Costly Grace

"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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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