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TV Review: PBS film on Nazi fighter muddled yet interesting

Tuesday, June 13, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

"Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace" is no "Schindler's List" for many reasons, but the 90-minute PBS film will at least introduce a larger audience to another resistor to Nazi oppression during World War II.

The film has its share of weaknesses, not the least of which is the clumsy introduction of characters, but there are moments of compelling drama when German Lutheran minister Dietrick Bonhoeffer (Ulrich Tukur) reconciles his faith with his actions.

Bonhoeffer preaches against Hitler until he's forbidden from public speaking by the Gestapo. Reluctantly, he joins with a group of disenfranchised military officers who hope to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer, using the cover of a German military agency, acts as a secret courier for the resistance and helps smuggle Jews out of Germany.

Unfortunately this is all a confusing jumble in the film, which doesn't flow well. It pays little attention to details, like explaining how this German military agency manages to fly under the Nazi radar and how Bonhoeffer is able to get away with his efforts because the government already knows his views.

"Bonhoeffer" also touches on his twin sister and her marriage to a Jew, but it only skims the surface of that relationship.

The film makes up for these deficiencies when it shows the moral dilemmas Bonhoeffer faced. Even those he's trying to help question whether a man of the cloth should be involved in a government coup.

"So many lies, so many deceptions," says a Jewish woman he helps to escape from Germany. "Peace, Dietrich. Don't win the war only to lose your soul."

The film picks up steam once Bonhoeffer is arrested and faces off with a Nazi interrogator.

As the title character, Tukur gives Bonhoeffer an exterior calm that also allows glimpses of the pastor's passionate beliefs.

Bonhoeffer's dedication to those beliefs perplexes his sweet fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer (Johanna Klante), one of his former confirmation class students.

Their eyebrow-raising engagement (he's 37, she's 18) grounds the film and finally gives another character some semblance of depth. The presence of Maria also gives Bonhoeffer someone to share his thought-provoking ideas with, including, "I believe it's worse to be evil than to do evil."

This story of martyrdom probably won't be the definitive screen treatment of Bonhoeffer's life, which is good because it can clearly be done better. But this "Bonhoeffer" is a revelatory initial effort.

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