to the playful side of Luther we see in the 2017 film. For its day this film won many awards and received great recognition for its director and the music. If one is looking to watch this film, I highly suggest you watch the 50th anniversary DVD version which includes new features such as a documentary history with Robert E. A. Lee, retired head of the Lutheran Film Associates.

What follows is my interview with Mr. Steve Boettcher, director of the new A Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy movie:

1. One of the knocks of the 2003 movie was the pacing of the movie. Some commented that it is difficult to fit Luther's entire life into a two hour movie. How did your movie overcome that challenge?

"Of course, that is always a challenge for any movie. But two hours is actually a lot of time. The key is to have a focus. Our goal was to stick to Luther and his struggle. If we had more time, we'd get more deeply into the other players in the Reformation, from Calvin to Melanchthon to the Catholic counter-Reformation etc."

2. The idea to have commentary from many noted "Lutheran" and non Lutheran speakers was brilliant. How did that idea come about to film the movie more as a documentary.

"A lot of historical dramas don't give the audience the necessary context. For example, BBC's "Wolf Hall," about Thomas Cromwell, was opaque, because viewers had no idea who the characters were. You literally had to stop their film and check Wikipedia every 5 minutes. There are two ways to handle that. You can either have the characters give their backstory in dialogue — which is often unnatural and awkward — or you can have narrators and interviewees provide the context. We did the latter."

"One good example of this is the scene with Luther in the lighting storm. One of the interviews talked about how 500 years ago people equated storms and acts of nature as acts of God. Luther saw the storm as God sending him a direct message. The interviews help the audience understand the time period and the impact."

Steve Boettcher

3. A follow up to 2, what do you say to the few who may feel (spoiler alert) that having Cardinal Dolan in the film is distracting or not good?"

"No one 'owns' Luther. To do a fair film about him, we need to see him from all angles, a 360 degree view. We wanted to create a historical film on Luther and hear from many different perspectives. That gives the film credibility. And who wouldn't want to hear what Cardinal Dolan thinks about Luther? (interesting fact, on 'owning' Luther — in the past 100 years the greatest volume of books published on Luther has been by the Baptists, not Lutherans.)"

4. How much did the other Luther movies influence your movie — positively or negatively?

"The 2003 film took so much flack on historical accuracy like showing Luther preaching while strolling in the pews, we made sure we had our historical details as accurate as possible. We even made sure the colors of various nobles' coats were spot on. Notice how when Luther hears confession, it's not in a booth — that innovation came a few decades later. Similarly, every line Luther speaks are his words, documented in writings and sermons. Even the 1950s film can't say that."

5. The movie is based on Professor John Braun's book. Explain the process of how it goes from book to the big screen?

"John's book is a great resource. We recommend John's book as a follow up to anyone who has seen the film, for a deeper dive into what Luther was all about. "

6. Many directors will say working on a project changed them or helped them see things differently. Did that happen for you on this film?

"It's clear that Luther wasn't perfect. In making the film, we saw all his flaws. But that just made him more human, more relatable. It's better to see Luther as a real person, not a statue."

7. What's next for BT Media?

"We're working on a film on Paul."

8. Any closing comments to leave with our viewers about the Return to Grace movie?

"I have to say my colleague Mike Trinklein wrote an amazing script for the movie. I can't tell you the number of people we've heard from that said 'I finally get it!'"


We thank Mr. Boettcher for his time and you for joining us on this heroic adventure to get to know more about the films about Martin Luther, who never claimed to be a hero, but is a hero and champion to many Lutherans.


Where to view them:

1953 Martin Luther

2003 Luther

2017 A Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy

2017 Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World

  • This "less Lutheran" version is scheduled for several more screenings on PBS, and then it goes to Netflix.
  • It's also already on YouTube.


Following are some additional reviews and comments on these movies.

