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Celebrating Bonhoeffer
Film commemorates centennial of German theologian's birth


Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Tegal proson. Below: Director Martin Doblmeier filming Bonhoeffer's cell at Tegal.  

Martin Doblmeier, director of the critically acclaimed documentary Bonhoeffer, says the German theologian’s struggle against Nazism leading up to and during World War II speaks to every Christian today who struggles with how to respond to evil and to understand at a deep level the cost of following God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the first clear voices to be raised against Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism, eventually was arrested for his participation in the resistance and a plot to kill Hitler, imprisoned and at the age of 39 executed, just weeks before the war’s end. “In the world of religion and spirituality, Bonhoeffer is clearly one of the most inspiring writers of the 20th century,” said Doblmeier. “And his life and work continue to have universal appeal.

“Conservative Christians are attracted because Bonhoeffer was so Christ-centered and Bible-based. The progressive wing of the church is attracted to his commitment to social justice. In our language of today, he was a man who not only ‘talked the talk,’ but walked the walk.”

Nazis used religious imagery

Doblmeier’s film, which first appeared in theaters across the country in 2004, explores several themes, including how the German church fell in line behind Hitler, hoping to regain stature in the new German order. Another shows how the Nazis used religious language, symbols and imagery in their rise to power.

One dramatic scene shows Hitler in public prayer, imploring God to bless the cause of the German people. Doblmeier said archival footage with images of swastika flags flying in churches and pastors giving the Nazis salute were unforgettable images for him.

The film mixes archival footage with interviews with his family, friends, former students and theologians. Bonhoeffer’s words are read by actor Klaus Maria Brandauer (Out of Africa).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recognized Bonhoeffer as a role model for the church of South Africa in its struggle against apartheid. “It’s so easy to be sucked in by the structures,” said the Nobel Laureate. “To be sucked in, too, by a false kind of loyalty and ending up with a false church.”

Doblmeier sees the film as a story of faith, he said. “The heart of the story is this young, brilliant theologian trying to understand what is the will of God in the midst of a world torn apart by anger and hate. Through his own writings and in books and letters (Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison), and through the eye-witness accounts of his family and closest friends, you can feel Bonhoeffer’s struggle to understand what God is calling him to do.

“He seems to be always questioning himself and his constant prayer is that he will have the inner strength to what do is asked of him.”

For more on Bonhoeffer and for parish and school resources, visit: