Luther ascends his pulpit, hindered by cramps, in 1525, during the Peasants’ Revolt. A wounded knight wheels in a fallen comrade, celebrates Luther’s accomplishments but accuses him of abandoning his supporters. Luther denies this, and the knight wipes blood across Luther’s white surplice.
The film recaps to the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1506, when Luther becomes a monk. The knight explains Luther sought to protect himself from demons and excelled in the “counsels of perfection” to suppress internal doubt. Luther serves food, cleans latrines, washes dishes, shivers in bed, and paces in prayer, saying, “I am afraid of the darkness and the hole in it … and there’s no bottom to it!” Overwhelmed by his sinfulness, he leaves the stalls of chanting monks and collapses. The knight reports he dealt with doubts by “dropping them” into his bowels, i.e., becoming constipated.
Before the first mass in which he officates, Brother Weinand tells him his father will attend and, in vesting Luther, has him confess the Apostles’ Creed, repeating “the forgiveness of sins”, to tell him that “God isn’t angry with you. It is you that are angry with him.”
Luther imagines Jesus as a fearsome judge on a rainbow with an admonitory sword. In the mass, he appears forgetful. Hans Luther scolds him for failing to honor father and mother when he left law to enter the convent and says he believes Luther is murdering himself. Luther says a vision moved him to promise St. Anne to become a monk and felt closest to his father.
The knight comments: “So the praising ended, and the blasphemy began.” Johann Tetzel preaches indulgences with pomp, claiming they would provide forgiveness even if one offered violence to the Virgin Mary. Luther meets his mentor Vicar General Johann von Staupitz who accuses him of resenting authority and making it ridiculous by meticulous observance of monastic rule. Staupitz urges him to critique the church in Latin rather than German to avoid encouraging revolt.
Luther preaches on the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, recalling he discovered the gospel of justification by faith alone while on the latrine. He declares someone has to “bell the cat,” and posts his Ninety-five Theses. Confronted by Tetzel and Thomas Cardinal Cajetan de Vio at Augsburg in 1518, Cajetan warns that, if Luther does not retract his “errors and sermons”, Christian unity would fall. Luther refuses, and Cajetan concludes, “That man hates himself, and if he goes to the stake, Tetzel, you can inscribe it: ‘he could only love others.'”
Luther burns the pope’s bull Exsurge Domine and has a fit. Praying, he reminds God he is fighting his cause and wonders if God is dead, but concludes God cannot die but only hide.
In the Diet of Worms, Inquisitor Johann Eck confronts Luther, interrupting his “Here I Stand” speech to warn greedy commoners would be incited to revolt if Luther does not recant. Luther refuses, and the knight exults that Luther could have led a successful revolt but disgustedly recounts Luther advocated the rebels’ extermination in his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. As Luther declaims this, the emperor and princes leave to repress the revolt.
Luther wanders through a devastated marketplace of slaughtered peasants, responding: “God is the butcher. Address your abuse to him.” and references the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, concluding God gives life in the face of death.
Confronted by Staupitz, visiting Martin and his wife Katie, Luther admits the peasants had cause but that mobs are irreligious. Staupitz is relieved to hear Luther was unsure at Worms. Luther prays, “Help my unbelief.” Luther asserts that passing air in the devil’s face wards him off: going from being anal retentive to being anal expulsive shows one has overcome one’s doubts and fears. Luther takes Katie’s baby into his pulpit and assures him that “the dark isn’t quite as thick as all that,” that they should hope that Christ will be true to his word, “A little while and you’ll not see me, and then again a little and you shall see me” (John 16:16).