Luther Review

John Osborne’s Luther, like many of the American Film Theatre releases, is another example of a good play that the average theatre-goer would be unlikely to ever see performed nowadays, particularly with a cast as good as the one gathered here. Released in 1973 as part of the AFT’s series of filmed drama, Luther, while not being particularly cinematic nevertheless works well in its screen adaptation mainly due to a strong central performance from Stacy Keach.

In Erfurt, Saxony in 1506, Martin Luther entered into holy orders as a monk in the Convent of the order of Eremites – like many men of the time seeking to escape not only the horrors of a cruel outside world devastated by wars, famine and plague, but also the inner demons and conflicts raging in their souls, torn between human desires and a need to adhere to the teachings of the church. In Luther’s case, it was the terror caused by a flash of lightning that precipitated his calling as a man of God. But however much Luther tries to abase himself to the will of God, a shred of doubt remains about the sincerity of his humility. These doubts continue to grow and extend themselves to the sincerity of the church around him which advocates the selling of indulgences, trinkets and relics to the poor, promising them everlasting salvation in exchange for the little money they have. Believing that the poor and uneducated are being exploited for the financial gain of the Vatican, Luther becomes more and more outspoken, in 1517 nailing his objections to the door of Wittenberg Church – 95 theses “For Elucidation of the Virtues of Indulgences”. His belief that faith and faith alone can save a man’s soul and his outspoken attacks in his books threaten not only the order of the Catholic Church, but sets him against the German Emperor and the aristocracy. His views find more favour with the common people, stirring nationalist feeling and anger against the Roman papacy which holds such influence over Germany. Luther however remains a man of God and refuses to support the mob rising which is brutally quelled.

John Osborne’s Luther certainly seems to follow the model of Brecht’s Galileo, and in appearance and structure, Guy Green’s adaptation is pretty much a companion piece to Joseph Losey’s filmed version of Galileo for the American Film Theatre – both subjects, although they seem to be on different sides of the divide, standing up for individualism and beliefs that set them against the prevailing order which they believe unjust and inequitable. While Galileo believed the scientific “seduction of proof” would liberate the poor from the religious superstition that enslaved them, Luther believed that it is only faith that makes all men equal in the eyes of God. Both however were regarded as heretics by the Pope and charged by the all-powerful Catholic Church to recant their heretical views. While both men react differently to the charges put against them, both in the end retain their individualism and refuse to stand-up as examples for the common man, believing that their views need no championing, and that their truth and validity will become self evident.

Like Galileo also, there can be few complaints about the staging and performance of Luther, which makes great use of a number of fine British actors and has a strong lead in Stacy Keach. Not just chosen as an attraction for the American audience the film was certainly geared towards, Keach is a classically trained stage actor and is simply superb here as Martin Luther. It’s a meaty role in a substantial play with some terrific dialogue, so there must be a great temptation for the actor to grandstand and play the role with a firebrand-ish zeal – a style Topol unfortunately tends to lean towards in Galileo - but here Keach downplays, showing a character torn apart by inner doubts about his own faith, yet finding a voice for those doubts and a determination to express them. His delivery of the line “I listened for God’s voice, but all I could hear was my own” is an impeccable example of this – spoken not with the expected tortured exasperation, but with true humility and regret. It’s a great performance in a strong play that captures the earthy nature of Lutheran thought and the scatological expression of his views, finding enlightenment and release for his views in the cleansing of his bowels. The play is well-staged in the cinema adaptation. There is no real opening-out of the drama, but there is no need for it either – the film works on the strength of the script and the performances and the invisible transitions carefully crafted by the director that help the whole film flow marvellously.

The American Film Theatre series was an ambitious attempt in the 1970s to bring drama rarely seen outside a Broadway stage to a wider American public. Each of the fourteen films that were made benefited from some of the finest stage actors and directors of the period, capturing some of remarkable original productions and permanently preserving them for future audiences. Luther follows the AFT DVD releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth, Rhinoceros, The Iceman Cometh and The Maids, Galileo, In Celebration and Philadelphia, Here I Come as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features. All the DVDs are region-free.

Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic, Luther looks very much like other titles in the American Film Theatre series, showing a fair amount of grain, digital artefacts, macro blocking, pixilation, video cross colouration and a generally soft image. Like the transfer on Galileo, the image can look very colourful with bold costume and set designs, but they look a little oversaturated and lacking in detail. Blacks are also a little flat, but not so bad that you can’t make out some detail from all the monks in darkened cloiters. Skin tones are pinkish-red once again and not really naturalistic. There are no marks or scratches to speak of, so generally, the image is just about adequate. There are lots of problems there if you want to look for them, but the film itself is hardly affected by the quality of the picture.

The audio quality isn’t great – it’s rather harsh and reverberating with the bass tending to crackle and break-up and there is heavy sibilance. Again it’s generally adequate and audible, but there are some words which might not be clearly distinguished

There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material, which is a pity considering the sound quality.

Interview with Richard Peña (20:42)
The director of the New York Film Festival and Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre presents a fine overview of the whole American Film Theatre project, enumerating its attributes and identifying particular performances. This is the same interview that is available on a number of the other titles in the AFT series.

AFT Second Season Message (6:13)
A filmed message from Ely Landau as a thank you to subscribers at the end of the first season of films, the producer reflects on the ideal of the AFTs aim to preserve theatre on screen and takes a look over what films had been made so far. Again this feature can be found elsewhere on other releases.

AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for Luther (2:28), Lost In The Stars (2:05), The Maids (2:57), Three Sisters (2:41), Rhinoceros (1:50), The Iceman Cometh (2:37), The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Homecoming (2:29) and Butley (2:53).

AFT Cinebill for Luther
The programme notes for the film’s presentation provide useful information on the production. A Chronology of the life of Luther provides useful factual information on the subject and is useful for comparing how closely the film matches history. Guy Green – On Directing the Film discusses the reasons for building a set rather than location filming and recounts the methods used in translating the structure of the play to the screen. Kenneth Tynan – Rebel Writer on a Rebel Priest is a fascinating article which draws parallels between Osborne’s revolutionary individualism and that of Luther, examining the play’s themes in detail. Stacy Keach – A Constellation records the views of John Huston on the actor.

Stills Gallery & Poster
The stills gallery contains 6 stills and there is 1 poster image.

John Osborne and Luther” by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, is another excellent text article covering biographical information on John Osborne, the power and influence of his Look Back in Anger and his subsequent controversial stage and screen work. It also covers the history of the play Luther, which has been performed by Ian McKellen and Albert Finney and some background on the film adaptation for the AFT.

John Osborne’s Luther is a fine play on a fascinating subject that really does get to the heart (and the bowels) of its subject. It is well adapted to the screen by Guy Green in collaboration with screenwriter Edward Anhalt and cinematographer, Freddie Young (Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia), with an acting cast that includes Leonard Rossiter, Patrick Magee, Judi Dench and an excellent performance from Stacy Keach. As it doesn’t stretch much beyond the staginess of its origin, I’m not sure if it makes a great film. I had no problems myself with the format or the treatment, but perhaps I’m just used to American Film Theatre adaptations by now. Certainly I don’t know where else would you get the opportunity to see intelligent and well performed screen drama that doesn’t have to cater to a multiplex audience or financial investors. More than just ambitious, the films of the American Film Theatre successfully captured great dramatic productions with tremendous acting and filmmaking talent in a way that is unlikely to ever be repeated and Luther is a fine example of that achievement.

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