- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

“Bonhoeffer,” a terrific documentary directed by Martin Doblmeier and produced by Alexandria-based Journey Films, opens with a sequence of book burning, hysterical rallies and mass graves.

Yup, it’s Nazi Germany, humanity at its worst, right there in the middle of civilized Europe.

There were bright lights piercing through that horror, though. One of the brightest was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Long before he died at the hands of a Nazi regime in its death throes in 1945, the great German theologian showed signs of being a maverick.

He was born into a privileged, secular-minded family that was shocked when he chose the church as a career after the disastrous (for Germany) World War I, when the jingoistic German church’s credibility was at an all-time low.

It would get lower.

“Bonhoeffer” pointedly shows a chilling 1935 photograph of a jubilant Adolf Hitler shaking hands with an equally jubilant Reich Bishop Ludwig Muller while another clergyman looks on in approval.

Bonhoeffer saw the church’s appeasement for what it was in the earliest stages of the Nazi terror, and he was one of the first Germans to publicly condemn the regime in 1933.

It wasn’t just Protestant Lutherans, with whom Bonhoeffer was affiliated, who kowtowed to the Nazis. (To be fair, the documentary notes that there were many dissident pastors.) Catholics, too, got their hands dirty, most notably Pope Pius XII with the 1933 Reich Concordat, a treaty between the Vatican and Hitler’s Germany.

How was a believing Christian to behave in such times?

It’s on this question that “Bonhoeffer” — replete with commentary by Bonhoeffer’s friends and relatives, theologians and clergy (including Archbishop Desmond Tutu) — shines.

The documentary perfunctorily runs through the bare chronological bones of the Nazis’ rise and fall, but it’s Bonhoeffer’s theology — he would come to embrace an ecumenical blend of traditional Christianity and secular piety — that most intrigues Mr. Doblmeier.

“Bonhoeffer” travels from the posh Berlin suburb where the theologian grew up to 1920s-era Harlem, whose rollicking Baptist churches had a transformational effect on Bonhoeffer while he studied at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

“In contrast to the often didactic style of white preaching,” says Bonhoeffer, voiced with gravelly grandeur by the Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, “the black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.”

Where rigid German Lutherans fatalistically dwelled on man’s inherent sinfulness, the black congregants at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, led by Adam Clayton Powell, engaged the secular world and vowed to change it, to improve their lot.

Christianity as an active, communitarian force for social betterment — it was a novel concept for the young Bonhoeffer, but it left him with a major internal contradiction when he took his new ideas back to Germany.

You see, he also embraced Christian pacifism: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Love your enemies,” “Pray for those who persecute you.” He took the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seriously and didn’t believe they should be conditioned by extraordinary contingencies.

Extraordinary contingencies like, say, the most evil tyrant in history? A regime that was slaughtering Jews for no reason other than their Jewishness?

So it was that a pacifist theologian came to join a conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. The plot failed more than once, of course, and the conspirators were all hanged.

Yet Bonhoeffer’s ideas, formed in a crucible of hate and murder, are as relevant as ever today.

The enemies are new, the wars are on a different continent, but the question, as ever, remains: What is a Christian to do? Not just think, but do?


TITLE: “Bonhoeffer,” playing exclusively at the Avalon in Chevy Chase

RATING: NR (Some graphic footage of Holocaust victims)

CREDITS: Directed by Martin Doblmeier. Produced by Mr. Doblmeier, Adele Schmidt and Janna Wicklund Morishma.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.


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