This review originally appeared in the September 2003 VP.
Documentary, Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.
Our star rating (1-5) 5
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Director/writer Martin Doblmeier’s film brings together history, theology and biography in an unforgettable way in his study of the German martyr-theologian. Even those who have studied the writings of this fascinating man will discover something new in the film, such as the rare footage from the Bonhoeffer family’s home movies. Scenes of Hitler’s rise to power are intercut with photos of Dietrich and his family—especially bizarre is the scene in which the dictator gives a prayer, and another one in which he shaking hands with various clerics. Numerous passages from Bonhoeffer’s writings are read by actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, and there are numerous interviews with his former students; with Ruth Alice von Bismarck, the sister of Bonhoeffer’s fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer; and, of course, with his best friend and biographer. Eberhard Bethge. We are indebted to the filmmaker for the latter interview, as Dr. Eberhard died shortly after the film was made. Several current theologians make comments, the best of which comes from a man who also knew persecution for his stand against racist tyranny, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Americans will especially be interested in the young German’s experience during his study at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He and African American colleague Frank Fisher became good friends, Bonhoeffer attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church where he heard the great preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and the Negro Spirituals sung by church and choir. He even taught Sunday school there. All this deepened his commitment to social justice concerns when he returned to Germany, where he recognized the danger of National Socialism and its leader. When Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer spoke against him on the radio and was cut off before he could finish. Through the years he fought against those in his church who wanted to cooperate with the Nazis and go along with their program of excluding the Jews. Bonhoeffer’s own failure in this area is frankly admitted in the incident in which he turned down a request from his sister. She had married Gerhard Leibholz, a converted Jew, and when the elder Leibholz died, his son and sister asked Dietrich to conduct the funeral. Even though they were Christians, Nazi racial laws banned them from church and public life, so Dietrich consulted with his church superintendent as to what he should do. The advice was to refuse to do the service lest it jeopardize his position, and Dietrich complied. Later he regretted his decision so much that he sought his sister and brother-in-law’s forgiveness. The film also goes into the other major decision which turned out to be right, though costly, Bonhoeffer’s deciding to leave the safety of Union Seminary in 1939 and return to be with his colleagues in Germany.
The film affords many glimpses into Bonhoeffer’s thoughts, such as its recounting of the terrible events of November 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht because of all the smashed windows of Jewish shops and synagogues smashed by Nazi goons. Even the Confession Church remained silent over this horrific incident, but Bonhoeffer, the following day, wrote in the margin of his Bible the date November 10, 1938 (the only date marked in his Bible) next to the words of Psalm 74, verse 8: “They said in their hearts, let us plunder their goods! They burn all the houses of God in the land . . . O God, how long is the foe to scoff? How long will the enemy revile your name?”
The story of his using his position in German Counterintelligence to travel abroad with reports of what was going on in Germany, and of his deciding to lay aside his pacifist scruples and join in the assassination against Hitler is compelling, no matter how many times we hear it. As we hear of the last few days in prison and then the details of his execution, we cannot help but wish the Allied armies had arrived a week earlier.
Those of us in seminary in the Sixties were raised, so to speak, on Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially the incomplete, provocative musings of his Letters and Papers From Prison, but most of us learned just the bare-boned facts of his life. Martin Doblmeier’s film fills in the gaps of his life for us oldsters, and at the same time introduces this compelling theologian-martyr to a new generation. The film demonstrates ably that theology is not something you just study, but is something you do. The film is slowly making its way around the country, so keep on the lookout for it—and contact your area art theater and encourage the manager to book it.
Here are two excellent websites to learn even more about this “man for all seasons:”
http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/ The International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society, English section homepage. Information on research, recent publications, and the progress of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works project.
http://www.ushmm.org/bonhoeffer/index.html The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s WebPages on Bonhoeffer.
Also, you might want to see the excellent fictionalized biography reviewed in these pages a few years back, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace. Originally shown on PBS, the 90-minute film is available from Vision Video. In fact, these good folk also offer Hanged On a Twisted Cross, also a good documentary. Vision Video, PO Box 540, Worcester PA, 19490 | 1(800)523-0226 | firstname.lastname@example.org