Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 am

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who opposed Adolf Hitler and his brutal regime, first openly in the early ‘30s and then more clandestinely as the dictator’s power became absolute. Bonhoeffer, the documentary by Martin Doblmeier, is a straightforward telling of his life, of his early triumphs as a critical thinker in Christian circles, of his refusal to escape danger when the opportunity presented itself and of his final sacrifice for his beliefs.

Although the message of the film seems to be that Bonhoeffer’s faith sustained and emboldened him, it’s more probably the case that, like his co-conspirators (none of whom are presented as having any deep religious motivations) he had a naturally well-developed sense of empathy for those who suffered at the Nazis’ hands, which prevented him from conforming to the times. That he also happened to be a Protestant theologian doesn’t seem to be a decisive factor, especially in light of all those priests and other church figures who not only
didn’t oppose Hitler but gave him a sort of official sanction (a profound lapse in moral judgment which the film, to its credit, does not ignore).

Religion is a rationalizing tool and one that’s learned, and while it’s often a benign behavior modifier, how one uses it has much to do with one’s pre-existing innate qualities (and the surrounding culture and society). If the ability to see cruelty clearly and to respond to it without concern for one’s own well-being were inherently religious qualities, then Bonhoeffer would not have been such a singular (or at least outstanding) individual.

That, at any rate, is this agnostic’s interpretation, based on the premise that goodness is a predisposition available to most people in varying degrees but one that doesn’t always survive life’s experiences, at least not intact. Bonhoeffer was an admirable person because of his dogged pursuit of the right thing, an endeavor he persisted in following, not without a few small lapses, to its sacrificial conclusion. And while the story of the complicity of some Germans in Hitler’s crimes has gotten renewed attention in recent years (most famously in Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioner), it’s important that the story of the resistance also be remembered — if only as a reminder that even in the worst of times there will always be brave souls who, despite all odds, dissent.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].