Skip to main content

Taking It to Church: 'Bonhoeffer' Packs the Pews Before Moving on to the Cinemas

By Martin Doblmeier

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, subject of Martin Doblmeier's 'Bonhoeffer.'

In 1998, when production began on Bonhoeffer (, I felt confident that we had an intriguing historical documentary. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young German theologian who challenged his state church to stand with the Jews in their time of need, and eventually moved from pacifist to participant in the plots to kill Adolf Hitler. 

Bonhoeffer wrote prolifically from a moral and religious perspective throughout the rise of National Socialism and his own resistance to it. Over the last decades many of his books—Cost of Discipleship, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison—have become staples in religion and ethics classrooms. And on any given Sunday you can hear Bonhoeffer quoted in pulpits across the country.

But the Bonhoeffer story took on added significance this year as Americans struggled with their own feelings about how to confront an evil tyrant, the justifications for war and the role of the church—if any—in supporting or challenging the national agenda. Bonhoeffer's response to those issues of his day, as seen through the documentary, became a real-life example for many to consider.

In the late fall of 2002, we submitted the film to the Sundance Film Festival, only to receive an emailed notice of rejection. Convinced the film could find a core audience, I approached a council of pastors for the various churches in Park City, Utah, which hosts the annual festival. A number of the pastors were familiar with some of our past films and after they reviewed Bonhoeffer, they came together and extended an invitation to try something they had never attempted before.

Three churches—Catholic, Methodist and Lutheran—offered to use their sanctuaries as movie theaters during the opening days of the festival. We scheduled six showings of the film over four days, and when all but one show sold out, the media—both local and national—began to take some notice. When we returned home to Alexandria, Virginia, we had invitations from churches all across the country to bring the film to them. 

For the first six months of this year we traveled almost continuously, showing the film in worship spaces of varying faith traditions. Catholic, Jew, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, non-denominational Christian (liberal and conservative) all found something to connect with in the Bonhoeffer story.  In the world of religion that often seems focused more on differences than what is held in common, Bonhoeffer seems to have bridged the divide.

After each of the nearly 50 showings I took questions from the audience. Many asked about the film footage from the German archives and various private collections.  In the three years of research we discovered footage never before seen in the US. Particularly disturbing was material showing the intentional use by the Nazis of religious imagery, symbolism and language. Many asked about the classical music soundtrack, and people were anxious to know what became of Bonhoeffer's beautiful fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. But mostly people wanted to discuss how the pastor/pacifist Bonhoeffer could find moral justification to participate in a plot to murder the head of state.

Bringing the film first to the core audience proved to be both effective marketing and a wonderfully affirming experience. It was also common sense. Almost every documentary film has a core audience that can be the starting place for the launch of a film. Whether the film deals with politics, the environment, health, race, sports or fashion, that core audience should be the foundation for any wider release. The question is always how to penetrate the barriers that are present in every social sphere and bring together the fragments to create that initial core.

In our particular case, Bonhoeffer is our 20th film on a religious subject, so working in the religion/church environment was nothing new. But all our previous films were for release on national television, not in theaters. From the beginning we believed Bonhoeffer had the potential for theatrical release, so we set a production standard that reflected our intention. But with the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the difficulties raising funds from foundations and organizations, we usually counted on, it took nearly two additional years to finish the film. Now, with the film complete but with limited funding for its promotion, building the audience deliberately and slowly from the core became the only way possible.

By taking a somewhat unorthodox approach to the initial marketing, Bonhoeffer attracted the attention of a leading independent film distributor, First Run Features of New York. The staff at First Run secured showings for the film this summer in New York, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington, DC and many other cities.

This past winter and spring, Bonhoeffer drew substantial crowds and prompted lively discussions in churches across the country. It became a catalyst for various faith groups often estranged from one another to work collaboratively on a common project. What is now being tested is whether or not that core audience will come out to the theaters in support of the film as it attempts to rise to the next level.


Martin Doblemeier is the producer and director of Bonhoeffer.