Bonhoeffer: The Movie

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[1] Year after year, decade after decade, the star of Dietrich Bonhoeffer seems to grow brighter and brighter. The impact of this inspiring martyr of the church struggle in Germany and throughout all of Europe in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s is most surely undiminished in the early years of the 21st Century.

[2] The publication by Augsburg Fortress of seventeen volumes of Bonhoeffer’s writing continues unabated (six volumes are now in print in English — Life Together, Discipleship, Creation and Fall, Act and Being, Fiction from Prison, The Communion of Saints). These volumes themselves should insure the ongoing and steady influence of Bonhoeffer for decades to come.

[3] Significant also is the production of several films, both documentary and novelish, which portray pictorially the life and legacy of the German pastor – professor – resister – and martyr for a global population, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

[4] The documentary film, Bonhoeffer, produced by Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films, Alexandria, Virginia, has been playing to enthusiastic audiences across America. Seven years in the making, the ninety minute production sets the life of Bonhoeffer in a precise historical context. This is surely one of its primary strengths, employing the use of ample footage from the days of the Third Reich. The rising crescendo of Hitler’s power, the remarkable economic recovery from the ashes of World War I, the expansion of the military in direct defiance of the Versailles Treaty, the curtailing of civil rights, the oppression of the Jews, the suppression of dissident voices, comprise the background screen for the unfolding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, as well as that of the whole Bonhoeffer family and their contemporaries. Lively film clips of the Bonhoeffers, as well as prominent church leaders such as Karl Barth, Martin Niemoeller, Reinhold Niebuhr, Adam Clayton Powell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin enrich the documentary throughout.

[5] The persons interviewed throughout the film represent a kaleidoscope of “Bonhoeffer people.” prominent among them are members of the Bonhoeffer family:

Sabine Leibholz, Dietrich’s twin sister

Marianne Leibholz, her daughter

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich’s best friend and biographer, married to his niece Renate

Christopher von Dohnanyi, nephew

Ruth von Bismarck, sister of Maria, Dietrich’s fiancée.

[6] Several former students, now in their 90’s share their razor-sharp memories and impressions – Inge Sembritzki – Karding, Albert Schönherr, Winfried Maechler, and Otto Dudzus. Also shown is Dietrich’s close French friend from his Union Theological Seminary Days, Jean Lasserre. The roster of commentators represents the core of Bonhoeffer scholars from Germany, South Africa, and the United States: Geffrey B. Kelly, Clifford Green, Victoria Barnett, Josiah Young, Christian Gremmels. Their comments serve to reveal the profound facets of the Bonhoeffer story – his family and educational background, his keen grasp of biblical and theological truth, his discernment that the ideologies of Nazism and Christianity were ultimately incompatible, his involvement in the resistance movement, his two year prison confinement, climaxing in his martyrdom in the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp.

[7] It was an unforgettable privilege to have been one of the consultants to this film, including the experience of being just a few feet away from the camera for several of the interviews. Especially sharp is the memory of spending three days in the home of Eberhard and Renate Bethge in Villiprott, Germany (near Bonn). In his upper 80s, Dr. Bethge’s step was slowing, his vitality lessened, his speech sometimes somewhat blurred. When he was on camera, however, for hours at a time, he spoke about his close friend and confidante, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with confidence, power and liveliness. Since the film’s completion, he has died at the age of 90. Others who are no longer with us are Sabine Leibholz, Jean Lasserre, and Otto Dudzus.

[8] I believe sincerely that Martin Doblmeier has done a yeoman’s job in producing this noteworthy film. It was no surprise to me that when it showed in Chicago for a week in April, 2003 followed by two weeks in July, it received a rating of 3.5 stars (out of 4). Eventually, the film will be show on national PBS, and later will become available in video cassette. Few viewers can see Bonhoeffer without being profoundly moved!