This new documentary on German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer features more than grainy black-and-white footage of Hitler, “Achtung Juden” signs and book burnings—though those images are always unsettling.
The result is an informative and complex portrait of one of the 20th century’s most interesting figures.
Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier opts to tell Bonhoeffer’s story in chronological order, from his birth in Breslau, Germany, in 1906, to his execution at the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just a few weeks before the war in Europe ended.
The film spends a few moments on Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria von Wedemeyer, to whom he was engaged when he was executed, but it does not focus on their relationship.
Instead, his professional activities garner more attention. The film doesn’t overtly praise Bonhoeffer, but it doesn’t have to. A simple explanation of the facts of this man’s life reveals that Bonhoeffer’s mind and soul were conflicted, and through this conflict emerged a life worthy of that Sermon on the Mount that so haunted it.
The documentary delivers some familiar facts about Bonhoeffer, but it moves relatively quickly into other facts bearing on Bonhoeffer’s theological trajectory: the death of his brother in World War I; political dinnertime conversations at the Bonhoeffer house; and the fact that Bonhoeffer’s experience of the church growing up wasn’t especially positive.
The documentary really begins to focus here on Bonhoeffer’s conception of the church as the backbone of his social consciousness. In his thesis at the University of Berlin, Bonhoeffer defined the church as “the physical manifestation of Christ on earth—Christ existing as community.” The narrator points out that Bonhoeffer’s thesis wasn’t so much about the church as about the human community and how humans related to each other.
As Bonhoeffer later wrote to friend Eberhard Bethge, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” Caring for one another was a recurring theme in Bonhoeffer’s work, as the documentary makes clear.
Of course, one of the things that make Bonhoeffer so compelling is his struggle with gospel interpretations of violence. His thinking was influenced by his friendship with Frenchman (and pacifist) Jean Lasserre, who says in the documentary that warfare goes against gospel ethics, but in the guise of defending one’s country, most people suspend those ethics.
Lasserre’s focus on the Sermon on the Mount also resonated with Bonhoeffer, who would later write:
“I think I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and sincerity by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. This is the only source of strength that can blow all this nonsense [Nazism] sky high. The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism which will have nothing in common with the old, but the life and appearance of the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”
Doblmeier spends a fair amount of time contextualizing Bonhoeffer’s work and thought, especially as they related to German politics of the era. With Hitler rising to power and becoming Germany’s chancellor in January 1933, the church became more subservient to the state, which Bonhoeffer found disheartening and prompted his involvement in the Confessing Church.
Embedded in Bonhoeffer’s story—and in this documentary—is the conflict between Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Christ’s words and life, and the path of resistance to Hitler that Bonhoeffer felt compelled to follow.
The documentary reveals this conflict beautifully in the telling of a story about Bonhoeffer, getting ready to set sail for America, suddenly asking his seminary students at Finkenwalde if they thought God would grant absolution to the murderer of a tyrant. Bonhoeffer was already involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, unbeknown to his students.
The film touches on some other interesting aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and work: that he was invited to visit Gandhi, but eventually declined in order to direct the Confessing Church’s new seminary at Finkenwalde; and that after he was imprisoned, he developed a code to communicate with family and friends by putting miniscule dots under various letters in words in books.
The list of interviewees is impressive, as it includes Bonhoeffer’s niece Marianne Liebholz and nephew Christoph von Dohnanyi. Also featured is Bonhoeffer’s former student and best friend, Eberhard Bethge, who died in 2000 and to whom this film is dedicated.
Other interviewees include theologians Clifford Green, Christian Gremmels and John de Gruchy, historians John Conway, Victoria Barnett and Peter Hoffman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former students Otto Dudzes, Winfried Maechler and Inge Sembritzki.
All in all, viewers will be exposed to central linkages between Bonhoeffer’s faith and political action, and they will understand the context for Bonhoeffer’s decisions. The film, as a whole, meditates on a life desperately bound to Christ, and the price that Bonhoeffer willingly paid for that bond.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
To get ordering or screening information for your church or organization, visit First Run/Icarus Films.