QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Since first hearing the story more than fifty 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 (OK DKW), and pet Saint Bernard. And it was easy to relate to his need to move back 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 and a lot better looking?
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.
Our story is about the final chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what must have been the aching for deliverance by the Allies 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.
The short answer is yes. We wanted to travel with Bonhoeffer the last miles, in the company of his fellow prisoners. As much as possible we wanted to rely on the people who were there and took notes, you might say. Most of them survived the war, as did many in Bonhoeffer’s family though they were deeply implicated in opposition to the regime. For instance, Dietrich’s best friend drove Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer’s Mercedes carrying the bomb to the train, which would transport it to Hitler’s plane. We sought to embed Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the German resistance, at first ridiculed abroad and reviled at home. In true affection for a hero, I think most of us would want him or her to make it and Dietrich Bonhoeffer came close. How close? I’d been skeptical of the standard answer, which was that on April 9 the Allies were within fifty miles of Flossenbürg. For an answer I prefer, watch the American P-51s buzz the prisoners at Regensburg hour after hour on April 6 and fellow prisoner Alex Stauffenberg’s wife crash land her plane practically in the back yard of the schoolhouse where the prisoners were staying the day Bonhoeffer was picked up for Flossenbürg. As for the backstory, I hope there are unmistakable echoes of Discipleship and Life Together.
Martin Doblmeier inspired me and my wife encouraged me. His Bonhoeffer film a dozen years ago hit the bull’s eye for accuracy and ignited tremendous interest in public showings. Ten thousand students saw it over a week or so at the University of Minnesota. I began ruminating about an angle and shared my fantasy with Ferdinand Schlingesiepen, dean of the European Bonhoeffer scholars. Our brief conversation ended with him bellowing, “You’re right Gary, those characters Bonhoeffer ended up with would make quite a story!” Or something like that. One such character was Dr. Waldamer Hoven, Buchenwald Camp medical officer, who got himself thrown into the dungeon where Bonhoeffer and other prisoners lived. While practicing, he was known to finish his euthanasia rounds (IV phenol) and stride out of the building whistling When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day. As the producer, my main role was to divert the invoices to my wife, Lee. I also did a little writing and shaping of the story. Actually, I was intimately involved but not in the technical details.