The Violence and Pacifism of Witness
Originally featured in Christ & Pop Culture, August 2022.
Uh, hi! Welcome to the new Signals, Calls, & Marches newsletter. As promised, here’s the essay on Witness. I’ll also be publishing some of my Patreon essays here, though at least half of them will be on the paid subscriber tier.
Many 1980s thrillers, including Roman Polanski’s Frantic (which also starred Harrison Ford), Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Blow Out, loosely followed the path of Alfred Hitchcock, as their protagonists each stumble into a criminal conspiracy they’d have never encountered if it weren’t for some random accident. These good-looking, ordinary - but always determined - heroes are then plunged into an evil, shadow underworld they have to fully understand if they can ever hope to defeat it. Versions of this narrative have been the stuff of literal legend for thousands of years of course, but Reagan era Hollywood had perfected a formula, releasing dozens of “lone wolf” actioners and suspense films for an age of hyper-individualism.
What makes Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness stand out among that year’s hits, however, is not just the Australian Weir’s “sense of wonder,” as he described his modus operandi in American Film, or Harrison Ford giving a passionate, career-best performance as Philadelphia police officer John Book. Witness would be considered unusual even now thanks to the script’s structure - much of the real plot and action takes place in the first act and then the final 30 minutes. Book is also not in a shadow world at all, but is navigating daily life within a small Pennsylvania Amish community.
The movie instead pursues a love story between Book, in hiding to protect an Amish boy, Samuel, from corrupt cops, and Samuel’s mother, Rachel. The two of them are from separate worlds, yet they bond over a mutual intelligence and sense of integrity. Rachel may live under the way of Gelassenheit, an acceptance of submission and higher authority, but she’s as defiant as Book when she tells her father, Eli, that she hasn’t committed any sin.
Book and Rachel’s romance is how the script develops into something rather profound: an exploration of two different ways of Being, both how they naturally conflict with each other, and how people can bridge these gaps in shared experience through humanity and collectivism. A stunning climax eventually depicts how the Amish’s pacifism and Book’s retribution can each be effective. The result is a deeply moral and eventually non-violent reckoning that is utterly unlike any Hollywood “good vs. evil” ending filmed before or since.
Key to the overall external and internal conflict of the movie is that the filmmakers take pains not to emphasize that either Book’s “English” ways, or the Ordnung Christian beliefs of Eli, are incorrect or “wrong”. When Samuel finds Book’s gun, a full scene is devoted to Eli’s intelligent, playful explanation of the Amish’s strict nonviolence. “What you take into your hands, you take into your heart,” he tells his grandson. This community’s belief is as inherently righteous as Book later punching out a jerk tourist, and they’re never the butt of a joke. (In fact, the only real Amish joke comes from the criminal cops trying to find Book, only to discover that locating a single person in a place with no technology or phone books, circa 1985, is next to impossible.) It is easy to see the cost of non-violence, as the Amish are harassed by outsiders but can do nothing in response. The resilience this brings the community is also very evident.
Witness is intelligent enough to trust the audience with ambivalence, with uncertainty. The submissiveness and “quiet in the land” that regulates the Amish life has a cost, whether it’s the exile, or “shunning”, Rachel is threatened with, or the pressure that comes with such an insular community. As my father used to joke, “The good thing about a small town is everyone knows you, and the downside about a small town is everyone knows you.” In a city there is anonymity and release from obedience. Because of scrutiny, Rachel must go to a distant, isolated field in order to passionately kiss the man she loves.
Yet there is also the presence of the collective, the security of knowing someone will always help should you need it. The famous barn-raising scene depicts the Amish at their best, as they work together quickly and comfortably to finish their task, and Book gets the strange thrill that comes from being part of something bigger than yourself. The city of Philadelphia in contrast is characterized by betrayal, death, guns and knives. The cops responsible for the murder Samuel witnesses no longer follow a code, especially Schaeffer, whose line about corrupt officers losing the meaning is thrown back in his face by a furious Book.
