In his bold and posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 - 1945) wrote: "I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. God is the beyond in the midst of our life. And the church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the midst of the village." This imaginative vision of a "religionless Christianity" has yet to be realized, but it does touch upon some of the seminal points in the life and ministry of this unusual man of faith.
Bonhoeffer also wrote: "We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled in short, from the prospective of those who suffer." These are hard words to live up to and throughout his short but turbulent life, Bonhoeffer wrestled with his conscience as he tried to see the events happening in Germany from below.
This 90-minute documentary is directed, produced, and narrated by Martin Doblmeier. It stands as a moving memorial and a fitting tribute to this formidable German theologian who was hanged on April 5, 1945, at Flossenberg prison camp for his role in assassination plots against Hitler. His final words to a fellow prisoner were: "This is the end, for me the beginning of life."
Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a well-to-do family. His father was a professor in psychiatric medicine at the University of Berlin. Rare family photographs, along with interviews with family members, convey their life together in love. Bonhoeffer finished his doctorate in theology at age 21. In his dissertation he wrote about the church as the physical manifestation of Christ on Earth. Theologian Karl Barth called it "a theological miracle." While the Nazis were organizing in Germany, Bonhoeffer studied for a year in New York at Union Theological Seminary. He firmed up his belief in pacifism and was quite impressed with the ardor of worship and devotional life in Harlem churches.
Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer taught systematic theology at the University of Berlin. He was one of the first pastors to speak out against Hitler, even when other church leaders were embracing him out of nationalistic fervor. After the Nazis began boycotting Jewish establishments, Bonhoeffer admonished Christians to stand in solidarity with the Jews. He joined a group of pastors who broke away from the Evangelical Church and eventually set up an independent seminary at Finkenwalde based on study, mutual service and prayer. The Nazis shut it down in 1937. In 1939, Bonhoeffer went to New York but changed his mind and returned home, saying "I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulations of this time with my people."
Throughout the documentary, actor Klaus Maria Brandauer reads short passages from Bonhoeffer’s works including The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison. This film produced by Journey Films also includes interviews with friends, former students, theologians, church historians, biographer Elbert Bethge, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It provides the most thorough presentation we’ve had to date of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Hitler. But it also profiles Bonhoeffer the man, including a love affair in the last years of his life. Given all the pressures he was enduring at the time, it’s nice to see the joy it brought him.
This documentary is remarkably timely, and we encourage churches, synagogues, and other religious groups to plan theatre parties and followup discussions. It is really quite amazing to see how relevant the ethical concerns that Bonhoeffer struggled with are to the moral dilemmas of our time when war and power plays dominate the world scene and the suffering of countless people is ignored. Across the years, this courageous and principled pastor speaks to us: "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he can extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live."
The DVD includes an interview with director Martin Doblmeier, an archival photo gallery, and selected writings by Bonhoeffer.