Controversy continues to swirl around the Christian church’s tacit collusion in the crimes of the Holocaust. Now along comes Bonhoeffer, Martin Doblmeier’s documentary about a distinguished German theologian who plotted to kill Hitler. As a young man and academic prodigy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned to religion, shocking his family of prominent Weimar liberals in Berlin. But his was to be no ordinary faith. Inspired by social activism he witnessed during a brief sojourn in 1930s New York—where he studied at Union Theological Seminary and taught Sunday school in Harlem—Bonhoeffer began, in a series of writings, to shape a radical vision of an engaged Christianity that would place him directly at odds with the totalitarian German state.
Using a standard mix of archival footage and interviews, including several with Bonhoeffer’s contemporaries and former students, Doblmeier fleshes out the pastor’s gradual transformation from political dissident and pacifist to would-be assassin. Along the way, Bonhoeffer was repeatedly disillusioned with the failure of church hierarchy to confront Germany’s growing moral crisis. Images of Christmas trees adorned with swastikas, and clips of Hitler invoking God, conjure up the tight nexus of politics and religion that placed a strange hold on the nation’s conscience.
Some of Doblmeier’s choices are grating, like his decision to accompany images of anti-Jewish pogroms with the haunting strains of “Silent Night.” One interviewed theologian’s defense of Luther’s writings as “anti-Judaic” rather than “anti-Semitic” seems more dubious still (another scholar contradicts it). Sometimes the remarkable passion that inspired Bonhoeffer gets lost amid a welter of academic talking heads—an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (an admirer) provides an exception, as he describes in visceral language the moment when “God takes you by the scruff of the neck.” Still, this is a valuable and complex portrait of a rare individual, who saw the light in a time of spiritual darkness, and had the courage to follow it.