Weekly Video Picks

Bonhoeffer (2003)

Executed in a Nazi concentration camp for nothing less than conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Protestant theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not merely a silent conspirator, but an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime — one of the few German Christian voices that dared to openly oppose Hitler. Martin Doblmeier's fine documentary examines Bonhoeffer's life and thought in an expressly theological light, from his early influences to his eye-opening ecumenical and interreligious experiences.

Bonhoeffer deals briefly and fairly with Rome's concordat with the Nazis, explaining that at that early date the full extent of subsequent Nazi atrocities was unguessed and Church leaders supposed that Hitler would to some extent be bound by Christian principles. The appalling image of Catholic clergy making the Nazi salute is unfortunately not balanced by any discussion of Catholic resistance. Then, too, the documentary goes so far as to implicate Martin Luther's own virulent theological anti-Semitism for the level of receptiveness to Hitler's message in the German Lutheran churches.

Content advisory: Some disturbing Nazi-related imagery; discussion of theological and moral ideas requiring critical interpretation.

Intolerance (1916)

Stung by cries of racism over Birth of a Nation, with its romantic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan and offensive black stereotypes, D. W. Griffith responded with an even more ambitious, and deeply moralistic, project: Intolerance, an audacious composite silent epic interweaving four separate morality plays in different eras and settings, from 20th-century America to the ancient Near East.

Artistically, Intolerance is a stunning though flawed tour de force. Even casual viewers will be impressed by the awesome spectacle of the epic Babylonian sequences. But the stories are lop-sided; the Babylonian and modern stories dominate, while the French story is under-developed, and the story of Christ is reduced to a few Gospel vignettes. Still, the rolling climax and edifying finale retains their power.

One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list under “Art.”

Content advisory: Graphic battlefield violence; fleeting nudity and discreet sexual references.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Everyone who cares about film must eventually come to Birth of a Nation. Artistically, technically, culturally, the importance of D. W. Griffith's celebrated, vilified, deeply flawed Civil War masterpiece cannot be overstated: It is “the first great narrative film,” according to Roger Ebert, and the first true cinematic epic; its unprecedented impact helped usher in the dominance of the feature film and the end of the silent age of one-reel shorts.

At the same time, the film's third act, with its outrageously racist imagery and view of the postwar reconstruction, was deeply controversial even in its own day, and has only become more disturbing over time. Had Griffith ended the film at the end of Part I with the assassination of Lincoln, controversy over the film would be a mere footnote. Yet the film's final act celebrates the founding of the original Ku Klux Klan.

Naively surprised by the outcry and controversy, Griffith went on to make Vatican film list honoree Intolerance as his response to his critics. Cinephiles differ which of the two films is Griffith's masterpiece — but it was Birth of a Nation that changed the world.

Content advisory: Battlefield and mob violence; much racist imagery.