News & Politics

Journey Films: Interview With Martin Doblmeier on Film & Religion

Movie insights into religion, what Mel Gibson missed, how one man stood up to Hitler, and other stories of faith on film

Organized religion is a communal response to the human desire to connect with God—that’s not going away,” Martin Doblmeier says. “Community is how we survived throughout history, how we think about and care for each other.”

Doblmeier, 55, is founder and president of the Alexandria-based Journey Films, which explores the effects of religion on people’s lives.

He was born in Queens, New York. His father was a convention manager. His parents, now in their eighties, live in Florida.

In high school, Doblmeier carried around German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, written while Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis. “Even into the baseball dugout,” Doblmeier says. “His writings transformed me.”

At Rhode Island’s Providence College, Doblmeier majored in comparative religion. After graduating in 1974, he went to Boston University to study broadcast journalism and get a master’s degree. Then he produced and directed two television newsmagazines, one on religion.

He later turned to film, producing and directing such documentaries as The Heart Has Its Reasons (1985), on a French religious community that helps the mentally handicapped; Grounds for Peace (1991), about Northern Ireland; and Thomas Jefferson: A View From the Mountain (1995), on Jefferson’s legacy in race relations.

Doblmeier’s most celebrated work is Bonhoeffer, a documentary on the theologian’s resistance to the Nazis. The film was released in 2003 and aired on public TV this year. Among its honors are the Gabriel Award, which recognizes “broadcasting that uplifts the human spirit.”

Doblmeier’s works in progress include a docudrama on philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer, to air on the Hallmark Channel this year, a documentary on the Washington National Cathedral, which he calls “an exploration of what it means to be a cathedral in the 21st century,” and a documentary for public TV on forgiveness from the perspective of different faith traditions.

He lives in Alexandria with his wife, Jelena, who teaches business management via distance learning, and their 13-year-old son, Nik.

In Doblmeier’s Old Town office, we talked about what he’s learned.

What makes a great filmmaker?

Knowing how to make a film that strikes an emotional chord. It gets to a level you didn’t think could be reached by film. With a truly great film, this continues year after year, generation after generation.

How do you evoke that reaction?

By starting with an emotional reaction to the material yourself. If you lack the passion, you can’t instill it in the public.

Good films, especially those about faith and religion, transport you out of your immediate life.

When I was growing up, you had to go to a movie theater and sit with several hundred people. More people now experience film on a computer or TV screen. Something is lost when people no longer sit together—or feel, in a communal sense, what the film is saying to each of them.

I make the effort to watch most films on the big screen. It enables filmmakers to use subtleties, powerful imagery and sounds.

It also opens up opportunities for quiet moments. The small screen is designed for rapid attention-keeping.

The cinema gives a filmmaker greater confidence. People are fixed in their place. You can bring them to moments of quietness and reflection without fear of losing them.

Why do you specialize in religion?

I’ve long been fascinated by it—especially by how faith can, and should, be lived in the real world—a world that’s often challenging, many times cruel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer strained to understand what God was calling him to do in an incredibly cruel world. That’s why his story continues to inspire so many. We need to see humanity in its darkest side, but we also need people who show us hope.

Film is visual, and religion is nonvisual. How do you mesh the two?

That’s a great mystery—and I’ve found that the fun of life is struggling with mysteries.

Television and film do well with sports and action—things on the surface. Trying to reveal an interior life is tougher. I mesh the two by examining how someone’s faith is lived in the real world. That living part, at least, is external.

Many people realize we live in a world that’s commercial, that’s lived on the surface. Yet human nature yearns for something deeper.

Nonetheless, I’ve come to realize that mine is a niche market.

Why was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ such a hit?

Much of it was marketing. It was the most discussed film ever that nobody had yet seen. The furor was over whether the film was anti-Jewish at its core.

Religious people backed the film as a statement to support Jesus Christ. They wanted to ensure that a film about Christ’s suffering wouldn’t fail. They felt a religious mission to get behind it.

I was on several panels to discuss it. I saw the deep emotional reactions it sparked. People watched it in the cinema and then bought it on DVD. They wanted to see it again and again.

I had a hard time watching it even once.


Mel Gibson is a fine filmmaker—I especially love Braveheart—but I consider The Passion a good, not great, film. I found it too narrowly focused. Understanding the role of Jesus Christ in the world goes way beyond how much suffering he endured. There was his message of love.

What have you learned about making films on spirituality?

Given my niche market of intelligent viewers, being didactic is a perfect formula for failure. The job of a filmmaker—at least in my space—is to explore, not preach.

To think that a film in this space can show a clear conclusion is another formula for disaster. In spiritual matters, you try to get people to be as curious as possible on this difficult journey.

Together we’re straining to understand how God works in the world. That’s why we travel with Bonhoeffer as he struggles to believe while coping with horrendous events. We see how he reacted to crises, sometimes making bad decisions but constantly reflecting on them with a sense of prayer.

