Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister (2003)

Simultaneously a beautiful study of human life mired in great adversity and a lost opportunity for revealing the intricate depths of theological thought in Nazi Germany, this film foolishly sacrifices its greatest potential asset: the wonderfully rich theological writings that justify Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a subject suitable for general interest.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister

Director: Martin Doblmeier
Cast: Eberhard Bethge, Klaus Maria Brandauer, John De Gruchy, Geffrey Kelly
Distributor: First Run
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Journey
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-04-20
We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled, in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is probably not a name that figures prominently in your historical awareness -- that is, unless you are a student of theology. Born in 1906 to a well-to-do family in Breslau, Germany, Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged district on the outskirts of Berlin. He lost an older brother, the 18-year-old Walter, to the First World War, a loss that led Bonhoeffer toward religion and pacifism.

The Bonhoeffer family was not particularly religious and therefore were somewhat surprised by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to study theology. He earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin (completing his dissertation when he was only 21 years old) and then studied further in New York City at the Union Theological Society. Returning to Germany in 1931, he soon became a relatively outspoken critic of the emergent National Socialist party and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. He helped establish the Confessing Church and was the head of an illegal seminary for the Confessing Church in Finkenwalde and then later at the von Blumenthal estate.

Eventually he became involved with the resistance group based in the Abwehr (the Military Intelligence Office) that plotted to overthrow or assassinate Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 for conspiracy and executed two years later just as the Third Reich crumbled.

Martin Doblmeier's 2003 documentary, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister, sketches the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer through a combination of narrative biography, quotations from his various personal and theological writings, and interviews with numerous talking heads (mostly theologians), and Bonhoeffer's friends and relatives. As Doblmeier notes in the interview included as an extra with the DVD, many of the interviews with Bonhoeffer's intimate associates (such as, most prominently, his pupil and friend Eberhard Bethge) were the last that they would ever conduct before they died.

This in itself serves as a justification for the documentary; it serves as a record of their last thoughts of their friend, older relative, and mentor. We get a sense of the touching human relationships this man enjoyed. We learn that he knew the weaknesses of his friends and indulged them when appropriate (“I liked chocolate and he brought me chocolate”, Bethge tells us). It is a seemingly trivial point and yet it goes toward the veneration that all interviewees demonstrate toward the subject of the documentary.

A more touching episode is recounted by Bonhoeffer's sister-in-law when she relates a meeting between the theologian and his fiancée in a prison; the young woman, unable to restrain herself and against the commands of the guards, flings herself toward her betrothed to embrace him before he returns to his cell. These are beautiful stories and doubtless they are representative of the joys and losses experienced by so many during the Nazi rule of Germany.

Additionally, the documentary tells the parallel story of the changes that the Church in Germany underwent during roughly the first half of the 20th century. The German Church was a fervent advocate of the First World War and when the war effort collapsed, so did the faith of the German people. The Church was in a crisis; it had lost its credibility and its congregations. This goes some way toward explaining (but not justifying) the fact that the Lutheran Church, and later, the Catholic Church, as well, came to embrace the Nazi regime.

Hitler, in a sick twist of history, imbued the German Church with a renewed sense of legitimacy and direction. Hitler centralized the organization of the Lutheran Church and even brought the Catholic Church to heel. There is perhaps no more chilling footage of the rise of Nazi power than the images of robed priests giving the Nazi salute and the pictures of a wedding taking place while the vestibule of the church is draped with Nazi flags.

Indeed, the film's greatest success, in my opinion, derives from its fascinating ability to present surprisingly fresh footage of Hitler and the Nazis with respect to their appeals to religion and a deity concerned with the steady advance of German nationalism. Who would have thought that there was footage of the Nazi regime that had not already figured in countless documentaries? And yet, here it is.

In a particularly arresting scene, we witness Hitler speaking to a large crowd about God's interest in the furtherance of German concerns and the idea that the Nazis had restored the faith of the German people. "No, God" Hitler apotheosizes, "the German people have become strong again in their spirit, strong in their will . . . Lord, we do not let you go. Now bless our struggle, our liberty, and with that our German people and our fatherland." The strange ambivalence of Hitler's rhetoric here is striking. On the one hand, he lays claim to the endorsement of the deity and the fulfillment of His will but on the other hand, Hitler apparently implies that he vouchsafed the deity's support through force ("we do not let you go"). Then he commands God to bless their struggle.

