The Common Good
September-October 2003

Costly Grace

by Denise Giardina | September-October 2003

"We should not harm anyone.

"We should not harm anyone. But we will not allow anyone to harm us." These are the words of Adolf Hitler, spoken at the beginning of Martin Doblmeier's new documentary film Bonhoeffer, which spans the life of the German pastor and theologian martyred by the Nazis. That they could have been spoken to justify a pre-emptive strike in 2003 makes this film particularly pertinent to its moment.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has achieved the status of a saint, an emblem of Christian virtue in the face of tyranny. Indeed he has been captured in stone on the façade of Westminster Abbey. But sainthood is not a role that Bonhoeffer would have relished. On July 21, 1944, one day after a failed assassination attempt on Hitler that sealed Bonhoeffer's fate, he wrote to his best friend and future biographer, Eberhard Bethge. He told Bethge of his friendship in America with a French exchange student, Jean Lasserre. "He said he would like to become a saint," Bonhoeffer recalled, "and I think it's quite likely that he did become one. At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith."

Bonhoeffer is a moving account of a life that was supremely faithful. The film makes extensive use of archival photographs to follow Bonhoeffer on his path from childhood to the gallows in the waning days of World War II. The Bonhoeffer who emerges is not without flaws, and Doblmeier does not attempt to dehumanize his subject by sanctifying him. Here is the Dietrich who, out of fear, does not speak at the funeral of his sister's Jewish father-in-law. Here is the man who flees to America in 1939, only to return to Germany because he believes such flight has been profoundly unfaithful. And here is the Christian who struggles with his participation in an act of tyrannicide.

(Though a casual viewer might wonder why, given Christianity's disgracefully bloodthirsty history, a believer would indeed agonize over the need to kill a Hitler. It was a question that Bonhoeffer's skeptical eldest brother, Karl-Friedrich, also asked.)

What comes through in the film is Bonhoeffer's continual search for ways to live in the world. In the eyes of that world, he might be seen as a failure. He failed to convince the church to stand for the Jews, he failed to rouse the Allies on behalf of the German resistance, and he and others failed to kill Hitler. And yet his failures were those of Jesus, who failed to be a conquering messiah and ended broken on a cross. It is this Bonhoeffer, and the Bonhoeffer of his writing, who has made such a compelling figure throughout the decades since his death.

DOBLMEIER'S FILM, which has achieved a theatrical release, does a wonderful service to the world in bringing Bonhoeffer, both Christian and human being, to a wider audience. It also gives us the great gift of drawing together some of the world's leading Bonhoeffer scholars, along with living examples of Bonhoeffer's legacy such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And it provides a last testimony on film from Eberhard Bethge, who died in 2000.

At 93 minutes, some of the richness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life will necessarily be left out. Those already familiar with Bonhoeffer will notice what is missing. I wished for a more detailed look at the friendship with George Bell, bishop of Chichester and worthy of his own film. The final years in prison seem too briefly touched upon; the drama of Bonhoeffer's last days and two near-escapes are left out completely. Klaus Maria Brandauer movingly evokes the words of Bonhoeffer, but his heavily accented English sometimes makes understanding difficult.

But these are minor complaints. The timing of this film could not be more appropriate, for Bonhoeffer's life should be both inspiration and warning to us as we face down, in our own time, visions of a kinder, gentler fascism. As Bonhoeffer wrote in 1944, "It is not the religious act which makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life."

Denise Giardina is the author of Saints and Villains, a novel about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among other books.

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