Elisabeth of Berlin tells the story of Elisabeth Schmitz, a schoolteacher who risked her career and her life by criticizing Nazi ideology and the treatment of the Jews. She was a contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a member of the Confessing Church.
The Christian church in Germany was complicit in Nazi ideology. The Confessing Church provided a form of resistance. But as we see in the film, even the Confessing Church didn't go far enough. The film tells the story of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when the Nazis burned more than 2000 Jewish synagogues, killed 91 Jews, and deported 25 to 30 thousand Jews to concentration camps. Kristallnacht is considered the beginning of the Holocaust.
The following Sunday, the church was silent.
Elisabeth Schmitz was not. She had been urging the Confessing Church to be more active and outspoken on behalf of Jews as Jews, not just Jews who were baptized as Christian.
"How are we to answer the many desperate, bitter questions and complaints: Why doesn’t the Church do anything? Why does it permit the nameless injustices to go on? How can it time and again pay joyous tribute to the National Socialists and offer political endorsements to a government that persecutes some of its own members? Why does it not at least protect the children? How could it be that everything that is simply incompatible with the nowadays much maligned humaneness could be compatible with Christianity?"
-Elisabeth Schmitz to Confessing Church leadership, 1936
She drafted a manifesto and secretly mimeographed copies of it in her basement and sent it to leaders of churches in the Confessing Church Movement. Because of her efforts, some churches spoke out.
This is an important film. It shows how the church was either complicit or complacent in response to systematic injustice. Bonhoeffer was considered a radical in his time. We remember him as a hero, but in his time he was not regarded as such. This should be a lesson for the church today. Those who sound like radicals may be the ones to whom we should be listening.
This film is not about Bonhoeffer. It is about a schoolteacher with a conscience. Her story was forgotten. At her funeral in 1977 only seven people attended. However, new research has uncovered this important person. Elisabeth Schmitz is the person we should remember (and emulate) the most. I look forward to the publication of her writings.
As I watched this film I thought of the Hebrew prophets, Amos, Jeremiah, and the others whose words were not heeded in their time. They were the radicals who were discounted or silenced. It was only after the events that their words and actions were remembered. So I watched this film with a mix of admiration for her voice and her courage and with disappointment that more didn't share her courage, then or now.
The film is nicely paced and features interviews with historians and theologians who provide important insights to the situation in Nazi Germany. I recommend it for church school classes, certainly, but also for high school and college history courses.
Steven Martin has produced a number of important films. This is his best to date. See his website for ordering information.
View the trailer:
"Elisabeth of Berlin" trailer from Steve Martin on Vimeo.