The Christian Broadcasting Network

Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace

Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace

By Craig von Buseck Contributing Writer

RatingNot Rated
Time85 minutes
5-Star Rating
DirectorEric Till
Executive ProducersGabriela Pfandner, Kurt Rittig, Chrisan Stehr, Alexander Thies
Thomas Doggett, Oregon Public Broadcasting
Byron Knight, Wisconsin Public Television
Rosemarie Wintgen, Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg
ScreenplayGareth Jones
Director of PhotographySebastian Richter
GenreBiographical, inspirational


Ulrich Tukur (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Johanna Klante (Maria von Wedemyer)
Robert Joy (Manfred Roeder)
R.H. Thomson (Knobloch)
Ulrich Noethen (Hans von Dohnanyi)
Tatjana Blacher (Christel von Dohnanyi)
Richard Parkington (Reinhold Niebuhr)

-- "If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Ghandi and non-violence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer" Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ulrich Tukur as Dietrich BonhoefferWhat does a Christian do when faced with the choice of following an immoral natural law or adhering to God's law?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have grappled with this dilemma. Does one blindly follow the apostle Paul's admonition in Romans, chapter 13, "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established"? Or is a believer bound to obey God's law of love, grace and forgiveness even if it means disobeying an evil law of men?

In Nazi Germany, the church was faced with the choice of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, or to the God of the Bible. Sadly, many chose to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler: "I swear to be true and obedient to the fuhrer of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler, to abide by the law and fulfill my duty, so help me God."

But one courageous man decided to follow the law of God above the Nazi laws of hate -- Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A German theologian and clergyman of great distinction, Bonhoeffer actively opposed Hitler and the Nazis at great personal risk. His convictions eventually cost him his life at the hands of the Gestapo.

Bonhoeffer's last years, his participation in the German resistance and his moral struggle are dramatized in Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace.

Bonhoeffer: Agent of GraceThis is the compelling account of theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of faith driven to agonizing ethical decisions in Nazi Germany. The actions of Bonhoeffer raise questions about justice, service, sacrifice and moral responsibility -- issues that most people are likely to struggle with at some time in life.

More than just a biographical film, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace sheds light on the little-known efforts of the German resistance. This award-winning film -- directed by Eric Till and shot in the Czech Republic, Berlin and Canada -- brings to a wide audience the heroic rebellion of Bonhoeffer, a highly regarded Lutheran minister who could have kept his peace and saved his life on several occasions, but instead paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.

Early in the movie, Bonhoeffer makes his position clear.

"Let's not delude ourselves that if we take the loyalty oath to Hitler it means they'll let us worship in peace. The Nuremberg laws are an attack on Christianity itself. Adolf Hitler demands nothing less than total commitment. He's the elected chancellor, yes. But more than that, he considers himself de Fuhrer, and as "the leader," he craves to be the conscience of every living German. But his claim upon us is a claim that a Christian can only accept from Christ Himself."

In exasperation he cries out, "The Reichsbishop is rewriting Holy Scripture!"

And Bonhoeffer is not only concerned with Hitler's attack on Christianity. He also voices his concern for the Jews.

"Only those who cry out for the Jew have the right to sing Gregorian chants! Christ himself was a Jew, and in the eyes of the Lord we are all one."

Bonhoeffer realized that the evil nature of the Nazi's would force him to oppose his own government and lie to cover his actions and the actions of his family and close friends. The atrocities of Hitler moved this theologian to political action.

To aid the German resistance, Bonhoeffer became a part of a secret group that worked to overthrow Hitler, and also smuggled Jews out of the country. Because of his contacts with other theologians outside of Germany, Bonhoeffer was used as a courier to carry messages to the allies about the anti-Hitler movement.

But like Corrie Ten Boom, another Christian who faced the same moral dilemma, he was uneasy in this life of deception. In one moving scene, a Jewish friend who he is smuggling out of the country turns to Bonhoeffer and exclaims, "So many lies. So much deception Please, Dietrich, don't win the war only to lose your soul."

