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An Interview with Martin Doblmeier - Bonhoeffer's Video Biographer  

On February 6th PBS will be airing a one hour edited version of Martin Doblmeier's epic film concerning the life of the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who helped spearhead a resistance movement and assassination plot against Hitler during the second world war. Ultimately Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in a concentration camp and executed mere weeks before the end of the war. The full version of the film first appeared in North American movie theatres during the winter of 2003. 
 
Doblmeier took time out from wrapping up production on a Hallmark Channel special concerning the life of Albert Schweitzer to speak with me. The eloquent president of Journey Films shared the impact making the film had on his own life but more importantly, the underlying message for the church today.
 
Doblmeier said, "He (Bonhoeffer) is an example for everyone that even when situations get very tense, very extreme and everyone around you seems to be following a different path than you there is still a call to understand what the will of God is. I think for me Bonhoeffer does that. When I started reading Bonhoeffer back in high school I saw a man who was courageous. He was willing to offer himself as a martyr for God. As I have gone back to tell the story now that I am a middle aged man who has struggled to find his own spirituality what I saw this time in Bonhoeffer is a man who didn't follow a straight line. He had to make decisions every step of the way. Some of which he regretted. He was constantly analyzing what he was doing and what the consequences of those actions were. He was praying that he would make the right move. I think that is the example for all of us to try and understand the will of God. It means a constant alertness to what God is calling you to do. (It requires) openness to the signs of how God is speaking to you. It means awareness of scripture and prayer. All of these components come together to decipher what really is a complicated question."
 
During 1998 Doblmeier and crew traveled to Germany to interview Bonhoeffer's closest friend, Eberhard Bethege and Ruth Alice Von Bismarck the sister of Bonhoeffer's fiancée Maria Von Wedermeyer. The film also features interview with Bonhoeffer's nieces Renate Bethge and Marianne Liebholz. 

"These were the oldest people who were still living and knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With very little money to start I just committed to go ahead and do the film. We used the first grant money to go over and shoot the interview with Eberhard Bethge. Most people who know Bonhoeffer know of him as a result of the effort and the work of Eberhard Bethge."
 
"We realized from the beginning that I probably would be the last person to sit down and do a full in depth interview with many of these people who were associated with the Bonhoeffer story. I spent the better part of eight hours interviewing Eberhard Bethge. People walked away feeling they had said everything they wanted to say. There was closure for them."
 
It was through these interviews that a keener sense of what Bonhoeffer stood for began to emerge. "In looking back at how the church responded at that time, for me there is a keen awareness of how the church failed in its mission to really be prophetic at a time that it needed to be heard. I think that the church today sees how it failed in the 1930's because they were so anxious to be considered part of mainstream culture. It was a different situation than it is in America (today). At that time in Germany the church and state were all mixed together."
 
Doblmeier doesn't try and defend the church in Germany leading up to and during the Second World War but he does set the scene for us, "Coming out of World War I the church didn't feel it was relevant the way it needed to be. It had lost some of its fabric in the place of the German culture. They saw this man who in the beginning (seemed to be) trying to be a moral leader. He (Hitler) was ending pornography in Germany, trying to get the economic recovery going. He was trying to offer a moral voice for the German people. The German churches liked that. Even when he began to speak out against the Jews they somehow ignored that. I think they realize now in retrospect that was their big failure. They didn't stand up for the Jews at a time when the Jews needed to be supported. I think in Germany today you have a much different church. It is much more critical of the state. In our country in the United States there is a much different role for the church where the church and state are separate. The church is more prophetic."
  
Doblmeier said the combined events of the war in Iraq in conjunction with the timing of the film's release stirred debate wherever the film has been demonstrated in churches. He said within the same congregations it is not unusual to have different people standing up with opposing views concerning what the church's role should be with situations like this war or in situations where tyrants exist.
 
Bonhoeffer is just one in a long line of autobiographical films that Doblmeier has produced during his career. Others have included Thomas Jefferson, Cardinal Suenens, Jean Vanier and his chronicle concerning the Taize community in the Burgundy region of France. 
 
"Most of the films that we do are on faith and spirituality, faith as it is lived out in the world. I think when you see lives of people who are trying to understand what the will of God is and what it means for them in their moment and time I think it brings people a sense of comfort to see other people struggling to understand the will of God," says Doblmeier.
 
"We are starting a major PBS project on the subject of forgiveness. We think it will be a gritty, wrenching type of storyline," says the filmmaker. The thrust of the film will center on how difficult the act of forgiveness is. He says the program will air late in 2006.
 
Doblmeier says, "We are also doing an hour long production for Public Television about the Washington Cathedral. It is a wonderful metaphor for the role of faith in America." This show is also tentatively set to air late in the year. 
 
As I spoke to this accomplished producer he had just begun work on a script for a feature film about a fictitious congregation on the US / Mexico border. The film explores finding Christ in the midst of several cultures meeting. Although it is a fictitious account Doblmeier says he draws his material from real life situations.
 
Production is also underway for a Dutch broadcast centering about the life of former Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper who was instrumental in ordering the role between religion and society in Dutch culture. Kuyper also founded the Free University in Amsterdam as well as Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan.
 
During the month of January America, honored the memory of another great man Martin Luther King whose life came to a premature end. It is only fitting than that our conversation turned to the subject of how we come to view people whose lives do end at a young age. 
 
"I think all of us have an innate fascination with people whose lives are left incomplete. People who show to us these extraordinary glimmers of light, wisdom and revelation and whose lives are cut short. Bonhoeffer died at 39. He stops writing at the beginning of his 38th year. This is a very young man. He carries into his writings the youth, the hope and the optimism about what the world can be," said Doblmeier. He continued, "We read into it the possibility of what he could have been had he outlived the war."
 
You can sense that loss in the interview with Ruth Alice Von Bismarck the sister to Bonhoeffer's girlfriend Maria Von Wedermeyer. DM says, "Some of the stories got more difficult when Ruth talked about the last meeting that took place between her sister Maria and Bonhoeffer. At the end of the story you can feel the emotion of the loss come over her. She liked Dietrich a lot and she loved her sister. I think revisiting it was difficult but I think people welcomed the opportunity to be part of his legacy."
 
If you miss the PBS special you can order the DVD from Journey Film's website at www.journeyfilms.com.
 
By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved

Joe Montague is an internationally published journalist / photographer.His ministry is dedicated to the memory of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18. All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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