The Common Good
May-June 1997

A Faithful Legacy

by Mary Glazener | May-June 1997

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life on video.

Taken together, the videos Hanged on a Twisted Cross and A View From the Underside offer viewers a remarkably comprehensive overview of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. The two videos, quite different, are complementary.

Hanged on a Twisted Cross: The Life, Convictions and Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a two-hour documentary narrated by Ed Asner, gives a detailed picture of the theologian’s life, with relevant quotes from his theology and letters; comments from others are spoken over interesting archival and family pictures. The script, written by Eberhard and Renate Bethge and Christian Gremmels, whose credentials attest to the video’s accuracy, spares neither the horrors of the death camps nor the failures of the church in Germany to be the church of Jesus Christ.

The film’s depiction of Bonhoeffer family life is especially interesting, with many pictures, some that have not been published before, so that the viewer comes to know and appreciate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s childhood and the milieu in which he grew up. The how and why of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party is offered clearly and concisely, providing context for the large Bonhoeffer family’s unity in opposition to them.

Those places important in Bonhoeffer’s life are all shown, even the location of the seminary at Finkenwalde, although the building is now gone; Tegel prison, the recently excavated Gestapo basement; and the concentration camp at Flossenburg, where Bonhoeffer was hanged.

Unfortunately, the filmmaker tries to crowd too much into the two hours, an understandable flaw since there is so much to tell. But this leaves the broad middle section, covering the years between 1933 and the beginning of the war, seeming rushed. Consequently, Ed Asner, who is good as the narrator, often seems to run away with the narrative, with few if any pauses to give the viewer time to assimilate what is seen and heard. The video would have benefited, too, if the filmmaker had checked all the German pronunciations.

Despite such artistic weaknesses, the film is very interesting and informative; I am happy to recommend it. Mike Farrell is sensitive and convincing as the voice of Bonhoeffer, especially in the reading of the poem, "Who Am I?" voiced over pictures of Bonhoeffer from childhood to prison.

A VIEW FROM THE Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a black-and-white video of a one-man play, written and performed by Al Staggs. He has been giving the play in churches and colleges around the country for several years. Staggs presents it as a conversation between Bonhoeffer in his prison cell and the audience. At times he addresses the young people, echoing Bonhoeffer’s concern for "how the coming generation is to live." He skillfully weaves Bonhoeffer’s words into remembrances of his life, so that a large part of what we hear is what Bonhoeffer himself wrote.

Al Staggs is a convincing actor, with a strong, beautifully modulated voice, who helps the viewer to see what it really must have been like for Bonhoeffer in that drab and terribly confining prison cell. The stark lighting also vividly conveys that reality.

The drama would be well-served to include more of the lighter side of Bonhoeffer’s personality; he had a wonderful sense of humor. In this play we see it only once, in a conversation with a cockroach, although even in that Dietrich is seen emphasizing the fact that the cockroach is free to go in and out, while he is not.

In all his writings from prison, I have never found him feeling sorry for himself. Instead, over and over he expresses gratitude to God and to the people God has given him. This is most impressive in the poem, "Powers of Good," written from the horror of the Gestapo basement and sent to his mother for her birthday, December 28, 1944. He had sent the same poem in a letter to his fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, found in Love Letters From Cell 92 (Abingdon Press, 1994). These letters are filled with gratitude, love, and cheerfulness.

Nevertheless, Al Staggs captures the major themes of Bonhoeffer’s legacy and does so passionately, keeping viewers with him all the way. The play is neither preachy nor flashy, and it is always interesting. I believe you will want to watch this video more than once.

MARY GLAZENER lives in Penrose, North Carolina, and is the author of The Cup of Wrath: A Novel Based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Resistance to Hitler (Smyth & Helwys, 1992).

Hanged on a Twisted Cross: The Life, Conviction and Martyrdom of Dietrick Bonhoeffer. Directed by T.N. Mohan. Released by Gateway Films and Vision Video (P.O. Box 540, Worcester, PA 19490-0540), 1996.

A View From the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Adapted and performed by Al Staggs (3935 Royal Forest Dr., San Antonio, TX 78230; (210) 492-8457), 1992.

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