Religion and religious people generally get my back up. I have come to see “true believers” as major obstacles to human progress, doing more harm than good. Yet this German theologian, who resisted the Nazi government, has always commanded my respect.
I spent months with his book Letters and Papers From Prison, immersing myself in the last two years of his life. I tried writing it as a play, about a man whose faith is put to the test as he takes a stand against the Gestapo. His was a struggle that took immense courage, and he did not win. In the final days of the War, he was executed for treason.
So he’s a puzzle. Remembered as a deeply decent and caring man, he was neither pious nor puritanical. He loved life and literature, traveled, played the piano, wrote poetry. A gifted scholar, he also had a faith that did not ignore the realities of a world overcome by an evil beyond imagination. From his letters, we know that he had many doubts, and yet they only seemed to strengthen him.
Bonhoeffer had already published an important book, The Cost of Discipleship. In it he argued against spiritual beliefs that require little effort to uphold and knuckle under easily to any kind of adverse pressure. The German Lutheran Church had done just that in allowing itself to become a state church under Hitler.
Demanding as the cost of discipleship might be, the paradox of the man was that his religious faith supported his humanism. The silence of God during the Nazi nightmare didn’t cause him to despair. He came to believe in a God who, despite all evidence to the contrary, had not lost faith in mankind. Religious extremists today could take a lesson from that.
The film. From having written a play that tried to remain truthful to the man, I know his story is hard to dramatize. The screenwriters have chosen to focus on the cat-and-mouse game between Bonhoeffer and his prison interrogator, Roeder. For a subplot, they include the young Maria von Wedemeyer, who fell in love with Dietrich and was permitted prison visits as his fiancée.
Much of the real story has been excluded for the sake of the film’s 90-minute running time. A major omission is Bonhoeffer’s long friendship with Eberhard Bethge, a fellow seminarian. The most revealing and heartfelt of Bonhoeffer’s letters smuggled from prison were to this dear friend, whose absence was like the loss of a brother.
The film, in fact, seems edited down from a much longer version. We get glimpses of several named characters, like Bethge, whose identity would be understood only by someone familiar with the details of Bonhoeffer’s family and acquaintances. Still, much of interest is included, like the system of smuggling coded messages to Bonhoeffer by marking the text of books.
Though made little of, there is also the opportunity of escape arranged for Bonhoeffer. Dressed in a plumber’s outfit, he was to be swept away by night in a waiting car. But knowing an escape would jeopardize other prisoners, some of whom were members of his family, he decides at the last moment not to go. It was a futile choice, as those he meant to save were also eventually executed.
This is a film worth seeing for the simple reason that no two people are likely to take away the same view of it. Like many stories of its kind, it’s a hard one to dismiss.
We know that Bonhoeffer during his time in prison was working on a new book of theology. It seems likely to have been his attempt to come to terms with the horror he’d been witness to. Today, it would surely offer an understanding of what gives every appearance of being a godless world. That manuscript was, of course, lost to us as well.
Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace is an English-language film with a German cast. It is available at netflix and from amazon. Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.
Photo credit: beliefnet.com
Coming up: Buck