"Do not defend film against theology"

Obituary on Hans Werner Dannowski (1933-2016)


On November 28, 2016, Hans Werner Dannowski, city superintendent em. of Hannover, died at the age of 83 years. He was film commissioner of the council of the EKD 1985-1992, president of INTERFILM 1988-2004 and since 2004 honorary president of INTERFILM. Today's president of INTERFILM, Julia Helmke, portrays the deceased.

Born in Petershagen near Berlin as a child of East Prussian parents, Hans Werner Dannowski grew up in Königsberg and fled with his parents in the winter of 1945 to Lower Saxony. After a short Intermezzo as post inspector candidate he hears Bishop Hanns Lilje at the final preaching of the Hamburg church day in 1953 and decides to study theology. The question of preaching will be his first focus. He is always concerned about the communication and the reflection about who is talking, how is spoken and to whom. After living as a pastor in Göttingen and as director of studies at the Imbshausen preacher's seminary, he has lived in Hanover since 1980, as city superintendent and pastor at the market church.

The local networking and a constant stabilitas loci form the foundation for diverse, also journalistic activities. In 1981, he and others founded the working group for churches in the cities, the so-called "Conference of City Churches" , and is co-editor of the "Church in the City" series. In 1985 he was appointed Film Commissioner of the EKD. A long interview in epd Film is the beginning of his own journalistic commitment. Thus he becomes one of the chief authors of the film magazine, regularily contributing film reviews as well as shaping the theological profile of evangelical film commitment and film journalism.

From the very beginning, the "artisan" side is important to him. With biographical references: in parts he financed his studies in Hamburg as film extra. In 1985, he reviews previous dogmatic debates within the circles of evangelical film activities: the quarrel about "direct" or "indirect" proclamation or about validity and effects of Bible films, and pleads for a hitherto incredible attention of theologians and church for movie entertainment constantly taunted before: "We can not afford such a defensive approach, I think. That would be a whole lot of ruthless, because we constantly live with the world of images. Everyone transforms his faith in an imaginative way. (...) I am experiencing the departure of something new. There are very strong positive elements in it. "

At the same time, he combines the reflection on theological approaches to film with perspectives of social sciences and the humanities. Next to the Bible he refers to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Siegfried Kracauer, and Gottfried Benn when he talks about films, references which he always considers as a dialogue. "I discovered a wealth of connections of a scope I never imagined, and have been rewarded by theological inspirations of many kinds in these six years." Thus he writes in astonishment at the end of six years of serving as film commissioner, critically adding: "Admittedly, the problem is the results. With radio and television you can say: we made this programme, and millions have seen it. Film commitment, in contrast, is a dialogue with an open end." Meanwhile he had published, in epd Film and elsewhere, numerous talks with directors or a public dialogue with film critic Rainer Gansera with whom he controversially discusses the future challenges of evangelical film activities.

Dannowski answers self-critically: "Perhaps this is the actual shortcoming of previous film activities of the church that it reacted to films when it was concerned in terms of content, of religious motifs and beliefs (including the whole area of ​​the conception of society and the human being). But for me, the independence of film as an art form is accepted only when aesthetical categories get part of the theological reflection. You have cited André Bazin. In his book 'Filmkritiken als Filmgeschichte" (Film Critiques As Film History, 1981) I found an amazing sentence. 'Of all the arts, cinema in its essence is the one in which God is most closely involved.' He said that by referring to the artistic process of creation, which can not be defined as a matter of cause and effect, but is to be understood in its transparency and unpredictability, precisely as creation. A fine example for the short step of considering aesthetical questions into the field of theology. I would like to go on with you and many others on this path: offensive, sometimes hopefully challenging, and asking for constantly critical accompaniment. "

Dannowski himself continually supports film theological publications published from 2000 onwards, reviewing standard works such as the dissertations by Inge Kirsner or Jörg Herrmann for epd Film. Broad attention he earns by his sermons at the first "Berlinale Sunday" in the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, later in St. Matthew's Church on the occasion of the European Templeton Film Award. They set a style by creating a constellation of Biblical text, film narrative and film-theological interpretation, similar to the sermons in the special form of art services, the 'KunstGottesdienst', which Dannowski held twice a year in the Sprengelmuseum in Hannover together with the local art historian and art mediator for thirty years. Three books based on these sermons have been published, without offering a finished homiletic model. He always wants to re-enter the biblical text and the work of art, and to intertwine both with each other without mutual instrumentalization or illustration. The only formula he gives: Careful preparation and almost journalistic research, for weeks. Carefulness, a look for details, for what is in sight but still needs to be revealed, spreads and shifts after his official retirement from 1998 onwards.

One of his strengths is to summarize developments and give a model orientation. Thus he concentrates the relationship between film and theology on the three aspects: separation model, identification model and bridge model, which lead to the conclusion: "The biblical message loses its visionary power if it is not blended with stories of today."

One of his successors as film commissioner of the EKD, Werner Schneider-Quindeau, the chairman of the Protestant Film Jury in germany, has described his approach to film in his laudatory speech on Hans Werner Dannowski's appointment as INTERFILM's Honorary President in 2003: "In ecumenical width and theological depth, with never ceasing curiosity and enthusiasm he went to the cinemas because he hoped to find, and found indeed, unusual translations and provocative suggestions for the preaching of the gospel. (...) From his pastoral experience he knew that the dreams and nightmares, the suffering and the laughter, the abysses and the longing and hope of the people in cinema are expressed more attentively, more accurately and, above all, more emotionally and affectively than in the catchwords and empty formulas of the inner-church language."

Translation: Karsten Visarius