Posted July 15, 2003
'Bonhoeffer': A Man Who Took a StandBy Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2003; Page WE39
IT'S the kind of stirring moment you can only imagine: In 1930, a young German man comes to New York for a teaching fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary. He teaches Sunday school at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church in his spare time. When he attends his first service at the church, he witnesses the utter devotion in the congregation, the sheer passion of religion. For the Berliner, this is what religion should be.
He takes that conviction with him to Germany, where virtually the entire religious establishment will soon embrace Nazism. As we learn in "Bonhoeffer," a documentary produced, directed and narrated by Martin Doblmeier, that young man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian whose conscience and actions would lead him to the gallows.
Bonhoeffer, born to a family of doctors, considered the church the manifestation of God on earth. He inveighed constantly against the comfort of theory, demanding that he -- and all Christians -- practice what Christ preached. In particular, he was affected by the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus declares the meek shall inherit the earth. As Hitler's killing machine began its work, it was clear enough to Bonhoeffer who those meek ones were. It was also clear that he should speak out and demand that Christians stand with Jews in the face of overwhelming intimidation.
An inspiring and brave man, Bonhoeffer's led a life that was fertile ground for a documentary. But Doblmeier is clearly restricted by what footage he has -- or doesn't have.
Unfortunately, he's forced to rely on photographs rather than film footage, on talking heads (Bonhoeffer's friends, former students, family and other observers) rather than actual scenes.
Thus, we do not witness that evocative scene in Harlem and cannot see Bonhoeffer's impassioned speeches. We must listen to professional actor Klaus Maria Brandauer's readings of his writings. We hear from family members, historians and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, plus Bonhoeffer's friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge. What we get is not a movie of his life so much as an account from others.
The movie is earnest, dutiful and hagiographic but hardly a stirring presentation. Yet there is a story here, of a courageous man who brazenly criticized Hitler in a radio address; who was part of a group of priests who left the Evangelical Church to live and pray at their own seminary at Finkenwalde; and who joined his brother, Klaus, and others in an attempt to assassinate Hitler.
As we know, the plot failed and the perpetrators paid with their lives, Bonhoeffer included. The pastor was hanged less than a month before the end of the war, when the Nazis were finally stopped.
Perhaps it makes things more poignant that we're not delivered the evocative pictorial moments on a Spielberg entertainment plate. Perhaps there's something better about having to listen to this story of bravery. After all, Bonhoeffer was a man who refused the chance to escape to the United States. On the eve of World War II, he returned to New York, only to decide it wasn't right to leave his country when he was most needed. This last act was surely moral courage of the finest order. And whatever form the movie takes, it's right and fitting that such a life gets our attention.
BONHOEFFER (Unrated, 90 minutes) -- Contains accounts of crimes against humanity. In English and German with subtitles. At the Avalon Theatre.
'Bonhoeffer': Thou Shalt Kill
The Parable of the Theologian Who Decided Hitler Had to DieBy Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2003; Page C05
At some point, in any serious debate about pacifism or the death penalty, the Hitler question comes up. It's always wrong to go to war? Well, what about Hitler? The death penalty is never justified? Well, what about Hitler?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German cleric and theologian, considered the Hitler question not in the abstract, but in the most real and direct way. As a quiet member of a well-heeled resistance cell that plotted to kill the Nazi dictator, he grappled with the moral and theological implications of using violence to stop violence. He and his conspirators, whose efforts are documented in "Bonhoeffer," a new documentary by Martin Doblmeier, failed to stop the Nazi mayhem, and ended up paying with their lives; but in their courageous acts they left behind a small testament to a little bit of decency in a world of evil.
And in Bonhoeffer's writing, there remains a remarkable picture of a mind trying to reconcile the ethical dimensions of Christianity with the miserable facts of the 20th century. Sitting in a Nazi prison, from 1943 to 1945, Bonhoeffer kept faith, despite the knowledge that organized Christianity had failed absolutely and utterly to ward off an evil of incalculable dimensions. He produced sermons, letters and notes for a book later completed by a friend. He sketched the outlines of a more ethical activist, committed, in-the-world Christianity, free of totalitarian corruption, and the vast, horrifying complacency of the established churches that collaborated with the Nazis.
Even more astonishing, throughout the long Hitler years, Bonhoeffer remained deeply optimistic about the possibility of rebuilding goodness in a shattered world. "It is wiser to be pessimistic," he wrote in a short essay called "After Ten Years." But he continued, chastising those who despaired: "They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations."
That little essay has almost cult status among theology geeks, a 20th-century rainy-day pick-me-up to place beside Boethius's 6th-century Consolation of Philosophy. It is a goad to the activist mind, a reminder, from someone who knew all too well, that the only moment that matters, historically, is the present moment, which means that mulling right action and bolstering courage to some future end, are often just ways of shirking duty.
Doblmeier's documentary captures Bonhoeffer's gradual evolution from ideological distaste for the Nazis to active resistance. It also reveals the ambiguous and sometimes feckless behavior of his brethren in the Confessing Church, a splinter group that resisted Hitler's efforts to purge German churches of converted Jews. The church, the film notes, remained silent on Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage against Jews in November 1938, and one senses Bonhoeffer's shame about his people's lapse into quietude: "Are we still of any use?" he asked.
Yet as things got worse and it became more and more clear that Hitler was running Germany, and Europe, off a cliff, Bonhoeffer became involved with the assassination plot. It seems he used his contacts outside of Germany, and his freedom to travel, in service of the conspirators. The film is vague about how deeply he was involved and what, precisely, he did, suggesting that his biggest contribution may have been the ethical gravitas of being a respected pastor. But in Nazi Germany, any involvement, even moral support, was a grave risk, and Bonhoeffer eventually fell under suspicion. He was arrested and, after a briefcase bomb failed to kill Hitler in July 1944, he was connected to the conspiracy and hanged.
Doblmeier's film failed to make the cut at last winter's Sundance Festival, and it's easy to see why. It is frumpy filmmaking, a sedate splicing together of black-and-white Nazi footage and interviews with elderly relatives and friends of Bonhoeffer's. It's so dully History Channel in presentation that at first you don't realize that the level of the interviews is uncommonly higher than most made-for-TV documentaries. There is both spiritual and historical substance in the things said, and such obvious reverence for the subject, that the film ultimately has a charming charmlessness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is interviewed, as is Christoph von Dohnanyi, a nephew of Bonhoeffer. The film is so earnest in its unsplashy devotion to Bonhoeffer, that no mention is made of the fact that von Dohnanyi is one of the most famous and respected conductors in the world today.
Bonhoeffer (93 minutes, at the Avalon) is unrated.