An Interview With Filmmaker
Q. Why did you make this film?
I was so taken with Bonhoeffer’s story in high school that within a few weeks I found myself involved in social programs at school, visiting the sick and volunteering for soup kitchen detail. Then, a number of years ago I was introduced to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s great biographer and best friend. Eberhard was central to the world coming to know and understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his passing in 2000 left a great gap that can never be filled. Since we began production in 1998 a number of other people who appear in the film have passed away as well, so BONHOEFFER becomes their last testament to their friend and mentor, Dietrich.
Q. Is BONHOEFFER a history film or a religion film?
I tried to give the film a rich historical background, especially regarding the rise of the Nazis and the capitulation of the German Church. But for me it is first a story of faith. The heart of the story is this young, brilliant theologian trying to understand what is the will of God in the midst of a world torn apart by anger and hate. Through his own writings in books and letters, and through the eye-witness accounts of his family and closest friends, you can feel Bonhoeffer’s struggle to understand what God is calling him to do. He seems to be always questioning himself and his constant prayer is that he will have the inner strength to do what is asked of him.
Q. Why did Bonhoeffer recognize the evils of national socialism earlier than most other Germans?
Two reasons come to mind. The first is the Bonhoeffer family. Young Dietrich came from an incredibly strong, educated and enlightened family that saw through the lies of the Nazis from the beginning. The other reason, I think, can be attributed to Bonhoeffer’s American experience. In 1930, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Bonhoeffer experienced for the first time how a church could and should be an agent for social change. And to his shock he witnessed how blacks were discriminated against in mainstream America. When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and watched the Nazis rise to power by pointing to the Jews, he made the connection quickly and spoke out without reservation or concern for himself.
Q: What was it like interviewing the Bonhoeffer family and friends?
We realized that because so many people we were going to interview were of advanced age, the interview I was doing might very well be the last time that person would speak on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It brought a sense of posterity to the moment. Knowing that, I tried to interview each person not just for the film but for archival purposes, to have long, engaged conversations that could give everyone a chance to say all they wanted about their experiences with Dietrich. We felt we were being entrusted with something special.
Q: Where did you get so much original archival material?
Many people have done great documentaries about the World War II period so we knew we needed to be clear in our focus. One particular area I wanted to address was the relatively uncharted area of how the Nazis masterfully used religious imagery, religious language and religious symbolism in their rise to power. We spent many weeks in Germany combing private archives and collections. The Protestant Church, the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland (EKD) supported our making this film and provided us with their extraordinary collection of photographs. Friends and family provided individual images that were critical to the film. There is only one piece of live film footage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – about 30 seconds long. It is from an outdoor family gathering that includes Dietrich’s mother, father, even grandmother. While it does not reveal anything about his theology it shows the family together at a special time. When it was offered through the family contacts, we treated it like gold.
Q: What relevance does Bonhoeffer have today?
Most people know Bonhoeffer because of his writings. Cost of Discipleship, Letters and Papers from Prison, Life Together, these are classic books that will inspire Christians and non-Christians for generations. You feel in his words the youthful passion of a man struggling to understand the will of God, knowing the earthly price that is often paid for responding to that call. In his own time Bonhoeffer was not a widely known figure, but over the last few generations his stature has grown and his writings have become more and more influential. I think that is because, in the language of today, he was a man who not only “talked the talk,” but “walked the walk.”
In the world of religion today there seems to be a widening chasm between the left and right, the progressive and traditional – especially in the Christian world. What is extraordinary is how Bonhoeffer’s appeal seems to cross over the divisions, finding wide acceptance on both sides. Conservative Christians are attracted to Bonhoeffer because he is so Christ-and Bible-based. The progressive wing is attracted to Bonhoeffer’s commitment to social justice. It is not that the two sides should be in any opposition, it is simply the fact that too often they are and Bonhoeffer is a unifying figure, not a divisive one.