When I walked into the theater I became optimistic. Of the 12 Million people who live in greater Los Angeles, six had come to the only theater showing this film. We were all overweight men who had come alone. I estimated that at least three others had movie review web sites. The fact that this film drew my brethren and only my brethren was an indication that I would enjoy it. If nothing else, I knew I could watch the film in silence.
My optimism was justified, not only by the absence of cell phones, but by Bonhoeffer. This film has two subjects. The first is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a highly regarded, young theologian of the 30’s and 40’s with one of the coolest names in history. As if that wasn’t enough, Bonhoeffer was a leader among the minority of German Christians who spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis. As Hitler became more powerful and the full extent of his evil unfurled, Bonhoeffer moved from hostile rhetoric to participating in organized resistance that included several assassination attempts. The second subject is the role of religion and religious people in political violence and it receives wide examination through the Bonhoeffer and his piers: should Christians be pacifists? Are they permitted to bump off someone like Hitler? Why do the clergy so often seem endorse the most vile acts of governments? One striking example of this examination is a recounting of the propaganda campaign that the protestant churches rubber stamped to justify German aggression during the first World War. I wish I had been pirating this movie so I could get the lines verbatim, but it was something like this. Germany is not aggressive but is merely striking back at enemies who envy its culture and power and wish to destroy it. Where have I heard that before?
One interesting aspect of these events is that Bonhoeffer’s theology, as presented in the film, offers no reason to be optimistic about religion’s capacity to work for political good. Bonhoeffer believes that Christians should participate in the real world, rather than focusing only their personal relationship with God. He also believes that traditional ethics should be discarded because we should be motivated only by adherence to God’s will. All of this is fine if it leads you to opposing Hitler, but couldn’t it just as easily lead you to support him? In other words, every sect has a different idea of what God’s will is, and in most cases, it would probably be better if they didn’t impose it on the real world.
The troubling nature of his theology (again, as presented in the film) doesn’t detract from Bonhoeffer’s courage. As a member of the resistance, he knew the Nazi’s tactics. Specifically, he knew that there was a very good chance he would be tortured and murdered. Yet, even after an interrogation that he deemed worse than death, Bonhoeffer continued to work against the Nazis until he was hanged.
Bonhoeffer expects the viewer to bring something to the game. It does not attempt to answer any of the questions it poses and the film making is very dry, relying on archival footage, interviews and straightforward narration. Think of a PBS documentary on the building of the St. Luis Arch. Connecting the dots between the various issues flowing through the film is left largely up to the viewer, as is the proper reaction to the events of the film. I think the other fat guys were as happy with it as I was.