- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

LOS ANGELES In London's Westminster Abbey, there is a hall of fame for 20th-century Christian martyrs. Martin Luther King is among those depicted in limestone, as is El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero.

There is a statue, too, of the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed Nazi Germany and who became one of its many victims. This remarkable figure is brought to life in "Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace," a dramatization of the Lutheran theologian's last years.

Among the words frequently applied to Bonhoeffer are "brilliant" and "brave," and the 90-minute PBS film (airing at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday) easily makes the case for his heroic status.

The well-born Bonhoeffer was one of the first prominent Germans to speak out against Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic agenda. He condemned church cooperation with the Third Reich and became part of the German resistance that plotted to kill Hitler.

Imprisoned by the Nazis, he continued to explore questions of faith and morality. Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945, at age 39, after rejecting both Nazi deals and rescue efforts that he feared might put others at risk.

How Bonhoeffer found a virtuous path in a world of surpassing evil is explored in this respectful film, an international production whose backers include Aid Association for Lutherans, a nonprofit fraternal organization.

German actor Ulrich Tukur plays Bonhoeffer in the English-language movie. Co-starring are Johanna Klante as the pastor's fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, and Robert Joy as his Nazi interrogator, Manfred Roeder.

The film received a top prize at this year's Monte Carlo Television Festival. Hundreds of viewers packed a preview showing last week on Capitol Hill.

"We wanted to engage the public in a dialogue around the question of 'What does it mean to be a morally responsible person?' " said Dennis Clauss, an executive with Aid Association for Lutherans.

Putting a contemporary moral hero in the public eye was another goal.

"Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well respected across a very wide spectrum of society," Mr. Clauss said. "His theology appeals to people who are theologically conservative; his behavior and his actions appeal to people who are more activist in their lifestyles."

The film introduces us to Bonhoeffer in the 1930s, during a visit to America. Despite warnings of increasing German instability, he returns home out of a sense of obligation to his country and quickly encounters the pervasive evil of Nazism.

In one chilling scene, Bonhoeffer finds his seminary classroom vandalized, with a wooden cross transformed by paint smears into a swastika.

When Bonhoeffer casts his lot with the resistance, he puts body and soul in harm's way. His humanity, however, is never in question. At one point he consoles a frightened fellow prisoner by leading him in a prayer Bonhoeffer has composed:

"Lord, it's dark in me, in you it's day.

"I am alone, but you will stay.

"I am afraid, you never cease.

"I am at war, in you is peace."

The creators of "Bonhoeffer" made every effort to ensure its veracity, according to director Eric Till. But there were some dramatic liberties taken, he said, for valid reasons.

Bonhoeffer was executed indoors with two other anti-Hitler conspirators. In the film, he is shown being marched, under blue skies, to a lone noose.

A triple execution might have appeared to echo Christ's crucifixion and be seen as a suggestion "that Bonhoeffer is a sort of modern Christ, which was not the idea," the director said.

Another scene transforms Bonhoeffer's prison writings about Christianity's future into an impromptu sermon delivered to fellow prisoners. The setting, a war-ravaged church, is used to symbolize the depth of his feelings.

Other elements are factual, such as Bonhoeffer's wartime engagement to a friend's teen-age granddaughter. So is the depiction of Bonhoeffer's modest, even staid demeanor.

"There were a few odd folks who thought we should make the gentleman a little more Hollywood-holy, but that was easily resisted," Mr. Till said.

Clifford Green, a theologian who is executive director of a project to create a complete English-language edition of Bonhoeffer's works, lauded "Bonhoeffer" for showing his integrity as a Christian pastor fighting Nazism.

"It's hard for a film to condense Bonhoeffer's reasons and motives into a few lines and scenes," Mr. Green said. "To understand them, people will have to read his books on ethics."

For an introduction to Bonhoeffer's writings, Mr. Green recommended "Letters and Papers From Prison" (Simon & Schuster Inc.), which he said is not academic theology but rather "the experiences and attitudes of the person himself."

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