A new documentary on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler near the end of World War II, is currently making the rounds of theatres across the country prior to its eventual showing on PBS stations. The film, which mingles excerpts from interviews with Bonhoeffer’s surviving family members and students with commentary by scholars and historical footage—much of it shown for the first time—offers both an account of his public life and an analysis of the theological thought that informed his actions.
The producer-director and narrator of “Bonhoeffer” is Martin Doblmeier, whose Journey Films of Alexandria, Virginia has previously made television documentaries on such figures as Thomas Jefferson, Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, and Cardinal Leon Josef Suenens. It’s a project that he’s hoped to undertake for many years.
“I remember clearly my introduction [to Bonhoeffer] in high school,” Doblmeier said in a recent interview. “I went to a Catholic high school—it was Christian Brothers—and one day the brother who was our religion teacher when I was a junior came in and announced that we were going to begin with this book called ‘Letters and Papers from Prison.’ This would have been 1964, so as I look back on it forty years ago, this was way ahead of its time. Bonhoeffer was not all that well known at the time. His works had only been translated into English for about ten years. But when I read that book I was quite profoundly affected by it. I found it unforgettable. People thought I was crazy, but I used to carry it with me to the baseball field. I sat in the dugout and read little chapters of ‘Letters and Papers from Prison.’ That’s how moved I was. I think it was one of the elements that helped me make my own decision about what I wanted to study in college. So I majored in Religion at Providence College.”
Doblmeier went on to earn an MS in Broadcast Television at Boston University and to make some twenty television documentaries over fifteen years, all centering on the exploration of religious and ethical issues. But he never forgot Bonhoeffer.
“It was always one of the films I was going to get to,” he said. “And as it became clear to me a number of years ago that the people who could tell the story from a first-person perspective were starting to get older, and I felt we were risking every day that they could pass away, it was time to do this film. And so we stopped everything and made the commitment to do it.”
Initial grants made it possible for Doblmeier and his team to go to Europe and begin the interviewing process with “the oldest and most frail” subjects—including Bonhoeffer’s student and eventual biographer Eberhard Bethge. (It turned out to be the last interview Bethge was to give before his death in 2000.) There followed much searching for archival material and further fund-raising efforts. Ultimately South Carolina Educational Television, with whom Doblmeier had worked in the past, agreed to sponsor the film for PBS broadcast.
But Doblmeier went to great lengths to secure a theatrical release for the picture prior to its television showings.
“In order to get a distributor to pick the film up and take it into theatres,” he explained, “I did a tour across America of about fifty churches and synagogues.” The discussion it engendered among viewers just as preparations for the invasion of Iraq were progressing was amazing.
“What comes up again and again in the film is the language of war or conflict versus security, what we were talking about in our own country this year,” Doblmeier said. “You can imagine in those churches and synagogues the kinds of conversations that were happening back in March and April and May. A lot of this was in people’s hearts, and here’s this film showing an example of one man and his resolution. There were people who left convinced that Bonhoeffer was a model that justified violence to stop an evil. And there were others who believed that Bonhoeffer was an example for them to resist the mobilization towards war. So in that sense I found the use of the film to be exactly what we had always hoped for—which is to prompt discussion and thinking at a different level. People were really engaged at that level, and you could see that they were making their own decisions about very critical issues.”
The film deals, of course, with one man’s moral deliberations and extraordinary action at a time when the Nazi regime was persecuting the Jews and undertaking conquest, and most of the German religious establishment supported the party’s actions. “To see that open collaboration between the National Socialists and the churches was at the heart of what we were trying to get at,” Doblmeier said. “The environment that Bonhoeffer was fighting against.”
But he believes that it goes beyond the historical particulars, as important as those are. That’s why “Bonhoeffer,” just like Journey Films’ earlier pictures, aims to get below the surface by linking thought with action. “For me it was critical to show what was going on at that deeper level for Bonhoeffer, how he was thinking and why—what drove him to do what he did,” Doblmeier said. “If you miss that, you just see it as the story of a man who joins the resistance to try to kill Hitler, and not understand how it’s possible that he struggled over this and why.”
He added: “I don’t see it as a Holocaust film. I see it as a film that talks about a man’s commitment to faith, to what we believe, and the struggle in this real world to act that out. That’s a perennial story, a classic story as far as I’m concerned.” And a story that others will find it easier to study now that Journey Films has deposited all the material collected for the film—the complete interviews as well as photos and text—to the Princeton Theological Seminary, where they will serve as a kind of Bonhoeffer Archive.