Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the world's great theologians, died at age 39 on a Nazi gallows, stripped of clothes and dignity, his death unknown to his family until three months later. They never found his remains.
After his execution April 9, 1945, three weeks before Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the Allies captured Berlin, Bonhoeffer became one of the 20th century's most popular theologians. And his ideas still resonate.
"Everybody has their own Bonhoeffer and interacts [with him] the way they want," said Victoria Barnett, a specialist on church history during the Holocaust and one of several scholars interviewed in "Bonhoeffer," a new documentary on the German pastor and teacher by Journey Films of Alexandria.
Mainline Protestants and Catholics see him as a model for social action, of religion working through society to end oppression and racism. Evangelicals praise his intense piety and heavy reliance on biblical texts. And preachers of all stripes quote passages from such works as "The Cost of Discipleship" and "Letters and Papers From Prison."
What intrigues many people the most is Bonhoeffer's decision to join a movement to assassinate Hitler, said Barnett, who lives in Arlington. The documentary, to be shown in Utah churches this week during the Sundance Film festival there and later in Washington and other cities, differs from previous films about Bonhoeffer by showing his spiritual development from early childhood to Resistance member, she said.
Bonhoeffer, one of the first people to openly condemn the Nazi regime and the Protestant leaders who supported it, saw the community of faith as more important than individuals or institutions -- including churches, she said.
If institutions or leaders violated the human community, as he believed the Nazis did in killing Jews, then it was an individual's responsibility to try to stop the oppression. What action a person took was a matter of conscience rather than of preconceived notions about right and wrong, Barnett said.
"His taking responsibility as an ethical standpoint for Christians means you don't call upon religion to sanctify or sanction what you're doing," she said. "You really do take responsibility for your actions before God."
If Bonhoeffer were alive today during the war on terrorism and struggle for human rights around the world, he would advocate that same kind of "radical discipleship," she said.
"I suspect that if Bonhoeffer were an Iraqi he would be a part of a dissident movement opposing the Hussein regime," she said. "At the same time, because he was a pacifist, he would seek a peaceful solution to the conflict."
Martin Doblmeier, who produced, wrote and directed the 90-minute documentary, said he had long wanted to chronicle Bonhoeffer's courageous stand not only against Nazism but also against the German Evangelical Church, to which he belonged. Many church leaders supported Hitler's National Socialist regime and his efforts to systematically remove Jews from German life.
"What's really important is that Bonhoeffer could identify early on [in the 1930s] the direction his church and Adolf Hitler were going," said Doblmeier, whose other films include a biography of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and an exploration of Thomas Jefferson's attitudes toward slavery and race.
"Most alarming to him were the corruption of preaching of the Gospel by Hitler, who was famous for using religious symbolism, and the willingness of the church to go along with this," he said.
Over six years, Doblmeier and his staff tracked down family home movies and archival footage of the Third Reich; visited such sites as Tegel Prison in Berlin, where Bonhoeffer was incarcerated for more than a year; interviewed scholars and theologians; and talked with Bonhoeffer contemporaries or children of people close to him.
The filmmaker talked with former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Bonhoeffer admirer, and hired actor Klaus Maria Brandauer to read passages from the theologian's books and letters. Among them is his famous distinction between "cheap grace" and "costly grace."
"Cheap grace is grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ," Bonhoeffer writes in "The Cost of Discipleship" (1937). "Costly grace is the gospel. It costs people their lives."
Most Americans "have no clue what that means" because we live in a privileged society, said the Rev. Scott Schiesswohl, pastor of Park City (Utah) Community Church, one of three churches showing the film this week. "The cost of discipleship means that to be faithful we must be willing to die" for our beliefs, he said.
Two of those interviewed for the documentary have since died: Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's close friend and biographer, and Otto Dudzus, one of Bonhoeffer's seminary students.
Bethge was one of few people who knew of Bonhoeffer's involvement in counterintelligence. He once called his friend "an odd sort of saint who was also a conspirator."
In the film, Bethge says of Bonhoeffer's decision to join the plot to kill Hitler: "A Christian should not kill. . . . But there are times you are responsible for human beings around you, and you have to think about all means to stop that man who is killing."
Doblmeier said he submitted the documentary to the Sundance Institute, begun by Robert Redford 22 years ago to promote independent filmmakers, and received a polite e-mail rejection.
So he found churches that would show the film and placed an ad in a Sundance publication in hopes of attracting filmmakers and movie aficionados who attend the festival near Salt Lake City.
"About 10,000 people come from all over the world who care about film and are influential," said Doblmeier, who will be there to introduce his work. "I did not want this film to miss the opportunity to be part of that."
Doblmeier said he hopes the film will be seen in as many churches and theaters as possible across the country before it is aired on public television. He is exploring Washington area venues.