Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Bonhoeffer is, tangentially, about the kill-Hitler plots hatched inside Germany during World War II. But its main subjects are the relationship between faith and politics and the difficulty of deciding when to leap from pacifism to action in the face of evil. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a kind of church wunderkind in the Weimar period and the early years of Nazi rule, a theologian who before the age of 30 had earned a reputation as one of Europe’s most important religious thinkers. The so-called Jewish Question confronted him as a crisis of faith. In the early ’30s, he declined to speak at a funeral for his brother-in-law’s father, whose family was part Jewish, for fear of alienating the authorities. Later, embarrassed by that decision and increasingly troubled by Nazi atrocities, he became an outspoken Hitler critic and eventually a man whose goalas his niece puts it in this soberly paced documentarywas “to put a spoke in the wheel of the Third Reich.” After one failed assassination plot involving a bomb smuggled into Hitler’s war-planning room, which killed a few advisers but not its target, Bonhoeffer and a number of his co-conspirators were hanged; his death, at age 39, came just three weeks before Hitler’s suicide. Mixing archival photographs and voice-over narration (some of it by the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) with interviews with Bonhoeffer’s surviving friends and relatives and a number of religious figures, director Martin Doblmeier builds a careful history of Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and theological development. There are fascinating anecdotes about the influence of Bonhoeffer’s visits to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he ended up teaching Sunday school during one of two pre-war stints at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. The picture takes its time getting to Bonhoeffer’s wartime activities, however, bogging down a bit in the details of various theological debates. And Bonhoeffer, perhaps because of his typically German reservehe reportedly said not a single word in his own defense when he was court-martialedremains an elusive protagonist. Still, his activist philosophy of resistance comes across clearly, giving Bonhoeffer a cumulative power. Christopher Hawthorne