LUTHER: Notes on a reformation 

By Fernando Carmena (European FilmPhilharmonic Institute)

The film LUTHER (Hans Kyser, 1927) went through no less than four censorship processes. The recurring Leitmotiv of the censorship reports was the offensive depiction of the Catholic Church – a satiric portrait of greed and corruption that brings to mind some of Federico Fellini’s and Paolo Sorrentino’s wildest extravaganzas, especially during the grandiose Scala Santa sequence. LUTHER is everything but shy about its confessional nature. The promoters behind it were, indeed, the Luther-Filmdenkmal Association and the Protestant League. They meant to create - as Esther P. Wipfler explains - a “Protestant Annunciation Film” which would express the ideology of the Lutheran community (1). As a result, the film proposes a highly patriotic portrait of Luther as the quintessential protestant hero: a hero who wears the friar habit and the military armour with equal grace; a hero who triggers a brave revolution against Rome but – at the same time - domesticates a social revolution growing within his own folks; a hero, in the end, who would make Bavarian censors sharpen their scissors.

Presenting the restored version of LUTHER in Dresden as a film concert had its own guidelines. When the Dresdner Musikfestpiele approached the European FilmPhilharmonic Institute, the point of departure was already set: first, the film was to be projected in an abridged way, meaning that the original 122 minutes print, preserved at the Bundesarchiv, should be reduced to concert lenght of ca. 70 minutes. Secondly, the film would not be screened with Wolfgang Zeller’s original score from 1927, but with a new composition especially commissioned from Sven Helbig. Therefore, a new musicalization and new cut of the film were about to be born 90 years after its troubled premiere. 

Two main challenges arose. The first was defining a cinematic structure able to provide a good musical canvas for Sven Helbig. The other was the artistic and intellectual approach to the new cut. Two options came to my mind … the angel and the devil (or vice versa?). In short: shall we just summarize the film, point out certain episodes and conceal the cuts? Or shall we make visible that this LUTHER film concert is an open reinterpretation, both aural and visual, of the original film? I was not fond of the first choice which I found ethically and artistically anemic. With the agreement of Sven Helbig and all the partners involved, the second option began to prosper. 

Divine proportions and diabolic cuts

The first thing agreed upon with Sven was that we would skip the original eight chapter articulation of the original film. In counterpart, we penned a 12-part structure that includes nine central chapters, a musical prologue, a musical epilogue and a symbolic shot that bookends the show and sets the tone for a contemporary visual and musical view on the main subject. Within this 12-part structure I managed to proportion the editing work using the golden ratio – the ancient divine proportion. According to this principle, the sequence of the nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is now located amidst two thirds of the film concert’s timeline. Such a privileged position in the narrative reinforces the bound between our film concert and its connection with this year’s 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s such defiant act.

Regarding the visual treatment of the original film footage, our reinterpretation avoids centrifugal mash-up techniques and proposes, instead, a sort of centripetal, self-fueled visual jigsaw, very respectful to the original film for very long sections. In doing so, all the visual elements that we obsessively revisit and enhance are already part of the original film: the eerie phantasmagories, the buoyant and nightmarish storms, the aching Dreyer-like close-ups of Luther’s mother - wonderfully played by Elsa Wagner - and, last but not least, the performance of Eugen Klöpfer, whose impersonation of Luther is alternatively neurotic and granitic. Closely studying Klöpfer’s paradoxical approach one can imagine the real Luther writing: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” 

To develop this imaginarium, I was very lucky to count on the collaboration of the renowned visual artist Lillevan, whose work I greatly admire. Lillevan’s participation was not be only essential to cope with the tight editing and post-production schedule. He also turned my early and rudimentary footage experiments with live video tools into stunning shots that compete in terms of beauty and strenght with Hans Kyser’s own images. His visuals infuse an abstract dimension to the project that expands both the spiritual and controversial resonances of Luther. 

In this regard, I felt that the complexity of Luther’s dimension was an invitation to place our vision in a cinematic threshold where the audience could look inside and outside the original film. In doing so, I tried to reflect and raise some questions and issues applicable to our times - yet without departing from the original footage and its volcanic potential. Some questions worked as a compass during the whole process: how do spirituality, economics and legitimating nationalism reinforce themselves? How far do we accept and incorporate revolutions, and to which extent? 

I hope that our approach is not misunderstood as an exercise of damnatio memoriae of the original film, which is now accesible thanks to a recent and necessary restoration. On the contrary, our interpretation, in connection with Sven Helbig’s music, is supposed to be a new film concert experience. Not another censored nor a mutilated version of LUTHER, but an actual companion piece to a film created almost one century ago. And what a century! One in which Martin Luther was championed by the most contrasting forces. 

Presenting LUTHER in this exciting way would have not been possible without the trust of Beate Warkentien (European FilmPhilharmonic Institute), Karen Kopp (MDR Sinfonieorchester), Undine Beier (Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv) and Annerose Schröder (Dresdner Musikfestpiele). 

[1] Extended information about the film and its production can be found in Wipfler’s erudite study Martin Luther in Motion Pictures. Vandenhoeck  & Ruprecht (Göttingen, 2011).


LUTHER (Germany, 1927, Director: Hans Kyser)

Film restoration: Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv - Evangelische Bund 2017

New cut LUTHER - A REFORMATION (2017): Fernando Carmena in collaboration with Lillevan

Music: Sven Helbig 2017