Anabaptists: best supporting actors

Zwingli is the leading man in a new Swiss film, but Manz and Grebel — at first his allies, then his adversaries — play key roles

Feb 25, 2019 by and

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A new film dramatizing the life of Reformation leader Ulrich Zwingli is giving moviegoers a chance to see early Swiss Anabaptist leaders on the big screen — as long as they can get to Switzerland.

The Reformer: Zwingli - A Life's Portrait

The Reformer: Zwingli – A Life’s Portrait

The Reformer: Zwingli — A Life’s Portrait opened in Swiss theaters Jan. 17. Produced by Swiss studios and using Swiss-German dialect, the roughly $5.5 million, 128-minute movie was filmed in Zurich and Stein am Rhein, Germany.

It includes depictions of Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, whose heretical act of rebaptizing each other launched the Anabaptist movement and sealed their executions at the hands of Zwingli’s Reformed Church forces.

While the film is named after the dynamic Catholic priest-turned-reform­er, producers turn regularly to his eventual wife, Anna Reinhart, to lend the story context and interpersonal drama and make space for critique of his decisions. Following the Sola Scriptura Reformation doctrine, she transforms from a passive to an active woman.

“Zwingli’s revolutionary thoughts scare Anna,” notes a synopsis at zwingli-film.ch, “but when she observes how Zwingli lives charity and not only preaches, she becomes more and more enthralled.

“But Zwingli’s success quickly becomes dangerous.”

Hanspeter Jecker, president of the Swiss Society for Anabaptist History, noted in his review on the society’s website that Zwingli was a man of contradictions. Zwingli repeatedly proclaimed, “Where there is faith, there is freedom,” but this sentiment was reserved for his schism with the Catholic Church and not for the Anabaptists, who went further with their reforms than he did.

“It was interesting to see how the new Zwingli film would take up what is increasingly called the dark side of the Reformation in recent research,” wrote Jecker, also a professor at Bienenberg Theological Seminary. “This includes his continuation of compulsory church membership and denominational strife that did not shy away from violence and bloodshed, and not least of which includes the treatment of minorities such as the Anabaptists.”

Calling the film “historically coherent and inspiring,” Jecker noted Manz and Grebel are among Zwingli’s most dedicated followers when he begins preaching in German so laypeople can understand what the Bible says.

“They are happy to take up Zwingli’s statement, ‘Being a Christians means not chatting about Christ but living a life as Christ lived,” he wrote. “. . . It is Anna, who begs her husband first, and then reproaches, because he did not prevent the execution of Manz, but ‘sacrificed’ him for the sake of his own goals. . . . It is remarkable. In her critical inquiries to her husband, Anna Reinhart comes in amazingly close proximity to Anabaptist positions.”

The film’s producer, Anne Walser of C-FILMS, said the focus is currently on domestic distribution, but Globalscreen — a German firm — is preparing to introduce the film to international buyers.

“There is an English subtitled version,” she said. French and German subtitles are also in the works. “For now, no English dubbed version is planned. But maybe if we raise interest of an American distributor, this will be the case.”


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