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Sitting in a jail cell awaiting his certain death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented his personal shortcomings and the tragedies of a dark age. "I am guilty of cowardly silence at a time when I ought to have spoken," he wrote in the waning days of World War II. "I am guilty of hypocrisy and untruthfulness in the face of force. I have been lacking in compassion and I have denied the poorest of my brethren. I am guilty of disloyalty and of apostasy from Christ. What does it matter to you whether others are guilty too?"

Certainly this is not the Bonhoeffer we remember and revere today. Yet this remarkable and complex man considered even his life an unworthy sacrifice for the God he loved. A tremendously gifted Lutheran theologian, Bonhoeffer wasn't widely known or honored during his too short life. But in his death, Christians have been challenged by his radical call to discipleship and inspired by his courageous martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis. Now producer and director Martin Doblmeier has translated Bonhoeffer's extraordinary life into an informative and compelling documentary.

The documentary begins with Bonhoeffer's upbringing in a middle class family living just outside Berlin. Not a particularly religious family, his parents reacted with surprise when Bonhoeffer informed them of his intent to enter ministry. In the aftermath of World War I, the German church lacked credibility because of their enthusiastic support for the failed war effort.

While in seminary, Bonhoeffer was heavily influenced by the writings of eminent Swiss theologian Karl Barth. When Bonhoeffer completed his Ph.D. at 21, Barth declared his dissertation "a theological miracle." Soon, however, Hitler's rise to power in Germany overshadowed all else. Doblmeier challenges the audience by juxtaposing Romans 13 passages on submission to government with Hitler's call for Germans to take up arms in the name of God.

Long before World War II or the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer publicly criticized Hitler for mocking God by posing himself as an idol for the downtrodden German people. But Bonhoeffer's qualms not only attracted Hitler's ire, but also pitted him against many church leaders. Like many other Germans, these church leaders were transfixed by Hitler's charisma and promises of restored German glory.

Here Doblmeier fails to adequately explain how Bonhoeffer evaded Hitler's trance. At the time, much of the German Protestant church suffered from the debilitating effects of liberal theology that distrusted the Bible and downplayed Christ's sacrifice and resurrection. They even twisted theology to incorporate Hitler's racist ideology. But Bonhoeffer, who respected biblical revelation and preached Christ's "costly grace," rejected Hitler's deadly agenda. Doblmeier does not show how Bonhoeffer came to an evangelical faith and how he differed from his church opponents.

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However, Doblmeier deftly handles the delicate issue of church contributions to the Holocaust. He properly delineates the differences between anti Judaism and anti Semitism, showing how Christians could reject Judaism but avoid veering into racism. Bonhoeffer understood this difference, and called on Christians to stand up for persecuted Jews. He proposed three options for Christian action—petition the state on behalf of the Jews, directly aid the victims, or jam themselves as a spoke in the Nazi wheel by taking whatever action necessary to stop the regime. Bonhoeffer did all three, but would go down in history for taking the third option. Despite pacifist tendencies, Bonhoeffer joined the German resistance and lent his moral credibility to those plotting Hitler's assassination. This seeming contradiction deserves examination, but Doblmeier does not provide this insight.

Bonhoeffer partially developed his activist social conscience during a pre war stint studying in New York City. He was inspired by the emotional brand of Christianity practiced by African Americans in Harlem, and empathized with their quest for equal rights. Doblmeier excels at scene setting, and expertly captures Bonhoeffer's stay in Harlem with black spirituals playing in the background. Elsewhere he transports viewers back in time with a moving recording of Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and a chilling rendition of "Silent Night," sung with the visual backdrop of a swastika topped Christmas tree.

Neither the documentary nor Bonhoeffer's life ends triumphantly. The plots to kill Hitler fail, and the Nazis jail Bonhoeffer. Only weeks before the war's end, the Nazis execute him. Even a half century later, Bonhoeffer's death still moves his surviving friends and family. Interviews with Eberhard Bethge, his best friend and biographer, and the sister of Bonhoeffer's fiancée are vibrant and illuminating.

Bonhoeffer makes effective use of limited footage, but sometimes drags through a gallery of interviews. Unfortunately historians and theologians are not the most colorful bunch. Doblmeier's film serves a noble purpose and will reaffirm the admiration of Bonhoeffer enthusiasts. Due to the inherent limitations of the documentary format, however, it may not capture the attention of a broader audience. Still, today's church needs Bonhoeffer's example and teaching, and Doblmeier's project makes a worthy contribution to our understanding of this great man.

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Bonhoeffer earlier circulated on the big screen, playing to enthusiastic audiences and critical acclaim in a limited release. With the DVD ($29.95) and VHS ($24.95) release, Bonhoeffer's story will inspire and encourage new generations of Christians.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Is it ever appropriate for Christians to actively disobey their government? (See Romans 13:1 6, Acts 4:18 20,Acts 5:27 32)

  2. Why did so many of the German pastors fail to see the problem with Hitler and the Nazis? Could we be blinded by any of the same issues?

  3. Bonhoeffer identified and challenged the injustices of Nazi Germany. What injustices need to be rectified in our society?

  4. Following Christ cost Bonhoeffer his life. When have you been persecuted for your faith?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Bonhoeffer begins with stale yet possibly disturbing images of World War II carnage, similar to what airs on a typical History Channel documentary of the era. The brief description of Bonhoeffer's execution in a concentration camp includes some graphic detail.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 09/25/03

A documentary on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to play in select cities around the country. Mainstream critics are impressed with Martin Doblmeier's re-telling of the great German theologian's incredible story, Bonhoeffer, which richly illustrates the man's life with news footage, photomontages, and interviews with some of Bonhoeffer's surviving students and family members. His complex and dramatic life story draws a stark contrast between militant Nazism and Christian compassion, as he strives to publicly discredit Hitler's views and ends up working as a double agent plotting Hitler's assassination.

The film only scratches the surface of Bonhoeffer's writings and views, and the documentarians face the usual challenges, having limited resources for the screen. But Bonhoeffer is a compelling, even suspenseful, tribute in spite of these limitations. His courageous politics and his role in history should draw in audiences that would normally shy away from biographies of Christian heroes.

Movieguide's critic says, "This documentary is must viewing for those who have faith in Jesus Christ, for those who want to see the true role of the Church in society, and for those who need to understand that we should not worship politics."

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Martin Doblmeier
Run Time
1 hour 33 minutes
Klaus Maria Brandauer, Adele Schmidt, Richard Mancini
Theatre Release
June 20, 2003 by First Run Features
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