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The Challenge of Bonhoeffer

When the 2003 Sundance Film Festival rejected Martin Doblmeier’s feature-length documentary, Bonhoeffer, Doblmeier and the staff of Journey Films decided to seek out Sundance audiences on their own. They called the interfaith council of Park City, Utah (where Sundance is held) and hatched a plan to show the film in local church sanctuaries as the press and Hollywood heavies arrived in Park City for America’s preeminent film festival. All but one showing was sold out, and reporters picked up on Bonhoeffer, as much for its ingenious method of “going to Sundance” as the film itself.

Since Sundance, many churches and synagogues have shown the film. It’s appropriate that the church–the one human institution that Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed above all things was the living incarnation of Christ, of God on earth, and our only hope for salvation–also saved this important documentary from obscurity.

Bonhoeffer is something of a superhero in the Protestant church. His name is dropped frequently in sermons and seminars when the speaker needs to summon the exemplar of someone who gave his life for a just cause. A non-Jewish martyr of the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer gives Protestants a stake in the great tragedy of the 20th century, through the death of one of their own. There is a danger in singling out someone like Bonhoeffer as the ultimate World War II hero, since for every Bonhoeffer scores of Jews died heroically for their people and for God. Still, Bonhoeffer is undeniably and singularly inspiring. His life reads like a thriller crossed with Greek tragedy.

Born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany into a large, bourgeois family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prodigy. His doctoral dissertation, which he submitted to the University of Berlin at the age of 21, was labeled a masterpiece by his professor Karl Barth, himself arguably the greatest Christian theologian of the last 400 years. Ordained a Lutheran minister and taking his own chair at the university, by 28 Bonhoeffer was one of the few voices in Nazi Germany speaking out publicly against Adolph Hitler. At 33, he became a member of the small team assembled by the resistance to assassinate the tyrant. At 39, he was executed after a term in the concentration camps, just as the Nazis were defeated.

That resume obscures Bonhoeffer’s struggle with what seems like an unbroken call to fight evil intellectually and politically. Repeatedly, Bonhoeffer chose to leave his homeland-twice to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was safe to apply his exceptional intellectual gifts to the crucial theological and ethical questions of the day. Yet twice he returned to Germany, for he felt that if he were going to be a part of the nation’s rebuilding, he had to be present during its darkest days, whether or not he could do anything to save it or himself from doom.

Because of his stature in the church, his close family connections to members of the resistance, and his non-pacifist ethical stance, he was identified as an ideal conspirator to join in the plot to assassinate Hitler. And conspire he did, working in the Nazi’s military intelligence office, while acting as liaison for the plotters to the British. When he was arrested in 1943 and sent to Buchenwald (and later to Flossenbürg), it was for collecting funds to send Jews to safety outside Germany. In the end, Hitler would personally order the death each member of Bonhoeffer’s renegade group, even as the Allies had begun liberating the camps.

The film puts Bonhoeffer’s activism in the direct lineage of 20th-century justice movements. While teaching at Union Seminary, which borders Harlem, Bonhoeffer frequented the Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the city’s most important historically black congregations. There he was inspired by the theology of liberation that emerged from the African-American slave experience. In turn, the film shows, Bonhoeffer was a source of theological and personal inspiration to Archbishop Tutu and other South Africans in their struggle to defeat apartheid. The stories of most of these 20th-century heroes have been told in every medium imaginable. It is high time Bonhoeffer got his due.Tutu himself crystallizes the power of Bonhoeffer’s inheritance in the film, challenging us to look on him as a model, not an idol. Countering the notion that some, like Bonhoeffer, are destined for greatness while the rest of us can sit back and watch history go by, Tutu observes that we are all called by God to participate in creating a just world. Giving your life to freedom fighting, to God, is not easy, he says. “There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you, `Okay, you are right.’ You have to hold on to [the call] by the skin of your teeth and hope that there is going to be vindication on the other side.”

The filmmakers use archival footage, interviews, narration and evocative shots of places where Bonhoeffer lived and breathed, packing an enormous amount of historical and intellectual content into the film’s hour and a half. Doblmeier’s direction reflects the best of traditional documentary storytelling, along the lines of Ken and Ric Burns (The Civil War, New York) and Blackside Productions (Eyes on the Prize). This cinematic style isn’t for everyone. It demands a willingness to take in a lot of factual information doled out in slow and steady fashion.

But the payoff is great. The evocative and intimate images, combined with music of Bonhoeffer’s day, bring him to life in a way only documentary film can. It also does an admirable job of representing his theological perspectives, including the proto-liberation theology stance that caused him to side with the oppressed. Like a good lecture or sermon, the film ends with a call to us all to compare our lives to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How should we live differently? What does it mean to have faith, to follow God today?

Bonhoeffer would probably answer that question as he did near the end of his life, in writing to his close friend Eberhard Bethge: “It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God and the world. That, I think is faith.”

At screenings at churches and synagogues, according to Doblmeier, the conversations following the film inevitably turned to war in our time. Audiences raise the same questions again and again: Who are the oppressed? Who is acting under the power of evil and death? What is our government telling us that is not true? And what should we do as people of faith in these warring times? How can we most effectively fight for the oppressed?

What more important conversation could be going on right now in faith communities across America? And what an appropriate legacy for professor and radical activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer to leave us with.

