Culled from an array of archival footage, on-location shooting, dramatic narration, and interviews with family, friends, and historians, the documentary Bonhoeffer strives to recreate the life of the theologian who openly railed against Hitler’s growing stronghold on Germany and beyond in the years leading up to World War II. A devout Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer organized the Confessing Church in the early ’30s, urging his following to join forces with the Jews in fighting the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer’s efforts reached their zenith when he and others mounted assassination attempts on the Führer. Klaus Maria Brandauer gives voice to many of Bonhoeffer’s writings, and Desmond Tutu and John de Gruchy are among the film’s interviewees. After being rejected from the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Bonhoeffer was screened at local churches in and around Park City, attracting attention from distributors, and eventually, a limited U.S. release in the summer of 2003.
Runtime: 93 minutes
Language: English | German
Color: Black and White | Color
Company: First Run Features
Faith Review of Film by Newton Cowan
Film Title: Bonhoeffer
Director (s): Martin Dobimeier: Connects faith within many of his documentaries
Original release form/venue: DVD
Current Availability and formats: DVD
Genre: Historical Documentary
Story Elements: The story telling point of view is multilayered as with many documentaries. The narrator sets the stage and bridges on section to the next. Secondly the use of footage of Bonhoeffer both film and tape added to the depth along with interviews of relatives and former students. Also while the role of Hitler and Socialist movement are present in a significant way, Dobemeier also paints and interesting portrayal of the role or lack of role the Church played in the years leading up and including WW II.
Film Language elements: One key element here. That is the use of editing. First the story line itself the life of Bonhoeffer and his faith development then the build up of the war and the supporting roles of other historical figures. But to go back and interject interviews with family members and former students along with current clergy like Desmond Tutu made the film not just about a past event but about how we might see the world today.
Audience/Cultural Context elements: The intended audience is multi layered. First the documentary is certainly about the significant work and sacrifice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer so from an historical perspective students of history and theology are one audience. The second are those who experienced WWII either in Germany or other countries around the world. Thirdly the audience is the world today and what we can learn so history
will not repeat itself. But fourthly the audience is the church. What can the church learn from this so as not to repeat?
Theology is found: The theology is direct in that it is a documentary about a theologian. But beyond the story about his life the film encompasses the church and the world in terms of action or lack their of. Bonhoeffer could have stayed in the US he could have chosen not to participate in the attempted murder of Hitler, he could have chosen to go into hiding. Instead he chose to listen for what God was saying to him.
Theological themes for conversation: In times of crises (like war) God calls people to do extraordinary things. Where was God’s church during the time of the rise of Hitler? What role(s) do churches play in war? For this country in the 1930’2 and 40’s the african americans were viewed as a lower class and yet the Black Church the Avicenna Baptist Church is where Bonhoeffer experienced a social conscience. From conversations
Bonhoeffer had with his friend French theologian Lasserre we ask the question what in Scripture gives us permission to go to war. Is War contrary to the Gospel? If the Church supports war in defense of the country does the church set aside the Gospel? Also Bonhoeffer asks what does it mean to take the sermon on the mount seriously. What is it that God requires of us.
Suggested type of conversation: First the church and war how do we justify war in the name of the Gospel? Can we?Secondly Bonhoeffer was an extraordinary man, who are the theologians of our time taking a stand? How do we understand Scripture and War? Can there really be separation of Church and State? Are you willing to die for your faith? This film does provide some good background information on the theology of Bonhoeffer especially on the context in which he lived and was influenced.
Recommended ways to view and engage the film: There are a couple of ways to use this film: First as an introduction to a study on Bonhoeffer. In oder to get the full effect you will need to watch the whole film. Purely from an engaging the Bible study of the sermon on mount and watching the film can participants engage film and Bible in a way that gives a glimpse into to what Bonhoeffer meant by taking the sermon seriously. This would be an interesting film to do with an intergenerational group especially with any WWII vets and even as an open dialogue with the Jewish community.
Concluding or summary remarks: The study of Bonhoeffer is an important discussion for churches and small groups. Even if the group has not studied any of Bonhoeffer the film is not too deep that makes it unapproachable.