1953 Martin Luther

2003 Luther

2017 A Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy

2017 Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World

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Pr. Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-10-23 3:24:59pm
Thanks for your reviews and insightful interview with Mr. Boettcher!
My favorite version is the classic 1953 version...The Noir feel and cinematography is fantastic--though blacklisted as a communist in the Red Scare, Irving Pichel's directorial work is an important part of film history--and I think his expertise shows through in this film. I would say that MacGinnis' portrayal of Luther isn't so much as a "grump," but rather "very serious." He does a good job of portraying the heaviness of the Law that Luther was burdened under at the beginning of his ministry. It's true, you don't get much of Luther's humor and Gospel joy coming through, but the climax and end of the movie is the famous "Here I stand" dialog before the Diet of Worms. There were happier days ahead for Luther... In my humble (not an expert) opinion--that is some great acting--especially at the end... It gives me goosebumps every time!
For any Pastors or Teachers, I highly suggest the condensed version of this movie available through ( ) At 30 minutes in length, it's great for a quick Reformation Study or with the Confirmation Classes (though Black&White my Jr. High kids seem to enjoy it)! I end up watching through this 2-3 times each year!
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-10-25 4:12:47pm
Thank you Luke! I smile when you mention the "very serious" comment. It takes me back to my Junior year of homiletics class at the seminary where Prof. Westendorf would remind us even when preaching the gospel "gentlemen it is ok to smile and not look so serious." Thanks for your thoughts as well, that's the beauty of being a movie critic, there is never a wrong opinion. Equally appreciate the Lutheran Visuals shout out. Thank you and God bless!
Paul Brug (Shoreland Lutheran High School) 2017-10-23 4:11:03pm
Thanks to Clark Schultz for the review! I would add a fourth Luther movie to the mix, the 2002 PBS production "Martin Luther," which was part of the Empires series. It is available from PBS on DVD and from Amazon for streaming. It is more firmly in the documentary category than the new Luther film. Actors give a vision to events but have no speaking parts. The core of information comes from narration and expert commentators. I have used this video with my class for quite a while. Advantages of this film are that it provides a variety of viewpoints on Luther, similar to what Mr. Boettcher was talking about with seeking comments from Cardinal Dolan. It also provides accurate facts about Reformation events without sugar-coating or being overly emotional. The main disadvantage was the lean toward the secular impact over the spiritual importance of the Reformation. While some of the commentators speak well of Luther's progress from a works perspective to one of grace, but, for example, Luther's speaking of the devil as a real entity is dismissed as having "a medieval mind," and the commentators emphasize freedom of conscience and religion over freedom from sin. Overall, though, it usually can spark some good discussions and add new facets to students' understanding of Luther and the Reformation. As a bonus, it is narrated by Liam Neeson, who, as Clark Schultz could probably tell you, plays the villain Ra's al Ghul in "Batman Returns."
Douglas Weiser (Nigeria mission) 2017-10-23 6:18:00pm
Thanks for your review, Pr. Schultz. I am vividly imagining how your Luther presentation goes in your classrooms, popcorn and all.
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-10-24 8:53:28pm
Thanks Doug, you are welcome back anytime to my classroom!
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-10-24 8:55:17pm
Thanks Paul, like all good movies I will add a "sequel" review and check out the 2002 version you speak of. God bless!
Paul Grubbs (Martin Luther College) 2017-10-24 7:10:39pm
Pastor Schultz,

Your reviews of three Martin Luther films were delivered with a great sense of humor that made them enjoyable to read. I also appreciated the way that you highlighted strengths and limitations of each interpretation.

Reading over your endorsement of the storytelling approach selected by Boettcher/Trinklein, I wondered what “dream panelist” (or panelists) you might have imagined adding to the recent drama-mentary to pursue the 360 degree view Steve Boettcher discusses in your concluding interview. If you could have added one “talking head” to the segments expanding on Luther’s significance, what voice or voices do you think might have offered provocative additions or a perspective that wasn’t already featured?

Thanks for your contribution to the conference.
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-10-24 8:58:22pm
Oh man Paul that's a good question, Please allow me to think on that for a night and get back to you. God bless!
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-11-05 8:08:49pm
Hi Paul, Sorry for the delayed response.... As for "talking heads" (Great 80's new wave rock band btw) As for talking heads for the Luther movie that did "not" make the cut, if it were me, I would love to have seen former synod presidents and Seminary presidents in an "ex presidents forum" talking about Luther's over the years of their service to synod and sem.
Robbin Robbert 2017-10-25 11:22:08am
Thanks for the reviews!! God bless your celebration of Reformation 500!!
PC (Lakeside) 2017-11-01 9:50:39am
Thanks Pastor Robbert! Good to hear from you! God bless your November!
Gabby Baker (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-10-30 9:11:21pm
Excellent summary of the 3 movies. Growing up in a Lutheran grade school as well as a Lutheran high school, I have actually seen 2 of the 3 films several times. I remember the first time, as a young child hearing about the reformation and being confused. I didn't understand what it was about or why it was significant. As i grew older, the more I heard the story, the more it made sense as I also learned history which also helped to provide a proper frame of reference. The first time I actually felt like I understood the magnitude of the reformation was after watching the "Luther" film from 2003. The film was very well made, but for obvious reasons, like time constraints, had to leave certain parts of his story out. There was part of the film that did bother me from a historical standpoint though. *spoilers* At the end of the film, there is the scene, Luther walked into the burning church and we saw the great distress that it caused Luther. Where the problem lies is that that revolt did not occur until almost 70 years after Luther's death, and it makes me wonder why they put it in the film? The 1953 film I have seen once and was well done for its time. again there are limitations to what was able to be done but was historically accurate. I have not yet gotten a chance to watch the film that was published in 2017, but would be rather appropriate to watch this weekend, on this the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
PC (Lakeside) 2017-11-01 9:52:38am
Thank you for your comments. Good question on the church fire scene, not knowing for sure, but if I had to take a swing at it, I would say "for effect" or to heighten the drama. Let me know when you see the 2017 film and feel free to give me your review on it as well. God bless!
Nathanael Goelzer (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 5:55:30pm
Pastor Shultz,
Thank You for your reviews and interview with Mr. Boettcher! I appreciate your use of humor throughout the reviews which makes this a very easy read. I also appreciate how you addressed Cardinal Dolan being in the new film, as that is seen as controversial to a lot of the viewers.

