Catholic Filmmaker Tells a Nazi-Era Story

Director Martin Doblmeier’s Movie on Dietrich Bonhoeffer Showing Nationwide

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ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, AUG. 27, 2003 ( Church halls and sanctuaries were the only venues that were willing to show the film “Bonhoeffer” when it was first released in the spring.

But due to a growing demand the documentary of the famous Christian’s struggle against Nazi Germany is now playing in major cities across the United States.

“Bonhoeffer” producer and director Martin Doblmeier shared with ZENIT his experience as a Catholic filmmaker and the story behind his latest film.

Q: Could you briefly explain what the film “Bonhoeffer” is about and why you were drawn to the story?

Doblmeier: “Bonhoeffer” is a documentary film that tells the true story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian who is remembered as the pastor who became part of the plots to kill Adolf Hitler.

But what I think is remarkable about him, and why he is preached on and studied around the world, is that he is one of the great Christian writers of the last century who, while surrounded by enormous anger and hatred, continued to look for the will of God.

I began reading Bonhoeffer while in high school — I went to a private Catholic boys high school in New England — and never forgot the story or its impact on me.

“Bonhoeffer” is our 20th production at Journey Films, including films on the ecumenical community of Taizé, Jean Vanier and L’Arche, and Cardinal Bernardin. In some way Bonhoeffer’s story has been a part of what we have done in the past.

At the beginning I saw the film as a historical documentary about a figure for whom I cared deeply. But early this year when the film was complete and we began showing it in the midst of the buildup to the war in Iraq, I saw how people readily made the connection between the issues Bonhoeffer faced in his time and those confronting us now. For many people the film then took on a whole new level of contemporary importance.

Q: What were the challenges of making “Bonhoeffer,” a film about a Christian’s struggle against the Nazi regime, in our modern, secular society?

Doblmeier: I can’t imagine a more difficult task in our culture today than to tell a story of faith to a mass audience.

As Americans, so many of us have become cynical and jaded, suspicious of the true motives of others. A person who performs acts of charity for the other can often appear to be a fool. So when we encounter a person like Bonhoeffer it can be very disturbing.

My challenge as the filmmaker was to find a balance in the telling of the story that would allow the depth of Bonhoeffer’s faith and his Christ-centered thinking to emerge uncompromised, but not present it in such a way that it seemed saccharin — that would alienate the more skeptical viewer.

Q: What gifts can you offer as a Catholic filmmaker?

Doblmeier: I think because of my Catholic background I have an appreciation for the value of faith and the cost of faith paid by the martyrs of the past.

While Bonhoeffer was not Catholic, he was a person who believes deeply in God and always tried to act out of that belief. His story had a profound effect on me personally and I hope through the film I can help bring that story to life for many others.

Q: How does your own faith play into your filmmaking?

Doblmeier: For me, making “Bonhoeffer” was itself an act of faith. When we began the production we did not have enough funding to see the project to completion.

It took about three years longer to complete because we were constantly in the fund-raising process. Especially after the events of Sept. 11 it became increasingly difficult to raise completion funds. But we never lost hope. Now I am glad we were able to see it through.

This is my 20th production on religion and spiritual issues, and most of the films have been broadcast on public television or one of the commercial networks. I find myself on a continual faith journey and one of the most important ways I do that is through the process of filmmaking.

I choose a story first because I want to walk that particular path, study that extraordinary life, read that classic material, meet those inspiring people and visit some memorable space. So with every story I need to open myself to new ideas, the richness of traditions and the many examples — both historic and contemporary — of faith in action.

Through the blessing of this work I find myself constantly being challenged in my thinking. I have come to realize I am not alone in my faith or in my doubts, and that I am part of something greater than myself.

Q: Do you think there is an audience for films about Christians or with Christian themes?

Doblmeier: Most people go to the movies to relax and escape the difficult realities of their lives. Movies have traditionally been one of our great forms of entertainment. “Bonhoeffer,” on the other hand, is a serious documentary that presents challenging themes and painful truths.

Its success in theaters, thought limited, is due, I believe, to the thirst so many people have for genuine stories of faith. “Bonhoeffer” opened in New York on June 20, the same opening weekend as “The Hulk.” “Bonhoeffer” has attracted only a small fraction of the audience “The Hulk” attracted but it still drew enough of an audience that the theater extended its stay.

People do have a hunger for movies, films and programs that tell the story of faith — either as documentaries or as fiction. But the audience is much more modest than those who are out seeking sheer entertainment. We need to always be mindful of that.

Q: You’ve said that “Bonhoeffer” transcends denomination or creed, drawing together Christians, Jews and Muslims. Why do you think the film has that effect?

Doblmeier: The religious world can be very divided and even more painful, there can be deep divisions within individual faiths. Even within the Catholic community we see liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. But what always seems to rise above the division is a compelling story of courage through faith.

Bonhoeffer, by virtue of his ability to transcend all the hatred and injustice around him, kept his attention and focus on the will of God. Simply put, Bonhoeffer loved God and turned his whole being over to God as an act of faith. That kind of action and courage speaks directly to people from every faith tradition and serves as an example of the best of God’s own handiwork.

Q: What can the film “Bonhoeffer” teach us about the role of Christians in society in the past, present and future?

Doblmeier: As I travel across the country with the “Bonhoeffer” film, speaking in theaters and in churches of various denominations, I am struck by how people see the similarities between the challenges Bonhoeffer faced in his times and those of our own.

Bonhoeffer believed in the potential for churches working ecumenically to transform this world for the better. It is one of his most enduring legacies. He also believed that it is only by living in this world that we learn to have faith. He was a man of this world — who saw all the joy and suffering around him — but he was not bound by it.

Bonhoeffer had the courage to challenge his own church by standing with the Jews, who were the poor and suffering in the Germany of his day, and for that he was cast out. In everything he sought to live like Jesus and because of that he died like Jesus, naked before his fellow men. Bonhoeffer has much to teach us in what he wrote and how he lived his short life.

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