November 15th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Californian wildfires: the causes

EDITORIAL: Backdoor bid to approve therapeutic cloning

CANBERRA OBSERVED : The Greens' road-block to a double dissolution

AGRICULTURE : Farmers call for action on sugar crisis

BANANA QUARANTINE: Will we kill off our golden goose?

FAMILY: I'm sorry I am heterosexual

TRUST: Palliative Care, not Euthanasia

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Higher education / China Syndrome

LETTERS: Militant consumerism (letter)

LETTERS: Hanson a political prisoner (letter)

LETTERS: Forgetting the golden rule (letter)

LETTERS: SBS broadcasting of the Hanoi news (letter)

HEALTH UPDATE: Abortion-Breast Cancer link reaps medical malpractice payout

HISTORY: Dr Jim Cairns, the Kremlin and the World Peace Council

OBITUARY : Madame Chiang Kai-shek dies at 105

UNEMPLOYMENT: Deregulation and free trade are destroying country employment

MEDIA: Five issues Australia must address

TRADING BLOCS: Risks in the US Free Trade Agreement

Dairy industry shrinks under deregulation

FILM REVIEW: Bonhoeffer

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News Weekly, November 15, 2003
Recently I found myself out late at night, in the middle of the week, drinking coffee with a young woman, (my daughter, actually) in a Carlton café. The place was crowded with people. Several looked raffish, and I think one might have been louche. Mostly dole bludgers and drug dealers, no doubt. Who else would be gallivanting around at an hour when all normal, decent citizens are tucked up in bed getting a good night's sleep in preparation for work the next day?

The reason for this inexplicably bohemian behaviour on the part of a respectable middle-aged man from the outer suburbs was a preview screening of a life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was a leading figure in the Confessing Church which was set up in opposition to the Nazi-sympathising German Christians ("The Swastika on our breasts, the Cross in our hearts"). Imprisoned for his involvement in the resistance movement, he was executed shortly before the end of the war because of his connections with the circle who had attempted to assassinate Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was by no means the only Christian dissident in the Third Reich. However, in view of the overall failure of both Catholics and Protestants to respond adequately to the Nazi phenomenon (the Jehovah's Witnesses were the only German religious group to consistently withstand Nazism), he has become an important symbol of integrity in the midst of the churches' silence and compromise.

It must be emphasised that this film is a documentary, not a dramatisation. There are four primary components to it: still photos from Bonhoeffer's life; interviews with those who knew him; commentary by contemporary scholars on his career and writings; and archival footage of pre-war and wartime Germany.

The tone of the film is extremely low-key. Its producers have bent over backward to avoid any possible accusation of emotional manipulation.

This is not going to be a box-office success, and might well have finished its run before this review appears. The material is left to speak for itself, and it does so effectively, but there is no concession whatsoever to popular cinematic taste. The background music is sublime, but also understated.

Those distrustful of American culture will be gratified to note that this sensitive and subtle production comes from the United States.

While there is no disputing Bonhoeffer's heroism and moral stature, it appears that there is still no consensus on the meaning and significance of his theology. Terms such as "cheap grace" versus "costly grace" seem accessible and useful enough, and have entered mainstream Christian discourse (although some believers inevitably respond that grace isn't cheap - it's free!). But what about "religionless Christianity" and "the world come of age"?

Can Bonhoeffer legitimately be seen as a forerunner of radical liberals such as Bishop John Robinson of Honest To God fame?

Over the last fifty years, Dietrich Bonhhoeffer has become a name to conjure with. Everyone wants a piece of him.

So, what are the criteria which justify invoking Bonhoeffer's example as the sanctification of any specific political cause? And is it "indelicate" to suggest, as one commentator has done, that he would not have wielded nearly the same influence had he survived the war?

Of course. in some respects Bonhoeffer was quite conservative. For example, in keeping with his militantly pro-life - particularly the lives of Jews and the disabled - defiance of the Holocaust, he describes abortion in his Ethics as "murder".

Some of these issues arise in retrospect from reflection on Bonhoeffer's life, but there were acute and immediate tensions for him at the time, as the film brings out. How was he to deal with the savage anti-Semitism of his denomination's founder, Martin Luther?

How was he to square his obligation to be an obedient Christian citizen with his moral obligation to plot and dissemble? How was he to reconcile his pacifism with his support for the eradication of Hitler?

One of the most moving moments in the film comes in an interview with the sister of Bonhoeffer's fiance, Maria von Wedemeyer. Dietrich and Maria became engaged in 1943, when he was 37 and she was 19. Shortly after, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. When she visited him in a Berlin jail, the couple had to sit apart and converse loudly enough to be heard by the attendant guards.

Maria's sister describes her at the end of the visit running across the room and embracing Bonhoeffer before the guards could stop her.

It occurred to me for the first time as I watched this film, that when Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp in 1945, he was still a virgin.

According to the contemporary dogma that individual identity is only completely realised through the expression of one's sexuality, he died an unfulfilled human being.

Here, as in other and more important aspects of his career, he continues to stand in judgement on, and contempt of, the zeitgeist.

Can any good thing come out of trendy, vacuous Lygon Street? Well, at least this excellent film was on offer.

  • Bill James

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