'Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.' "The Cost of Discipleship" Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who studied and preached during one of the most tumultuous and violent times in his country's history - the years before and during World War II. What distinguished this religious scholar from the rest of his contemporary intellectuals was his staunch, unremitting vocal resistance against Adolph Hitler, the Nazis and their murderous doctrine. American documentary filmmaker Martin Doblmeier brings the little known story of this courageous man to the screen with "Bonhoeffer."
Bonhoeffer, as a young student, lost his eldest brother to the ravages of World War One. This occurrence, and the righteous deity evoked by each nation that used the Lord's name to justify the unimaginable carnage, colored the vision of the budding theological. Born into a distinctly non-religious but ethical family Dietrich attained his doctorate in his chosen field by age 21. As the Nazi party rose to political prominence in Germany Bonhoeffer accepted a teaching fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he followed the teachings of his fellow countryman Reinhold Niebuhr. A black classmate and friend brought him into contact in Harlem with Adam Clayton Powell Sr., a man who preached the progressive social involvement of the church within in the community. When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in the early '30s his exposure to the power of spirituality and faith in the black church energized him at home, bringing him into direct conflict with Adolph Hitler.
Bonhoeffer's philosophy of the responsibility of the church gained a small, almost militant following in his native land even as the formal clergy kowtowed to Hitler who promised the Church immunity when the Nazis take power, at the price of their non-interference in state policy. In 1934, two days after Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer denounced the regime in a radio broadcast - only to be cut off before he finished. This set the tone of the cleric's own form of passive resistance against the "Aryan clause" which outlawed contact with Jews in any shape or form. He became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, an organization that broke the silence over the parent church's tolerance of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer left Germany for America, once again, after the Gestapo closed his radical church. But, he was to return on the eve of World War Two, feeling "I have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulations of this time with my people."
Bonhoeffer's rigid pacifism - he was to study with Gandhi at one point but his needed presence at home precluded the opportunity - became more and more tempered as he saw the evil that Adolph Hitler and the Nazis imparted upon the German people and that the destruction of this monster was a necessity. He worked as a secret member of the resistance as an Abwehr (military intelligence) officer within the Germany army. He was also a key participant in many of the assassination plots against Hitler, including the disastrous July 1944 attempt that ended with thousands put to death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of these victims and was hanged in the Flossenburg concentration camp on 9 April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
This tale of the courage of one man for so long against ultimately insurmountable odds is a solid bit of documentary making by Doblmeier. He intersperses many rare photos from the Bonhoeffer family archives, vintage footage of historical events, interviews with students and friends and with various historical experts who discuss the man's philosophies and his treatises, The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison. Actor Klaus Maria Brandauer gives voice to the short passage of the works, giving extra meaning to the theologian's words.
Doblmeier's work is most interesting when discussing the principles of religious development in a world just flipped on its ear by World War One. The German clergy's religious philosophies that gave the country the God-given "right" to wage war were tempering toward pacifism even as the evil of Nazidom descends upon Europe. The intellectual insights of the enlightened teachings of the time, though, are put on hold as the chronology of Bonhoeffer's life is told. It is staid, reliable documentary filmmaking but it loses ground with the transitions between historical document of the times and the personal and professional life of the title character.
"Bonhoeffer" is a sometimes-fascinating piece of historical work, especially for the amateur scholars interested in all things about the rise and fall of the Nazis, but loses steam when it shifts to the courageous, bland life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I give it a B-.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born to a wealthy family in Breslau who were not avid churchgoers. His integrity, intellectual insights and standing with the ecumenical church marked him as a spiritual leader at a very young age, yet this pacificist was executed at Flossenbürg in 1945 as part of the conspiracy to kill Adolph Hitler. Director and narrator Martin Doblmeier examines his extraordinary life in "Bonhoeffer."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man who made a radio speech against National Socialism at the age of 26, studied internationally, including a stint with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, was a founder, along with Martin Niemueller and Karl Barth, of the Confessing Church, and used his international contacts as a courier in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, yet Doblmeier's dry documentary rarely breathes life into the man, making him come off like a fringe player in the underground anti-Nazi movement.
With camera roving over still photographs, we're given the standard birth data and historical context. Talking head interviews include the likes of Bonhoeffer's niece, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bonhoeffer's former student and great friend Eberhard Bethge, who published Bonhoeffer's prison letters after his death (Bonhoeffer's words are voiced by Klaus Maria Brandauer).
Director and narrator Martin Doblmeier is at a disadvantage due to a lack of moving images of Bonhoeffer, although he does give a good account of the man's forward thinking as regards a collective Christian church. From his PhD dissertation, 'Sanctorum Communio,' Bonhoeffer queries 'When the community split, was Christ himself divided?' Later, when the Confessing Church formed a seminary at Finkenwalde, his students were at first amused, then enthused, about the spirituals Bonhoeffer brought back from Harlem (Bonhoeffer found many parallels between the oppressed Blacks of American and the European Jews).
There is effective use of Hitler footage. Doblmeier culls speeches where Hitler uses religious terms to inspire fervor, speaking of the salvation of the German people, for example. Bonhoeffer at first responds with comments about leaders making idols of themselves, thus mocking God. Because of his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi's position as Special Assistant to the Reich Minister of Justice, the Bonhoeffer family were among the first to learn of the horrifying fates of the Jews. Four members of the family, including Dietrich, became members of the vast conspiracy to kill Hitler - they almost succeeded, but instead lost their own lives.
Doblmeier finally attains some emotional resonance relaying Bonhoeffer's last years. He had become engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of a Bismarck Finkenwalde patron. Their love letters were published by Maria's sister, Ruth Alice von Bismarck, who describes their final meeting in Flossenbürg where Maria defied the Nazis orders to not touch him, running past guards to fling her arms around his neck.
The documentary "Bonhoeffer" is certainly interesting due to its subject, but not very cinematic or emotionally engaging. While the film itself is less than inspiring, it does work to propel the viewer to discover more about this heroic, deeply moral man.
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