review by Dan
Lybarger, 20 June 2003
through the theology section of any Borders or Barnes & Noble
bookstore, you’ll find dozens of books by or about Dietrich
Bonhoeffer. The Lutheran theologian, who died in 1945 at the age of
thirty-nine, had a series of astonishing achievements and insights
during his short life. Books like The
Cost of Discipleship and Ethics
examined the role of the Christian Church and its relationship to
the modern world and are required texts in seminaries nearly fifty
years after his death.
actions, however, are even more intriguing than his theories and
texts. Compelled by his beliefs against war and racial intolerance,
he was one of the earliest and staunchest German opponents of the
Nazis, helped smuggle Jews to safety and was eventually executed for
his part in a series of attempts to kill Adolf Hitler.
He opposed the injustices of the Third Reich when many of the
German churches were too afraid or appeared to be endorsing the
Nazis. It’s easy to view him as both a hero and a martyr, and
Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary, Bonhoeffer,
does nothing to dispel that image.
Doblmeier examines his subject in a thorough and clear-headed manner
that’s worthy of the subject. In many ways, seeing Bonhoeffer’s
human side makes the theologian seem even braver and his ideas seem
more relevant. For example, when Bonhoeffer was asked to speak at a
funeral for the father of his Jewish brother-in-law, he, advised by
fearful Lutheran Church officials, declined. It was a decision he
later deeply regretted.
like this one were atypical. Without the state support that most
churches in Germany received, Bonhoeffer helped found the Confessing
Church denomination and even spoke against Hitler on national radio
the day after Hitler became Chancellor. The film also addresses how
Bonhoeffer was able to reconcile his pacifist views with
participating in an assassination plot.
vividly illustrates how the religious world in the first half of the
twentieth century helped shape Bonhoeffer’s views and deeds.
Whereas German churches had fervently supported the first World War,
Bonheoffer, who lost an older brother in the conflict, viewed war as
anathema to Christ’s example and teachings. The director also
explores the actual nature of Anti-Semitism in German churches and
how it evolved.
film also demonstrates the surprising influence of his brief stay in
the United States. Studying in New York during the 1930s, Bonhoeffer
was bothered by how whites would attend black churches and applaud
the choirs but would deny members of the congregation their civil
rights once the services were over. Returning to Germany, he saw
clear parallels between American racism and the persecution of the
tone of Bonhoeffer is
reverent, if a bit overly staid. Fortunately, Bonhoeffer’s ideas
are so intriguing, and his story so engrossing that more
experimental documentary techniques might have been distracting.
the film’s ninety-minute length, Doblmeier presents an astonishing
amount of detail. The interviewees include Bonhoeffer’s students
and his surviving relatives and friends as well as contemporary
theologians who do a fine job of explaining the lasting impact of
his theological advances. Doblemeier also quotes extensively from
Bonhoeffer’s own writings, which are nicely read by Austrian actor
Klaus Maria Brandauer. Doblemeier even includes some intriguing
testimony from the South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond
Tutu, who recalls the similarities between his personal struggles
against Apartheid with Bonhoeffer’s.
addition to the diligence with which the documentarian has examined
his life, Bonhoeffer himself might have been proud of how Doblmeier
initially presented his film. When the official Sundance festival
rejected the movie, Doblmeier drew crowds to the film and attracted
the attention of distributors by showing it – where else -- at
some of the Park City, Utah churches