Review: ‘Bonhoeffer’

"Bonhoeffer," Martin Doblmeier's study of the fateful life of Christian theologian-activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, considers the ramifications of viewing Jesus as a radical pacifist and living in accord with such beliefs. PBS-style filmmaking and good use of dramatic voice-overs make docu a viable theatrical entry that's better suited to public TV outlets.

The appropriately somber “Bonhoeffer,” vet documaker Martin Doblmeier’s study of the fateful life of Christian theologian-activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, considers the ramifications of viewing Jesus as a radical pacifist and living in accord with such beliefs. However, although Bonhoeffer preached non-violence during the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler, film never examines the contradiction between his pacifism and his participation in an ongoing conspiracy to kill the Fuhrer. Mainstream PBS-style filmmaking and good use of dramatic voice-overs by such thesps as Klaus Maria Brandauer make docu a marginally viable theatrical entry that’s nonetheless better suited to public TV outlets and select non-North American webcasters.

After a brief prelude highlighted by a comment by Bishop Desmond Tutu that could just as well be about himself — that Bonhoeffer maintained “deep faith in incredible darkness” — pic gracefully outlines in the first 30 minutes Bonhoeffer’s childhood and maturation during Germany’s tumultuous early twentieth century decades. He was raised by a prosperous but notably non-religious Berliner family, and his entry into the ministry was a way, theologian Geffrey Kelly speculates, for him to come to terms with death’s meaning and WWI’s mass carnage, which included his older brother.

More than in any of his previous work, Doblmeier — who specializes in non-fiction looks at faith and religion — has dug up an awesome assemblage of extremely rare footage of Hitler (organizing, on parade, in frenetic oratory mode) and, more insidiously, of the Catholic and Protestant hierarchies which openly supported his regime. Alongside this thorough visual documentation is an extensive discussion by a number of Christian intellectuals on the sources and developments of Bonhoeffer’s thinking and writings, which stem largely from an intensive reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Final third is uncommonly dramatic, due to the potent juxtaposition of the seminarian’s determined project to contemplate the meaning of faith in a war-ravaged century and a growing plot to kill Hitler. For all of its notable research, pic is frustrating because it does not tackle the question of why Bonhoeffer, who even studied non-violent direct action with Gandhi in India, decided to join the plot spearheaded by some of his relatives.

Narration by Doblmeier is efficient but a bit cold, while Brandauer’s voice brings added drama to Bonhoeffer’s personal tragedy. Production values are as exemplary as the research.



A First Run Features release of a South Carolina ETV presentation of a Journey Films production. Directed, written by Martin Doblmeier .


Camera (color/B&W), David Goulding, Peter Schulz, Jorg Plica, Dennis Boni ; editors, Matthew B. Kelly, Timothy Finkbiner; music, John Keltonic; sound, Kelly, Ulf Herrmann , Klaus Oesterwind; supervising sound editors, Dominick S. Bono, Mary Ann DiLillo, Cynthia Bono; associate producers, Adele Schmidt, Janna Wickland, Kristin Fellows; archival research, Janna Wickland, Schmidt, Carren Kaston. Reviewed on videotape, L.A., April 15, 2003. (In Full Frame Documentary Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 91 MIN.


Narrator: Martin Doblmeier. Voices: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Adele Schmidt, Richard Mancini.
With: John de Gruchy , Eberhard Bethge, Otto Dudzes, Geffrey Kelly, Ruth Alice von Bismarck , Marianne Liebholz, Victoria Barnett, John Conway, Christian Gremmels, Clifford Green, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Inge Sembritzki, Rev. Henry Mitchell. Josiah Young, Winifried Maechler , Peter Hoffmann, Christoph von Dohnanyi , Bishop Albrecht Schonherr.
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