Film finds audience in the pews

This year, one of the most talked-about documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival wasn't shown here - or at any of the five fringe venues that have sprung up around it.

Instead, sellout crowds traded theater seats for church pews to see the uplifting story of how faith led one man to oppose Adolf Hitler in the movie "Bonhoeffer."

Filmmakers rejected by Sundance sometimes take extreme measures to generate audience buzz, renting out restaurants or halls in Park City to screen their movies and lure film distributors. But for the first time in the 19-year history of the festival, local churches banded together to hold their own "festival" and bring "Bonhoeffer" to a wider audience.

"Bonhoeffer" will have limited distribution in US theaters later this year. And it's destined for American public television audiences about a year from now.

The film "represents the very best of what theology has to offer society in times of terrorism, conflict, and crisis," says the Rev. Scott Schiesswohl, who showed the movie to hundreds of viewers at his Park City Community Church.

After hearing about the film from its director and writer, Martin Doblemeier, Mr. Schiesswohl arranged two public screenings for his United Methodist church sanctuary.

He also contacted local Lutheran and Roman Catholic clergy in town, who wanted to do the same. A total of six screenings took place.

"The film is getting a lot of attention from churches and universities," Mr. Doblemeier says, "because when people see this film, they want to talk about it."

The movie follows the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who grew up like many Germans believing that God had failed them because of their military defeat in World War I.

To the surprise of his family and friends, Bonhoeffer accepts a teaching fellowship at a seminary in New York. There, he attends a Baptist church in Harlem and is inspired to take his faith out of the pews and into daily life.

When he returns to Germany in 1933, Bonhoeffer speaks against Hitler during a radio broadcast that is ended by censors. He continues efforts to overthrow Hitler, but he and members of his resistance group are allowed to continue their lives without arrest - until April 1943, when they are linked to an attempt to assassinate Hitler.

At one local screening, the audience of more than 260 stayed long after the film to ask questions and offer comments.

"It all becomes a question of faith - of answering the questions Bonhoeffer asked himself: 'What is the will of God for my life? What is my purpose? And then of fully living our faith in this life here and now - rather than in an afterlife,' " says Schiesswohl.

Filmmaker Doblemeier's Journey Films has produced "Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain" for Virginia Public Television and a syndicated cable TV series.

"The reason this film is so important at this time," Doblemeier says, "is because it addresses relevant questions about what we're reading in today's news."

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