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Gary Blount, psychiatrist-turned-producer, has created a remarkable new film about the last days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp, told through the eyes of a British broadcast team.
Question: You have just produced a film about influential theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer after years of studying his work. What has kept you so interested in Bonhoeffer?
Answer: Since first hearing the story more than 50 years ago, I’ve never hit a roadblock or detour. (That is, once I got used to my Christian hero being a chain smoker.)
As with all of my heroes, I’ve constantly tried in one way or another to relate to Bonhoeffer, and I suppose this has gotten a bit easier as I’ve become acquainted with a few members of his family in Germany and England.
From the beginning, I’ve loved his hard-core faith and courage, but I confess I’ve also been increasingly wowed by his good taste: Bechstein piano, Audi (okay DKW), and pet Saint Bernard. And it was easy to relate to his need to move back in with his parents and his willingness to accept an adult allowance. Dare I mention his eagerness to marry a girl half his age who was possibly smarter than he was and a lot better looking?
You work as a psychiatrist in Minnesota. Do you have a particular interest in theology? Does your expertise in psychiatry give you particular insights into Bonhoeffer and his still-discussed ideas?
It seems to me there is a kinship between theology and psychiatry. Many people seem convinced that neither one requires a degree or even specialized study.
Seriously, I love theological insights and, in fact, really look forward to hearing them occasionally from the pulpit.
You know, Bonhoeffer said some harsh things about mental health treatment, but some of his actions in prison reveal a more open stance. For instance, recently I read that when he would learn from a fellow inmate in Tegel that a family member might benefit from a psychiatric consultation either to address a condition or simply mitigate what otherwise might seem to be a hopeless forensic situation, Bonhoeffer would find a way to refer the person to his father, the recently retired psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer. I would put that in the practical theology column.
I recall a legendary professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota who would tell his residents and students: “With this new patient, I don’t care who does the physical exam; I’ll do the history.” That’s what I want to continue doing — focus on the dynamic story.
What is your film Come Before Winter about?
Our story is about the final chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what must have been the aching for deliverance by the Allies, who were rapidly closing in. We felt our time frame might extract something of the essence of his life and the perspective which he seemed to seek — “the view from below.” This view now includes more uncertainty, wartime cruelty, and vengeance.
Bonhoeffer had long been an outspoken foe of Hitler, and we chose to tell the story with the help of a couple of other anti-Nazis: seriously broken vessels Sefton Delmer and Otto John. The latter has been called “the living link” between Bonhoeffer’s last days and the storyteller in England.
I am surprised at how many of my students under the age of 30 have never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On the whole, when I mention Bonhoeffer, they look at me blankly, and when I say “German theologian,” they glaze over and tune out. So I wrestle with the question of how we can persuade younger people that Bonhoeffer is relevant for the 21st century.
In my research, I have been struck by how little the world of religion has changed between Bonhoeffer’s time and our own. When Bonheffer decided to become a theologian in the early 1920s, his father and older brothers derided that decision. The Bonhoeffers were a family like the Kennedys, meant to make a difference in society, and in that context, becoming a theologian seemed a waste of talent. The church appeared, then as now, to be dying, its place in the civic discourse largely irrelevant.
As Barry Harvey outlines in his book, Taking Hold of the Real, Bonhoeffer faced the same “world come of age” that we live in today, in which a worship of technology pushes theology to the margins. This is a discounting of God’s presence in the world that Bonhoeffer fought against vigorously.
God is in the center of the village, Bonhoeffer insisted, Christ the only reality in the midst of a world of illusion. Yet today, we face the same battle he did to infuse a marginalized church with meaning.
Bonhoeffer also fought against mistaking the institutional structure of the church for the church itself.
Earlier this month, I posted that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. This moment was a defining point for Bonhoeffer! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”
For the next three years, until his arrest on April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer lived an unsettled life. He became a courier for the resistance group operating out of the Office of Military Intelligence (the Abwehr), even as he continued to teach and minister to the young seminarians and pastors of the Confessing Church.
DB was a seminary professor and involved in the resistance movement against Hitler. He was dedicated in preparing young men for the ministry and he was dedicated in stopping the Fuhrer.
On June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. Bethge wrote:
The people around the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arms, they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horse Wessel song. We stood up, too Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”
(Dietrich) Bonhoeffer returned to Nazi Germany with a sense of personal certainty and moral clarity, but it would be the surrender of France one year later, on June 17, 1940, that put him on his ultimate collision course with the Nazi regime and sealed his involvement in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler.