Torchlighters: The Martin Luther Story
2016 / 34 minutes
The strength of this film is its short length. At just 34 minutes, it can be shown in the space of a single school period. For the pre-teens this is intended for, that might be just the right length, with the quick pace, and colorful animation sure to grab most students’ attention.
But the biggest weakness of this short film is….its length. It is far too short to tell this story with the gravitas it needs – Luther’s spiritual wrestling is dealt with in just 7 minutes! It also ends abruptly, with Luther busy translating the Bible into German in Wartburg Castle. The narrator then spends just a single minute summing up the whole of the second half of Luther’s life. And then the credits role.
I should note a couple of inclusions that might have been better left out. Luther is told that the very night he nailed up his 95 Theses, his long-time protector, Duke Frederick, had a dream about a monk writing on a church door with a quill that was so long it extended all the way to Rome “where it toppled the crown off of a lion.” This is presented as the reason Frederick was willing to defend his rebellious trouble-making monk: God had told him ahead of time that his monk was going to topple the pope. But while the movie portrays this as fact, there is reason to think this might just be a popular myth. Also, at the film’s conclusion, there is a passing, two or three second shot of a title page illustration from one of Luther’s books depicting Christ on the cross, with Luther and John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony kneeling below. I make mention of it, for any who consider this a violation of the Second Commandment.
That said, this is a great film for children who don’t yet have the attention span for a longer Luther film – it will certainly keep most children engaged, and does give a good overview. Check out the trailer below
1953 / 105 minutes
What sort of film is Martin Luther? The sort that gets produced by a church, and yet gets nominated for an Oscar – solid theology paired with high production values. How often has that happened?
It does get off to a slow start; the first couple of minutes are more documentary than drama. But when we get introduced to Niall MacGinnis as Luther, his brilliant portrayal sweeps us into the story. We follow along, starting with his tormented time in the monastery, and continue all the way through to his marriage to an ex-nun. MacGinnis captures all the contradictions of the man – even as the Reformer stands before the Diet of Worms strong and defiant he is distraught and trembling. This is certainly among the best Christian films ever made.
As a caution I will note that while there is nothing graphic in the film (it is G-rated), some scenes are psychologically intense. I think that would just go over the heads of most children, but for some young sensitive sorts, Luther’s spiritual turmoil might be too much.
This is a black and white film, which is a mark against it in many minds. But if you’re considering showing this to your class or to your family, here’s the secret to helping them get into it: make the sound your priority! In a dialogue-driven film it’s the sound, much more than the visuals, that really matters. I still remember watching this with my Grade 6 classmates, years ago. The screen was small – minuscule by today’s standards – but this big box TV had great speakers. There was no fuzziness, no straining to understand what was being said – we could all follow it. And after 30 minutes or so, we were all hooked.
There are quite a number of films about Martin Luther, with at least a half dozen dramas, and more than a dozen documentaries. The best known is probably the 2003 Luther that played in major theaters, and starred Joseph Fiennes (of Shakespeare in Love fame). It is a wonderful film (and in color!) but marred by an instance or two where God’s name is taken in vain. As well, it focuses a little more on Luther’s external struggles with the powers that be, and a little less on his own internal struggles. That makes for more action, but less of a theological focus – more about Martin, but God somehow fades into the background. So the 1953 Martin Luther is the better educational film.
This would be great for a family movie night. I’ve seen kids as young as 7 enjoy it, though with younger children you’re going to want to break it into a few “chunks” so it’s spread out over two or three nights. But for those 12 and up, so long as they are “forced” to give it a half hour (“No, you can’t check your smartphone while watching this”) it will grab them and give them a good understanding of the amazing work God performed through this man. Watch the trailer below.