Bonhoeffer finally comes to the conclusion that he must choose the lesser of two evils. When talking with an allied theologian about their attempt to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer declares, "I believe it is worse to be evil than to do evil."

The film opens in the late 1930s in the United States. Bonhoeffer has left behind the trials and struggles of his homeland where he has been forbidden to teach, and is exploring the spiritual vitality of the African-American church. But his conscience won't allow him to stay out of the struggle and he returns to his native Germany.

Bonhoeffer: Agent of GraceA vocal critic of Hitler and the Nazis from the start, he rebels against church leaders complicit in the rise of the Third Reich. During this outspoken period, a church meeting is broken up by the Gestapo under the leadership of Nazi judge Manfred Roeder (played by actor Robert Joy). Bonhoeffer is thereafter forbidden to preach in public or publish his writings, and he will be closely observed by the Gestapo.

Germany's racial laws affect Bonhoeffer's family. His twin sister is married to a Jew. Bonhoeffer advises them to leave the country, as he is convinced Hitler will make the threats against Jews a reality. His fears are soon confirmed.

As the situation in Germany becomes more oppressive, Bonhoeffer is persuaded to join the resistance. He goes to work for the Abwehr, a German military intelligence agency, and serves as a courier to the allies.

After the resistance's first failed assassination attempt on Hitler, the Gestapo initiates a wave of arrests that sweeps up Bonhoeffer. They have no concrete evidence against him, but Judge Roeder continues his suspicion of the pastor. Bonhoeffer endures countless interrogations and humiliations without giving the resistance away, and his faith is strongly put to the test.

Bonhoeffer: Agent of GraceAs he struggles in prison with doubt, fear and his own doctrinal positions, Dr. Bonhoeffer writes a number of practical texts on Christian living. He writes several moving letters to his fiancie, Maria, along with some poetry. These words, penned in the midst of incredible agony, provide a window to the struggle within Bonhoeffer in this dark time.

The film shows the pastor in the solitude of his dank cell, grappling with the questions haunting his soul:

Who am I?

They often tell me I stepped from my cell's confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I?

They also tell me I bore the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Let those people out!

Or am I both at once, a hypocrite to some and to myself a contemptible weakling.

Who am I?

Finally, the tortured man finds comfort in the arms of his Savior:

Whoever I am, you know, dear God, I shall always belong to you.

In the end, evidence is found by the Gestapo connecting Bonhoeffer to the German resistance. Dr. Bonhoeffer is hung at Flossenberg prison at the order of Adolf Hitler -- just 22 days before Hitler himself commits suicide in a Berlin bunker ending the war in Germany.

The prison doctor later described the scene of the theologian's death to reporters. "Through the half-open door I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths." The prisoners were ordered to strip. Naked under the scaffold, Bonhoeffer knelt for one last time to pray.

In the PBS movie, Bonhoeffer faces the hangman's noose with a verbal prayer, "Father, give thy servants that peace which the world cannot give."

Director Eric Till -- Bonhoeffer: Agent of GraceI applaud PBS for broadcasting such a dramatic testament to a man of God, living out his beliefs and values in the face of persecution and death. They have stayed true to the real events of Bonhoeffer's life. The production values are superb, the acting is subdued and believable, and the story is compelling. Much praise goes to director Eric Till. I am also impressed with the work of cinematographer Sebastian Richter, for his tasteful, and in places, brilliant photography.

Exceptional performances are given by Ulrich Tukur as Bonhoeffer and Robert Joy as Judge Roeder. The contrast between what is good and evil, moral and immoral is embodied in these two characters. Their interaction provides suspense and moral conflict throughout the story.

This is a movie that every Christian should watch. It is an opportunity for the world to see a powerful story about a contemporary Christian hero and martyr. In life and in death Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave glory to Jesus Christ -- he is a role model for people everywhere.

More from Craig von Buseck on

For more information on Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace click here.

To learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, visit the International Bonhoeffer Society or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum web site.

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