The decisions Bonhoeffer faced weren’t about him. They were decisions he felt he had to make for others. He showed we don’t live by ourselves. We live in a world of communities. We’re responsible for others in those communities. That shaped his decision—at the cost of his life—to return to Germany from New York.

He struggled to gain the courage to do and say the right thing. And sometimes he failed.

Was religion a rational or emotional experience for Bonhoeffer?

Though he was an intellectual and first-rate theologian, Bonhoeffer was moved by emotion. He found it in the black churches of New York City. He heard songs that brought the congregation together and lifted them up. He discovered the raw, physical expression of love for God that he hadn’t felt in Germany.

In Harlem, he also learned how churches could become an avenue for social change. That, too, had not generally been the case in Germany. Among New York blacks, he found a suffering people coming together to try and transform their world. He took that lesson of social action back and applied it to Jews in Nazi Germany.

The emotional element of religion showed him a path he had never known. That passion gave him an opportunity to see his world in a different way.

For many people, religion involves two worlds—the one we’re walking in now and the world to come that God promised us. Christians should thus be prayerful and get through the first as best they can, always keeping their main focus on the second.

Bonhoeffer helped change this approach. Theology became a calling—just like the one Christ had—to focus on this world and help transform it. In the 1930s, he decided more clearly every day that he was being called by God to resist National Socialism.

Yet so many religious figures succumbed to Hitler. They shouted “Heil Hitler” along with all the rest.

Jesus leaves the church in human hands. We humans are too often susceptible to self-aggrandizement. We want to join the mainstream.

Remember, too, that the Nazis grasped the attraction of religious language and symbolism. Hitler knew the power of people believing that some action was sanctioned by God.

What are your favorite movies?

I love Forrest Gump. Robert Zemeckis is a great filmmaker. I see lots of films but return to ones like The Deer Hunter and Franco Zeffirelli’s works in the 1970s.

I particularly like Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. It’s honest, dirty, and gritty at the same time. His Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about St. Francis of Assisi, has a texture and visual potency I hadn’t seen before.

Yet I didn’t come into this field to emulate other religious films.

Why did you come into it?

I didn’t feel I had any choice. In high school, we were shown documentaries on the Holocaust and such. These moved me, especially those on the intersection of this world, God, and possible transformations. I never saw myself getting ordained but still found the religious realm the one that felt most comfortable. In a bookstore, I always wander over to the religion and philosophy section. There I find myself in the fray of arguments on religion and the shape of the world.

It’s a difficult time to gain a sense of God and religion in the world. Religion can expand people’s horizons beyond themselves, but it can at times also be guilty of engulfing them in ignorance. And when religious people behave badly, the effects can be devastating and widespread.

Do advances in science endanger religious faith?

Not for me. But for some people they shake the foundations. When this happens, people hold onto what they believe with absolute force. That’s one reason why you’re seeing a rise in fundamentalism.

What does religion do in your life?

Many experiences in my life have affirmed that God continues to reveal himself to me through the people I meet and situations I’m in.

I’ve filmed in some 45 countries. I’ve seen some of the sheer cruelty of what we do to one another. But I also see the hope that sparkles in many people’s eyes even in the most dire circumstances.

What’s the state of religion in America?

It’s at a crossroads. I’ve been speaking in churches and synagogues across America. I find that faith communities struggle to remain relevant in an increasingly secular society, and yet the ones that meet the daily needs of people head-on are thriving.

What lessons have you learned about religion and filmmaking?

I’ve found a big disconnect in America with religion and its role in the public square. When religion enters the public media, a wall goes up. We disconnect our faith from the ability to speak about it in public. And many of us are forced to compromise the fullness of who we are.

It’s nearly the opposite in England. A friend was director of religious programming at the BBC. In Britain, maybe 10 percent of people attend church. Yet his weekly television show, Songs of Praise, features choral singing and preaching in a different church each week. It was amazingly popular.

Was there one moment when you decided to devote yourself to religion?

Since I’ve been an adult, there was no moment when I didn’t want to do that. I first felt it in high school, when I read not only Bonhoeffer but also Martin Buber. I liked Buber’s “I-thou” dichotomy, stressing how other people are a reflection of God.

I volunteered at a soup kitchen and a home for the elderly. I befriended an older man, and soon he was gone. As a 16-year-old, I was haunted by that. Maybe I hadn’t helped him enough. If I’d known he was near death, would I have acted differently? That experience got to me very deeply. I then decided to study religion in college.

I became a classroom Christian, studying ideas and having all-night philosophical discussions with friends. I continued down this path and never really changed.

What have you learned about life?

That I need to be more grateful. There’s so much to feel fortunate about—a great family and profession. Our culture doesn’t emphasize gratitude. When you win a game, you don’t stop and appreciate it. You just think about the next game.

I’ve learned that fear is the main reason people act evil. Most people aren’t evil but can do evil out of fear.

The role of faith is to show that if believers lower their fear, it’ll be okay. Faith in God, faith in the value and goodness of other people, can reduce the fear factor. That’s religion’s greatest gift.