Rated NR. Our content rating: Violence 2 ; Language 0 ; Sex/Nudity 1
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
The thing that keeps coming back to me is, what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ, for us today?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, LETTERS & PAPERS FROM PRISON, April 30, 1944
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Millions of believers still read and cherish the words of the courageous martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Perhaps only Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr have had as much influence on modern theology and the church as this German pastor–and both of them were connected to him. Thanks to the PBS special many people will learn some of the details of his life and of the dangerous times out of which he forged his theology.
Ulrich Tukur’s portrayal shows both the seriousness of the pastor-theologian and the saving grace of his humor, the latter which was but one of the many attributes that drew all sorts of men and women to him. (At the end of his life he even made friends with the fellow prisoner Vassily Kokorin (Denis Burgazliev), nephew to the famous Russian leader Molotov.)
The film takes up the story when Bonhoeffer had come to the United States for the second time. Eight years earlier he had come as a student, now he was at Union Theological Seminary in New York City as a guest lecturer. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others had enabled the rising young theologian to come to this country because they feared that he would join the many Germans who had been arrested and killed because of their anti-Nazi views.
Bonhoeffer is impressed with the vitality of the Negro church and music (including secular music–there is a delightful scene in which he accompanies on the piano himself and his black friend Frank (Blu Mankuma) in a rendition of “Yo Feet’s Too Big”), but as he thinks about the deteriorating situation in Germany, he tells his friends that he cannot ride out the war in safety and then be able to face his fellow Germans after the war.
Back in Germany Bonhoeffer throws himself into the anti-Hitler movement. Through his brother-in-law Hans (Ulrich Noethen) he becomes a courier, able to meet with church leaders in neutral countries such as Sweden and Switzerland. Through flash-backs we see his teaching at the underground seminary, which provided the incentive for his writing The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, his meeting and engagement with Maria Von Wedemeyer (Johanna Klante).
The film is especially good at depicting Bonhoeffer’s ethical struggles with the necessity for lying and for joining in a plot that included assassination. An admirer of Gandhi and his non-violent tactics against the British, Bonhoeffer had planned to stay with the great Indian leader at his ashram, but matters in Germany would not permit this. The pastor at first rejects his brother-in-law’s invitation to join in the plot to remove the Nazi dictator, but as he studies the photographs of executions and mass slaughter perpetrated by Nazi forces, he becomes convinced that a lesser evil, the killing of one man, must be entered into in order to prevent thousands of more deaths. He also argues that in order to save the life of Jews and others, it is morally necessary to lie to the authorities who would kill them. Bonhoeffer sees no escape for Christians into a morally pure piety removed from the world.
BONHOEFFER: Agent of Grace (#4638D), 90 minutes) is available for $15.99 from Vision Video, P.O. Box 540 | Worcester, PA 19490. (800)523-0226
Note: Be sure to see my review of the PBS documentary Bonhoeffer, which provides even more details of this courageous man’s life, theology and lasting influence.