As I read your review for the oldest Luther film I was pleased to see that you noticed how different the two Luthers were played between the oldest and the newest film: "Noted Irish actor Niall MacGinnis portrays Luther as more of a grump who takes himself pretty seriously. That is a direct contrast to the playful side of Luther we see in the 2017 film."

I do have one question for you Pastor. What method of telling Luther's story do you personally prefer? Do you prefer the documentary style like the 2017 film, or do you prefer the biographical film like the 2003 film?

Thanks again for your contribution!

PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-11-05 7:28:21pm
Thanks Nathanael, I am a fan of any film with a solid script and the right people on camera to make it work. In the case of Luther having his life on screen and many notable theologians back up what God was doing through him, even made the more recent film a delight but also more factual. So my vote, the newest one! Thanks for the comments and the questions, God bless your time at MLC.
Justine Hanan (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-02 11:58:07am
Pastor Schultz,

Thank you for your thoughtful reviews on the different Luther movies. I enjoyed reading the reviews and the interview at the end. It has been awhile since I have seen the 1953 and 2003 versions, but while reading your reviews I remembered how the 2003 version was very fast-paced and showed a different Luther than the 1953 version.

“After viewing this movie, the audience can first be proud to be Lutheran. Secondly, they gain a better understanding that all that Luther did shapes what we do today in family, marriage, and in the German language itself. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Finally one grasps the reality that Luther was, yes, just a man, but a man God used to restore the central truth of Scripture to his people.” I appreciate what you said here. I never really realized how much impact Luther had on family and marriage until a recent lecture I had heard about Luther and after watching this movie. I think when most people think about Luther, they only think about the Reformation and his role.

Is there anything you would change about the 2017 version? Why or why not?
You give a nice little review of the movie, something a person could read beforehand
Tried to make it interesting? The 2003 one, so more people would watch it and like it?

While all three are very interesting movies , it seems that the 2017 version is the best one in portraying Luther without being too dramatic. Is there anything you would change about the new one? Why or why not?

Thank you again for your contribution!
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-11-05 8:04:49pm
Thank you Justine, I am not certain what you mean with your questions in the 3rd smaller paragraph above. When time, please rephrase the questions and I will happily answer. Please and thanks!

As for the last paragraph, Anything to change -Nothing! Love it as is!
Josh A (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-11 12:14:00am
I appreciate that Mr. Boettcher realized including a Catholic perspective into a movie about Martin Luther would greatly enhance the film. I have seen too many movies where only a certain side of a topic is shown, and I left those movies feeling as though much was held back. Good on Mr. Boettcher for getting a fuller view of Luther.
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-11-13 10:01:03am
Thank you Josh, I will be sure to pass on your comments to Mr. Boettcher. God bless your week!
William Bukowski (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-13 10:14:30pm
Is it safe to say that none of the movies really capture Luther? As a movie fan, I know that each film maker comes with an idea of how he or she wants to present the subject and the times often dictate their vision. Was Luther a celebrity? a brilliant teacher? a thoughtful scholar? a man with a salty sense of humor?- yes to all of these traits and yet I think all of these movies fall short of the proper blend of his character. Some how I would also like the actor to look like the man in the Lucas Cranach paintings. In some movies he seems to thin, too handsome, too serious and just not right.
There was another movie starring Stacey Keach as Luther that came out in 1974 and I have to confess I haven't seen it. It may be worth looking up. Thanks for the encouragement in your article to watch the versions of Luther that have been put forth in the movies. Every time a Luther movie is shown it can inspire a conversation about the Reformation and Lutheranism.
PC (Lakeside Lutheran) 2017-11-14 10:49:37am
Thanks William, I will have to check out the 1974 version and see if I can get past Mike Hammer as Luther.