Inside the Bruderhof review: A look into a British religious commune

Few of us know much about Anabaptists. We remember Witness, in which Harrison Ford romances Kelly McGillis among the Amish. Beyond that? Er…

Anabaptists, who include Mennonites and Hutterites as well as the Amish, first appeared in the 1520s as an extreme version of Protestantism. The name means “baptised again” because they believe only the baptism of adults confessing faith in Christ can be valid. Some Anabaptists are more or less assimilated into the modern world. Others, such as the Amish, reject it. Hence the horse-and-carts and the antique garb.

The Bruderhof, quasi-Hutterite Christian pacifists who hold all goods in common, emerged in the 1920s in Germany, moving to England in the Thirties when threatened by Nazism.

They now have around 3,000 members in settlements in the US, Germany, Paraguay, Australia — and here, at Darvell, a village near Robertsbridge in Sussex. The Bruderhof have a “reserved” rather than prohibitive attitude to technology — they don’t have TV or the internet at home but use them outside. The men dress in a modern way, the women like German peasants from a century ago.

(BBC/CTVC/James Clarke)
(BBC/CTVC/James Clarke)

For reasons never clarified, the Bruderhof chose to let programme-maker Karen Emsley (known for The Fall, about crashing Olympic runners Mary Decker and Zola Budd) and charitable production company CTVC into the Darvell community, to make this sympathetic documentary about their way of life.

The main interviewee is a tall, lean, articulate English man, Bernard, who has been in the community for 30 years and is bringing up three children there. He explains that he owns nothing, not even the clothes he wears, and has no use for money. His wife jokes: “There’d better not be money in heaven — it’d be such a huge disappointment.”

We also meet Hannah, 18, raised at Darvell but now moving away from her family for the first time to stay in a Bruderhof-run residence in Peckham, to decide if she wants to commit to the life once she reaches the age of 21.

(BBC/CTVC/Toby Lloyd)
(BBC/CTVC/Toby Lloyd)

The Bruderhof emphasise that one reason they do not deserve to be considered a cult is that they encourage such exploration, so that only those who have a real calling remain when they grow up.

Hannah is bright, confident and has that startling honesty — and she doesn’t much take to London. Her first response, from inside a cab, is just that “it’s too people-y out there”. She feels as though she’s from a different time zone, like somebody from the Middle Ages. She finds herself alone in the crowd.

After a month, having taken a job as a youth worker, she’s puzzled that London and the Bruderhof coexist. “Seeing the emptiness in people’s lives, seeing how messed up society is, I’ve realised the value in community, the joy in committing your life to something bigger than yourself — it makes you flipping happy, because it’s not just you any more.”

Inside the Bruderhof, with mistily rustic scenes set to relaxing guitar strumming, presents an idyllic picture. What the programme doesn’t do, des-pite several members making it clear, is grasp that this is the opposite of a lifestyle, a community that only exists because it is based on absolute faith. A fascinating watch, nonetheless.

Inside the Bruderhof airs on BBC1 at 10.35pm