Their intent is only to cover up their crimes through a series of dead bodies, and their entrance into the community feels like an invasion, like a violation of the conduct this place requires. The violence they unleash, and that Book later perpetrates to save their hostages, is depicted without romance or fanfare, and with active consequences. Ferguson’s burial in a grain silo is about as nightmarish and painful as anything in a slasher film. Witness as a whole treats both non-violence and force as paths a person must choose and then has to live with.
The final showdown between Book and these men does come from standard Hollywood filmmaking, albeit done with panache and a rule of action as something that has real impact. Then, when Schaeffer threatens Rachel, grabbing her at gunpoint in front of a desperate Book, something astounding happens. Samuel gets away and is able to ring a warning bell, alerting the community that something is wrong. As the theme from the earlier barn raising scene plays, the Amish men and women immediately stop farming and walk toward Book and Schaeffer. The film opens with a single Amish boy silently witnessing a murder in a Philadelphia train station. Now dozens of people see what Schaeffer is doing, and the implication of the title is fully grasped. To be a witness is not just to observe something, but to absorb and perceive the truth of a situation.
And Book, now disarmed, doesn’t even have to shoot him or hurt him. Instead, Book, along with the Amish, who will not act even against a man carrying a weapon, uses non-violence to end the conflict. Where Lethal Weapon at the end showcased Riggs fistfighting Gary Busey in single combat on a suburban lawn, and Gruber plummets from Nakatomi Tower, Book only has his words now, and the possibility that force can only go so far when there’s still a dormant conscience at work.
“You gonna SHOOT HIM? Is that what you’re gonna do, Paul?! Him, the woman, me?! It’s over! ENOUGH! ENOUGH!” Book screams, as Schaeffer hesitates. The camera goes over dozens of Amish faces, all of them silently absorbing what he has done, who this man in front of them is. The sheer moral power of their eyes is devastating. Schaeffer in broad daylight, in front of a hundred people, isn’t even a corrupt cop cleaning up a mess. He’s a desperate thug, using a gun to threaten a family, and the chief finally sees it in the clarity which often emerges with non-violent resistance, when an oppressor is awakened to shame and guilt over their actions. How many people is he really willing to murder over his crimes? How far can he go? Has he accidentally demonstrated Eli’s words about our hearts internalizing our actions?
Unlike so many ‘80s film villains, Schaeffer isn’t killed off and he doesn’t make a last, bloody stand. With his mouth quivering, eyes meeting the cool gazes of peaceful farmers, he begins to lower the weapon. An exhausted Book then carefully walks over and disarms him. Most movies of this time would’ve had Book punch out the bad guy to give the audience a fun payoff or a sense of punishment being meted out. But Schaeffer has fallen so low that this isn’t even necessary. Book’s glaring, disgusted look as he takes his gun says it all. It is also crucial that actor Josef Sommer, as Schaeffer, plays the scene out as a total Recognition. Defeated, his hands in his pockets, he just stares at the ground, clearly exhausted and astonished it ever came to this point.
The police chief is an interloper who doesn’t belong in the town, but then, neither does Book. Witness can only end with Book departing the community and Rachel, going back to the “English”. Modern life and Ordnung cannot be reconciled because the latter requires surrender, both to Jesus Christ and to the collective. One source at UNC writes that the Amish wish to lose themselves, whereas 21st century people want to find an authentic, truest possible “self” to restore and nurture. Book is stubbornly individualistic, and he may love Rachel, and be good at carpentry, but he cannot give up his distinct, centralized identity. Few people can.
Nevertheless, the movie finds great meaning in the contact and connection between two different worlds. The Amish drive horse buggies and don’t have phones, and modern Philadelphians have used cars and guns for many decades, but they also share certain values and common experiences as human beings. We all love, and laugh, and go to the bathroom, and make dirty jokes, and we typically recognize wrongdoing when we are witnesses to it. Violence and selfishness are often constant presences in an unjust world. Witness simply hopes that, like Book, and the Amish who arrive immediately at the sound of an alarm, people will be able to perceive injustice and try to stop it, whether through our own use of force, or the title act of witnessing, of fully recognizing that something is wrong, and merely refusing to look away.