The weight of five centuries has a way of flattening out certain historical events in the popular imagination. The Reformation tends to suffer this fate, with the doctrinal arguments at its center giving it a patina of high-church stuffiness. For this reason, it can be easy to overlook how readily the story of the Reformation, and particularly Martin Luther’s role in instigating it, lends itself to the Hollywood treatment.
For the screenwriter looking for a nice, strong story structure, Luther’s life delivers the goods. It features an underdog hero, passionately devoted to a cause but privately plagued with doubts; a monolithic establishment, its corruption exceeded only by its power; and dramatic face-to-face confrontations, complete with cue-the-applause speeches. To date, five feature-film retellings of Luther’s life have been made, and all of them lean on these elements to some extent.
So which ones are most worth your time? Here is a guide to the four Luther movies currently available in some form for home viewing. (Unfortunately, the original cinematic retelling of the Reformation, Hans Kyser’s 1928 silent film Luther, was unavailable, but a trailer advertising a November 2017 DVD release is online for the curious.) In the spirit of the Reformation, the individual is at liberty to exercise personal conscience as to which ones he or she seeks out.