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A Few of My Favorite Films

As a documentary filmmaker who considers spirituality life’s most fascinating dimension, I always wondered why there weren’t more great documentaries on matters of faith. A few years ago, I was asked to teach a course on documentary films and filmmaking at Union Theological Seminary. It was my hope that I might find the best films on themes of religion and spirituality and encourage my students to widen that circle of great films by making their own. In the process, I identified a handful of what I consider documentary masterpieces (or near-masterpieces), and I want to share my favorites with you. I encourage you to add to the list by writing to me about your favorites, so that my students and I may be further inspired.

(Ron Fricke, 97 minutes, 1992)

One criterion for a great documentary is that it makes the most of its medium–a marriage of sound, picture, and storytelling. Baraka has no dialogue and no conventional plot, but even without these narrative devices, it tells with great art, economy, and ravishing images the story of life on earth. In Baraka, the camera travels the world and alights like an angel for a moment on a shoulder or a stone or a wave–observing the quiet and roaring movements of creation. It captures the truth about human nature, our need for ritual, our quest for meaning, and our troubling relationship to our home in a way that seems to explain everything without breathing a word. One student likened this film to a prayer and watching it to joining the filmmakers in meditation.

The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche
(Tenzing Sonam & Ritu Sarin, 62 minutes, 1991)

This remarkable film follows a group of Tibetan monks who seek out their reincarnated master, thought to have been reborn as a small boy. The documentary focuses on the relationship between the former master’s favorite attendant and the boy as they become acquainted or–depending on what you believe–reacquainted. It is filmed beautifully in classic cinema vérité style (meaning the camera appears to follow life where it leads). The movie feels to the viewer as if the camera was never even there. “The Reincarnation of Khenshur Rinpoche” invites us into a year in the life of this Buddhist community, the intimate bond between monks, and the experience of a country boy who is told at the age of 3 that he is a wise master and great leader.

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America
(Menachem Daum & Oren Rudavsky, 96 minutes, 1997)

This movie’s tone is so difficult to achieve–at once respectful, critical, and heartwarming, and at all times leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about the benefits and challenges of a separatist religious community. There is an array of traditional documentary techniques here: Daum and Rudavsky follow a handful of peoples’ lives but also weave in narration (by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker), “talking head” interviews with experts, and in-depth history lessons. Given this funky stew of style choices, it is hard to put one’s finger on what makes the film so affecting. There is no resisting, however, the filmmaker’s invitation to view the world from the perspective of people who have come so close to extermination. They fix our gaze on the magical quality of a community so grateful for life, one committed to being happy and to the deeply moving good-heartedness of the individuals.

(Diane Keaton, 80 minutes, 1987)

This quirky film brings a 1980s MTV aesthetic to the sometimes sleeping-pill affect of interview-driven, “talking head” documentaries. Directed by movie star Diane Keaton, it explores the views of a diverse crowd of Californians on the afterlife. This random group of contemporary Americans are intercut with images of heaven, hell, God, and the meaning of life manufactured by both American religious organizations and Hollywood over the past century, so that the film becomes a sort of dialogue between the images and the speakers. The film’s heart is deeply good, and its insights are often breathtaking. If nothing else, it pushes viewers to think about how we would respond to the questions: What is life all about, and What does it add up to in the end? Teenagers love this one, and so do I.

Black Is…Black Ain’t
(Marlon Riggs, 86 minutes, 1995)

Black Is…Black Ain’t is not principally about religion, but it has an excellent segment about a Pentecostal, principally gay congregation and is made by one of the most important documentary filmmakers of our time. What it’s about on its surface is identity: The church, for Riggs, plays a large part in his understanding of being African American. On its deepest level, however, the film is about making sense of life in the face of suffering, and the scene at the church represents both transcendence and embodied power in a way that provides what feels like answers to life’s biggest questions. Riggs didn’t finish making this film before he died of AIDS in 1997.Riggs is a poet whose medium is documentary. One of his films was at the center of the National Endowment for the Arts battle in the ’90s. His work will be exhibited and screened for centuries to come.

(Howard Smith & Sarah Kernochan, 88 minutes, 1972)

This film won the Academy Award in 1972–the only documentary film on religion I know of to have done so. Ironically, Marjoe doesn’t explore the richness of religious experience but rather exposes its shady side. Focusing on a circuit evangelist who really wants to be a rock star, the movie represents the enterprise of ministry as a con and the passion of believers (filmed exquisitely by some of the best documentary cinematographers of the century) to be simple-minded foolishness. The film offers a delicate portrait of a religious young man coming of age in a cultural revolution. He is a lost soul and a leader of lost souls. Watching him wander, for me, is painful, hysterical, moving, and very disturbing.

It is important to mention the groundbreaking work of Bill Moyers. Programs like the The Power of Myth (conversations with Joseph Campbell), Genesis: A Living Conversation (a roundtable, interfaith discussion about the book of Genesis) and Amazing Grace (a study of the history and power of the old Christian hymn) have sparked crucial and exciting dialogue on issues of faith and religion. The reason his films do not rank on my list of favorites is that his goals appear to me to be principally journalistic rather than artistic; as a result, much of the richness available in the medium of film is left unmined. I am excited to report that there is a number of good documentaries on religion heading our way. Just this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Sandi DuBowski premiered his film Trembling Before G-d, a lovely exploration into the lives of lesbian and gay orthodox Jews. And Blackside Productions, makers of Eyes on the Prize, will soon team with PBS and broadcast its latest documentary series, This Far by Faith, a history of the African-American church. I am hoping that such fine productions signal the wave of the future.