Protestant theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi concentration camp in the waning days of WWII by a falling Third Reich seeking to avenge itself on its enemies before its final defeat. Bonhoeffer’s crime: belonging to a resistance conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler that made at least two attempts on the Fuhrer’s life, one of which nearly succeeded.
As Martin Doblmeier’s fine documentary biography shows, Bonhoeffer was not merely a silent conspirator, but an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime — one of the only German Christian voices that dared to openly oppose Hitler’s National Socialist Worker party. At a time when the established churches in Germany, both Protestant and Catholic, were silent, Bonhoeffer and others including Karl Barth and Martin Niemoeller founded the breakaway Confessing Church.
Interviews with surviving contemporaries including relatives and colleagues, analysis from theologians and Christian leaders, and a blend of new and period photography are employed to reconstruct Bonhoeffer’s life and times. Actor Klaus Maria Brandauer provides voiceover characterization for excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s writing, helping create a sense of the man’s personality.
One of the film’s virtues is that it examines Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in an expressly theological light, from his early influences (Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr) to his eye-opening ecumenical and interreligious experiences (exposure to American black gospel worship opened Bonhoeffer’s eyes to the academic quality of his own tradition, and he studied nonviolence under Gandhi).
Bonhoeffer’s christocentrism and evangelical outlook, his ideas about the church, and his antithesis of “cheap grace” and “costly grace” are as integral to the film’s portrait as his resistance work. More precisely, Bonhoeffer is interested in the relationship of the two.
At a time when Lutheran tradition effectively neutralized the radical ethics of the Sermon on the Mount by reducing it to an impossible standard to convict men of sin, Bonhoeffer argued that Jesus really wished us to live that way. At first a committed pacifist, Bonhoeffer later began to regard ethics not as a fixed set of rules but as an attempt to follow Christ in one’s own unique circumstances.
Bonhoeffer, which was funded in part by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign, deals briefly and fairly with the Catholic Church’s 1933 concordat with the Nazis, explaining that at that early date the full extent of subsequent Nazi atrocities was unguessed, and Church leaders supposed that Hitler would to some extent be bound by Christian principles.
The appalling image of Catholic clergy making the Nazi salute is unfortunately not balanced by any discussion of Catholic resistance, though of course the film is not about Catholicism. Certainly there is no attempt to soften the extent of Lutheran complicity; in fact, one theologian interviewed goes so far as to implicate Martin Luther’s own virulent theological antisemitism, not for Hitler’s Aryan racism itself, certainly, but for the level of receptiveness to Hitler’s message in the German Lutheran churches.
Toward the end Bonhoeffer notes the seeming oddity of the prominence of its subject, whose celebrity today may seem from one perspective disproportionate to his importance as a theologian and ecumenist and certainly as a relatively unimportant conspirator in a failed assassination attempt. Yet as another 20th-century saint once said, “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.” Bonhoeffer was faithful to the giving of his own life, which he did as willingly and serenely as any martyr.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.