Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, spy, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity's role in the secular world have become widely influential.
An Example Of Faith In Christ And One Man's Struggle To Live It Out
All Christians should be familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad thing if all non-Christians were familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He's a man who was shaped by his times as opposed to a man who shaped his times, but he is nonetheless a man of great historical and theological significance. A German Lutheran Pastor before and during the Second World War, Bonhoeffer became an active part of the resistance to Adolf Hitler, being ultimately executed by the Gestapo for his activities - tragically, a mere three weeks before the end of the war. "Hanged On A Twisted Cross" is the story of his life, faith and death. There are two aspects of the documentary that I found to be of particular interest.
After tracing in pretty good detail Bonhoeffer's life up to the rise of Nazism, there's a pretty good look at the split in the German church after Hitler's rise to power. The Nazis tried to co-opt the church to its own ends (and largely succeeded) with the formation of the "Reich Church" - a twisted perversion of Christian faith which maintained the outward trappings of Christian piety, but replaced faith in Jesus and the Gospel with faith in Hitler and the Nazis. In the face of that perversion, a number of German Christians - including Bonhoeffer - formed what became known as the Confessing Church, a church which maintained that faith in Christ superseded loyalty to any earthly authority. That open and public challenge to Hitler's authority resulted in many leaders of the Confessing Church coming to be seen as enemies of the state - a courageous act in Nazi Germany. If the weak-kneed leaders of the Reich Church who succumbed to Hitler represent the worst of Christianity and its tendency to compromise with the world and culture around it, then the very courageous leaders of the Confessing Church represent the exact opposite. Of course, the need felt by the Nazis to co-opt the church to its own purposes (as leaders still try to do today) is a reflection of the power and authority and moral persuasiveness of the church. Used for the right ends, the church is a force for good. If it allows itself to be so co-opted, the church can become a source of evil itself. As a Christian pastor, I keep that in my mind at all times.
The second aspect of the documentary that I thought was powerful (and scattered throughout) was Bonhoeffer's moral dilemma at how to respond to Hitler's accession to power. There was never any question (even in his own mind) that Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler. The question was what form the opposition would take. Would it be simply a moral, passive resistance or would it be active and even forceful? In a struggle with faith, Bonhoeffer eventually chose the latter, becoming actively involved with the resistance and even becoming convinced that Hitler would have to be eliminated - and killed if necessary. This, of course, is a reflection of an age-old Christian dilemma - can Christians use violence and even kill as a result of their faith, rather than simply (and hypocritically) in spite of their faith. Bonhoeffer saw two competing moral calls - the call to stand up and act on behalf of others, and the call to love, peace and grace for all - even for one's enemies. Bonhoeffer eventually decided that the call to stand for others superseded all else. His decision that violence was excusable was not a hypocritical repudiation of the Gospel, but (in his mind at least) flowed logically from the Gospel's call to "love thy neighbour"
and to love them, Bonhoeffer decided that one must sometimes
eliminate that (even another human being) which oppresses them. It is an ethical dilemma for Christians, and Christians come down on basically three points on the issue: the justification of war for both national and religious ends; the call to extreme and absolute pacifism and non-resistance; and Bonhoeffer's sort of middle ground, in which he decided that Hitler must be eliminated to serve the greater good of those he was persecuting. The point can be argued, but one cannot deny that Bonhoeffer's decision was one that was faithful to Christian faith, Christ and the Gospel as he understood them.
As to the technical details of the documentary itself. It was narrated by Ed Asner, who I thought did a credible job, but I thought the most brilliant decision was using Mike Farrell to voice Bonhoeffer's writings and letters. His voice fit what I would think of as Bonhoeffer, and, actually, thinking back to Farrell in his younger days, I could even see him playing Bonhoeffer; there's a certain resemblance between them. One questionable decision was to have an English narrator's voice superimposed over the voice of Hitler when Hitler's speeches were being portrayed. One can't deal with any aspect of Nazi Germany - including this - without coming to terms with how Hitler rose to power. While the issues of the Versailles Treaty and unemployment and inflation (all mentioned here) were important, one can't deny the power of Hitler's oratory, and it's lost when someone else narrates it. Hitler's own voice should have been used, with the English translation simply printed on the screen. I was a little irritated by some admittedly minor historical problems. The one that stands out in my mind is the claim that in Hitler's first attempt to become "Chancellor" he was defeated by Hindenburg in 1932. The 1932 election was for Reich President, not Reich Chancellor. A minor point, perhaps, but to those who know the history of Nazi Germany, it's noticed.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating documentary about a fascinating figure. (7/10)
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