March 4, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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Serious and direct, Bonhoeffer is a documentary constructed in a classically formal style. Far from weakening the film, however, the technique used in the movie compliments its significant subject matter. Rejecting convention, the title character of Bonhoeffer chose to honor his personal values rather than conform to those of society.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was from a conservative and well-to-do German family. Intensely intellectual and religious, Bohoeffer studied theology in his native Germany as well as the United States. It was, in fact, this time spent studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City that exposed Bonhoeffer to a different type of spirituality via Harlem churches. Bonhoeffer later returned home to teach theology at the University of Berlin, but his seemingly innocuous arrival in Germany happened to coincide with another, much less auspicious, arrival: that of Hitler’s nationalistic regime.

Far from being a conformist, Bonhoeffer did not share the enthusiasm many of his fellow Germans had for the new government, thus causing the second half of his life to be far less idyllic than the first. Bonhoeffer was unwavering in his view of ethics and Christianity and eventually chose to honor personal values rather than adhere to state-originated mandates.

The dissenting stance that Bonhoeffer often took against popular German policies led him to later become a double agent. Bonhoeffer worked for the internal German resistance and was an active member in an ongoing plot to assassinate Hitler. The assassination conspiracy obviously failed, alluding to Bonhoeffer’s untimely death, barely a month before Allied troops arrived in Germany.

This is an alternate vision of World War II, referencing a perspective within a different type of resistance. Bonhoeffer is an intelligent film because it does not get lost within its context. Instead of being hindered by the myriad of issues surrounding the Nazi regime, Martin Doblmeier’s film, like its namesake, always has its main point in mind. Bonhoeffer, the man, is the main subject of the film and audiences are being allowed a small taste of how he lived.

Doblmeier, who wrote and directed the film, presents his subject as a human being, who is not so removed from the real world, as the surviving formal photographs of Bonhoeffer would have us believe. The black and white images, all identical in their stiff poses and immaculate suits, present Bonhoeffer as a historical figure rather than a real person. However, Bonhoeffer as the passionate man of faith who risked his life to do what he believed was right is made accessible through numerous interviews with family, friends, and former students.

When the sister of Bonhoeffer’s fianc