review by Dan Lybarger, 20 June 2003

Skim 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.

Bonhoeffer’s 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.

Thankfully, 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.

Acts 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.

Doblmeier 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.

The 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 Jews. 

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.

Despite 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.

In 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

Read the interview.

Directed by:
Eric Till

Ulrich Tukur
Johanna Klante
Robert Joy
R.H. Thomson
Tatjana Blacher
Ulrich Noethen
Susanne Lothar
Richard Partington
Dominique Horwitz
Justus von Dohnanyi
Rosemarie Fendel
Christian Goebel
Blu Mankuma
Dieter Kirchlechner
Christian Doermer

Written by:
Gareth Jones
Eric Till

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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