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    Christmas Trees

    Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
    bleached by the flares' candescent fall,
    pacing out his own citadel,

    restores the broken themes of praise,
    encourages our borrowed days,
    by logic of his sacrifice.

    Against wild reasons of the state
    his words are quiet but not too quiet.
    We hear too late or not too late.
        -Geoffrey Hill

This made-for-TV movie quietly made an appearance on PBS several years ago and then disappeared, but may now be kicking around on the shelf at your local library, or just maybe at your video store.  You'd do well to look and see if you can find it, because in its unassuming way it is a powerful exploration of the particular duty of good people when evil prevails and a testament to the life and death of one remarkable man.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leading Protestant theologian who returned home to Germany from the United States when World War II began, writing to Reinhold Niebuhr :

    I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany.

Once home, though a pacifist, he reluctantly became involved in various anti-Nazi activities, eventually even participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, which obviously failed.  He justified this course of action because :

    I believe it is worse to be evil than to do evil.

Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5, 1943, but when authorities could not determine how deeply involved he was, they simply held him without charges or trial and it seemed possible he eventually might be released.  During his time in prison, he wrote a series of remarkable, often heartbreaking, letters.  If Anne Frank affects us with her innocence and our sense of a life unlived, Bonhoffer first saddens us with the hopeful tone of his early letters and then awes us by the serenity with which he faces the prospect of his own death.

The film tells this whole story, but does so in rather scattershot fashion.  Unless you know the story ahead of time, it is often difficult to tell precisely what is going on and how all the characters and situations relate to one another.  There are also a few unfortunate liberties taken with the story--liberties that do not make the film more understandable but less--the most perplexing of which is the decision to make Bonhoeffer's teenage fiancé seem quite ditzy.  This makes it hard to imagine what Bonhoffer saw in her, other than youth, beauty, and availability, and, I thought, gave their relationship an almost creepy quality.  From what I've been able to find in reading about them, she was actually quite intelligent.

At any rate, the film is more than redeemed by its final scenes, leading up to Bonhoeffer's execution.  In October 1944, the Nazis finally uncovered evidence that revealed the extent of Bonhoeffer's involvement in subterfuge and he was at last tried and sentenced to death.  He was hanged on April 9, 1945, just a month before Germany surrendered (May 8th).  A doctor at Flossenburg prison, who witnessed the execution, described it thus :

    Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling
    on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and
    so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps
    to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor,
    I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

We do not get all of this in the movie, but we do see Bonhoeffer walking naked to the gallows.  I hope that I can say precisely what I mean here, without giving offense, but in the concentration camp footage we were shown in school there was something dehumanized about the victims--first, because they appear in black and white; second, because they are so emaciated as to be barely recognizable as fellow humans; third, because there are just so mind-numbingly many of them.  But in this scene, Ulrich Tukur, playing Bonhoeffer, is obviously and achingly human--pale, doughy, naked, and defenseless.  Yet he carries himself with a poise and a calm that cows the vile Nazi prosecutor who has come to sate his own bloodthirst.  More than that though, the viewer too is humbled by the dignity and serenity that is portrayed here.

The writer Andrew Delbanco has said that, "belief is really not an option for thinking people today."  Never mind anything else about this provocative statement; consider just this aspect : Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to face death "certain that God heard his prayer" and so died a man at peace.  His life and his death still speak to us today.  How will those who believe in nothing, who are certain of nothing, face their imminent deaths?  Who will wish to tell the tale of their futile rage against the dying of the light?

Likewise, consider the other phrase the doctor used : "entirely submissive to the will of God".   Bonhoeffer's faith assured him that even his death, especially his death, served God's purposes.  If, for the faithless, Man is the measure of all things, then what purpose can a man's death serve?  Is it not always, necessarily a catastrophe beyond redemption?  What have men who believe in their own sufficiency really gained in freeing themselves from submission to God's will, if in exchange their lives become meaningless and their inevitable deaths disastrous?