Bonhoeffer seems to have had little trouble seeing through such bloated rhetoric. In 1933 (the very year of Hitler's ascension to power), Bonhoeffer wrote, in a radio address titled "The Younger Generation's Changed View of the Concept of Führer": "Should the leader allow himself to succumb to the wishes of those he leads, who will always seek to turn him into an idol, then the image of the leader will gradually become the image of the misleader. This is the leader who makes an idol of himself and his office and who thus mocks God."

This rather prescient statement anticipates the later notion that Hitler had inaugurated an aesthetics of power wherein the state became a bloated form of theater, a social rite carried out in plain view that justified atrocities as the necessary sacrifices that all such rites entail. Although, as students of World War II, we recognize Hitler's totalizing concept of authoritarian control, nevertheless we often forget that Hitler marshaled religious fervor to his aide, as well. This film is a healthy reminder of that fact.

Given all that the documentary does right, it seems almost petulant to lodge genuine complaints against it. It is a most well-intentioned film and a lovingly rendered, serviceable introduction to the remarkable life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But ultimately, that is the very problem with the film. Bonhoeffer's life was not remarkable because he was a Nazi resister. There were others who played much more prominent roles in the various plots to depose the charismatic Nazi leader.

Indeed, the film betrays certain rather surprising gaps in its narrative even with respect to Bonhoeffer's involvement in the resistance. For instance, since he was such an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, how did he manage to get permission to work as a spy for the Abwehr? Certainly this is an important piece of information, but the documentary does not even register it as a potential difficulty. Surely, the Nazis were not so lax in their security. Insofar as Bonhoeffer ought to be remembered, however, it is for his explorations, documented in his theological writings, of the relationship between the Word of God and the deeds of man. In this regard, I am afraid, the documentary fails to deliver.

Indeed, it fails, in part, by succumbing to a hermeneutic strategy with regard to Bonhoeffer's work that dates back nearly to the moment of his execution: that is, the idea that his theology can only be understood with reference to his lived experiences. One can understand the temptation toward this point of view. After all, Bonhoeffer's pragmatic form of Biblical exegesis insisted upon its viability as the source of human action. (He recommended to his students that they always keep in mind that the words of the Bible were spoken by God to the reader at the very moment of the reading, thus ensuring that God's Word never became frozen into a proposition but always maintained its flexibility to account for all human affairs.)

Ultimately, though, I cannot help but find such a strategy an unfortunate mistake. The film repeatedly portrays Bonhoeffer as a man forced by political turmoil into reconsidering his understanding of the strictures of God and the requirements for an ethical life. But it would be more accurate, and certainly more charitable, to view the trajectory of Bonhoeffer's thought as impelled by theological concerns more than biographical ones.

From the beginning of his studies, Bonhoeffer was influenced by the most important theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth. Barth's belief that the church was the worldly manifestation of the being of Christ is the foundation of Bonhoeffer's theology. The notion that the community of believers is the instantiation of the theology of Christ (particularly, in the most idealistic sense, the Sermon on the Mount) serves as the cornerstone of Bonhoeffer's belief system and he arrived at this notion before he began to defy the Nazi regime.

The point here is more than biographical. To reduce Bonhoeffer's theological vision to the status of a reactionary movement is to vitiate its significance and its impact. The film does further damage in this regard by citing only the most accessible ideas from Bonhoeffer's writings without engaging his thought on anything more than a superficial level. His concepts are taken out of context and divested of the overarching vision that made them meaningful in the first place. To treat Bonhoeffer's endeavors in this fashion is to do a serious disservice to his laudable contributions to theological thought.

Perhaps Doblmeier felt that a documentary film was not the appropriate format for an in-depth study of theology. But this then leads one to ask why he would have chosen Bonhoeffer as a subject in the first place. Actually, he clarifies this point in his interview when he informs the viewer that he first found interest in Bonhoeffer because he had read Bonhoeffer's prison writings at a relatively young age. These writings served as the inspiration for the making of the film and yet the film itself demonstrates little real understanding of this work. Thus, the documentary leaves the viewer in an odd position: on the one hand, we want to admire Bonhoeffer in the manner the filmmaker clearly intends but on the other hand, we cannot help but question the purpose behind a 90-minute discussion of one of many Nazi resisters.

The fact is that we are not particularly interested in Bonhoeffer as a Nazi resister but rather as a Nazi resister who held certain innovative theological concepts. The film assumes precisely that which one should expect it to demonstrate: that is, the reason why we should find interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer at all. Simultaneously a beautiful study of human life mired in great adversity and a lost opportunity for revealing the intricate depths of theological thought in Nazi Germany, this film ultimately sacrifices its greatest potential asset: the wonderfully rich theological writings that justify Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a subject suitable for general interest.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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