CORVALLIS - The desire of an Oregon State University professor to educate the world about Dietrich Bonhoeffer has resulted in an award-winning film that will premier nationally in prime time on more than 300 U.S. public television stations on June 14.
OSU German professor Christian P. Stehr is the U.S. producer of "Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace." He has been involved in all phases of the film project over the past six years, from conception through post-production.
Stehr was also the major fund-raiser for the $3.5 million project, which includes major funding from Aid Association for Lutherans, and from NFP teleart Berlin, a German independent film production company; as well as associate funding from Norflicks Productions of Canada, and sponsorship from Oregon Public Broadcasting and Wisconsin Public Television.
In addition to its release in the U.S., the movie will be shown on German television, and pre-sales were made to Finland, Italy and Spain.
A private screening of the movie was held June 6 in Washington, D.C., where more than 450 people, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and several members of Congress, were on hand for the viewing.
"It's been very well received," Stehr said. "Everyone associated with the movie is very excited for the PBS release."
The film debuted at the Avalon Cinema in Corvallis April 7, drawing more than 1,200 people in a two-week run. Stehr said the movie will be released in independent movie houses following the PBS showing. The film was shot using super 35-mm film so PBS can broadcast it in the high definition format.
"Bonhoeffer's story is one of the most compelling of World War II," Stehr said. "I thought it was important to tell his story to the public."
The 90-minute movie depicts the final years of Bonhoeffer, renowned German theologian and Lutheran pastor, who voluntarily returned to pre-war Germany from safe haven in the United States. It tells how he defied the Nazis and was ultimately executed on the personal order of Hitler for his resistance activities shortly before the end of World War II.
In February, at the 40th International TV Festival in Monte Carlo, the movie received the Golden Nymph for Best Television Movie. The festival is considered one of the most important festivals for television movies in Europe.
Stehr said he felt the movie was a success after the production team reviewed the final edit in Toronto, Canada. "Everyone started to cry at the end of the movie," Stehr said. "We were all just blown away by the final product. It was then we knew we had something special."
Dennis Clauss, a senior consultant for Aid Association for Lutherans, said the story was compelling enough to draw interest from the major U.S. television networks and several large movie production companies.
"We had discussions with a number of networks and big production companies but we would have had to surrender the integrity of the program," Clauss said. "With many made-for-television movies, there is a gap between the final product and reality. They feel the need to sensationalize the story for the viewer."
During initial discussions, it was suggested Bonhoeffer's story should be told as a documentary, a position Stehr said he rejected.
"I just felt we couldn't do the story justice with a documentary," Stehr said. "Not much remains in East Germany and only a few people are still alive who knew Bonhoeffer."
Instead, Stehr forged a coalition of Americans, Canadians, and Germans who filmed the movie in Czechoslovakia, Berlin, and Toronto. The intricacies of an international co-production were taxing, but Stehr said it helped the final product. "The story is historically accurate but it's told with passion," he said. "It's not a scholar's tale. It's told so that the general TV audience will find it interesting."
Clauss said he hopes the movie stimulates the public to think about a variety of issues.
"Our goal is to use the movie to compel people to ask questions about themselves," Clauss said. "What does it take to be a moral person? What's the appropriate role for government and the church? What are my values and beliefs? For us, the film is not an end product. Our hope is that the film becomes the stimulus so people will talk about contemporary ethical issues."
Stehr, who specializes in international co-productions, is best known for his work as executive producer for the five great composer television specials hosted by Peter Ustinov on PBS. His award-winning 18-part multi-media German course for distance learners, "Guten Tag," produced for KNOWLEDGE TV with a grant from Germany, is debuting on public television stations through the U.S.
Stehr said he plans to start work in the future on another movie based on the life of a historical figure.