Without being blasphemous or overdramatic here, there are obvious parallels to the life of Christ in Bonhoeffer's march toward death and they add to our sense of him as the quintessential modern martyr.  None of this is meant to suggest that Bonhoeffer is any more deserving of honor than the tens of millions of totalitarianism's other 20th Century victims, but as it happens we know more of his life and death, and of his struggle to remain true to himself and his God in the face of overwhelming evil, than we know of most of the others, and that the record he managed to leave behind convinces us that his struggle, his life, and his death are worthy of memory.  In one of the many bitter ironies that litter Bonhoeffer's biography, he began his book, Ethics, with the foreboding line :

    When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.

The manner in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer heeded this call, despite, or because of, his understanding of how it must end, makes, despite some weaknesses, for an extraordinarily powerful and moving film.  I am haunted by its final images.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : bonhoeffer, dietrich
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer Home Page (International Bonhoeffer Society)
    -Bonhoeffer's Cell
    -Augsburg Fortress--Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
    -International Network on Personal Meaning :  Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) (Kin's Home Page)
    -ESSAY : Contributions to human rights in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics (Michael L. Westmoreland-White, 01/01/97, Journal of Church & State)
    -ESSAY : Who, exactly, is a Righteous Gentile? : Since 1986 Yad Vashem has declined to honor a Lutheran pastor killed in the fight against Nazism. Undaunted, the lawyer grandson of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise has gone public in his campaign to get Dietrich Bonhoeffer the recognition he feels he deserves. (MARILYN HENRY, Jerusalem Post)
    -ESSAY : Why isn't Bonhoeffer honored at Yad Vashem? (Christian Century, February 25 1998 by Stephen A. Wise)
    -ESSAY : Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Historical" Reading of the Bible
    -ESSAY : First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin: Bonhoeffer's New York (Scott Holland, CrossCurrents)
    -ESSAY : Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton : Dietrich Bonhoeffer by William Hamilton (Religion Online)
    -ESSAY : The New Godless Theology (Kurt Eggenstein)
    -ESSAY : The Death of God (faithnet)
    -ESSAY : Theology and Philosophy In Dialogue (David R. Crownfield, July 1967, Theology Today)
    -ESSAY : Crouching Tiger, Hidden . . . Bonhoeffer? (Daniel L. Weiss, Breakpoint)
    -ARCHIVES : "dietrich bonhoeffer" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : bonhoeffer (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : bonhoeffer (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage By Eberhard Bethge (Beate Ruhm Von Oppen, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW : of Love Letters From Cell 92, edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz (Wendy Murray Zoba , Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich  Bonhoeffer Edited by John W. de Gruchy  (Jeffrey Hensley, Journal of Church and State)
    -REVIEW : of Saints and Villains By Denise Giardina (Paul Baumann, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Saints and Villains by Denise Giardina and Cup of Wrath by Mary Glazener : Bonhoeffer: Factual Fictions (Betty Smartt Carter, Books & Culture)

    -Bonhoeffer :  Agent of Grace (PBS)
    -INFO : Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace  (2000) (
    -BUY IT : Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Eric Till (
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer :  Agent of Grace (Elesha Coffman, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace (Craig von Buseck, CBN)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer  : Agent of Grace (Hollywood Jesus Movie Review)
    -REVIEW : of Bonhoeffer : Agent of Grace (Allan R. Andrews, American Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of Hanged on a Twisted Cross and A View From the Underside (Mary Glazener, Sojourners)

    -REVIEW : of The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive  World History. By Robert Royal (Alicia Mosier, First Things)
    -REVIEW : Jan 9, 1997 Thomas Powers: The Conspiracy That Failed
       Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of the German Resistance by Joachim Fest and translated by Bruce Little
       The Unnecessary War: Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler by Patricia Meehan
       Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944 by Peter Hoffmann
       American Intelligence and the German Resistance to Hitler: A Documentary History edited by Jürgen Heideking and Christof Mauch
       The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War by John H. Waller
       Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany by Noel Annan
    -REVIEW : of Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust,  ed. Robert Ericksen and Susannah Heschel (Dagmar Herzog, Tikkun)
    -REVIEW: of Bonhoeffer (2003) (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)