Thematic Series

The Reformation through a Red Lens

1517 — Martin Luther — 2017

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses. His critique of the practice of selling indulgences (to absolve people of their sins) questioned the very foundations of the church and medieval society and set into motion the Protestant Reformation. Emboldened by Luther’s ideas and radicalized by Thomas Müntzer, the serfs in German-speaking lands rose up against the injustices they faced in the Peasants’ War of 1524-25. 


In East Germany, the Reformation and the German Peasants’ War were seen as a sort of pre-communist, popular movement for civil and human rights. These historic events were thus central themes of films made at the DEFA Film Studios. Such productions were often tied to anniversaries of the events or birthdays of prominent people involved in them; those produced from the 1950s to the 1970s, in particular, supported the official interpretation of an early “communist revolution” in Germany. 


Over the course of its history, the DEFA Studios produced fourteen films on the Reformation: six feature films (biopics and children’s films), and eight animation and documentary films. Their makers increasingly tried to weave their personal associations and critical perspectives into these films. This was especially true of the biopics about artists, which often focused on the relationship between art and power in medieval times… and allowed for references to cultural and political situations facing art and artists in contemporary East Germany.


The Reformation through a Red Lens now brings these fourteen films together, offering insight into this important and under-researched theme in East German cinema. 


Please note that, while most of these films have been restored by the DEFA Foundation, only some are available with English subtitles. We nevertheless feel it is important to make these films available for research and rental, in light of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, as well as related new research on Reformation and the Peasants’ War.

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