Australian director Peter Weir’s short but remarkable filmography all seems to center around one thing: a unique and secluded community that holds its own rules and principles, which are then tested. Sometimes this test comes from outside, as in The Dead Poets Society, where the irreverent free-thinking teacher (Robin Williams) invades and upends the traditions of an elite boarding school. Sometimes it proceeds naturally from the interior of an unstable society, as in The Truman Show, where the unwitting star of a Panopticonian reality TV show (Jim Carrey) rejects and escapes the false paradise that has been constructed for him. Sometimes the community never recovers, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock, where an all-girls school is shaken by inexplicable, unforgettable tragedy. And sometimes the possibility of change appears but is never realized, as in one of Weir’s finest films, 1985’s Witness. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
Eli Lapp: Would you kill another man?
Samuel Lapp: I would only kill the bad man.
Eli Lapp: Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?
Samuel Lapp: I can see what they do. I have seen it.
Eli Lapp: And having seen you become one of them? Don’t you understand? What you take into your hands, you take into your heart. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.
This key exchange comes early in the film, not long after wounded Philadelphia police officer John Book (Harrison Ford) has brought Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) back to their home in Amish country, fleeing from men who would do them harm. Samuel has been caught playing with the recovering Book’s gun; his grandfather, Eli, takes this opportunity to lay out the Amish philosophy when it comes to violence–that by witnessing violence, by taking up a weapon, Samuel is at risk of becoming that which he has come into contact with. Throughout the film, as worlds collide and people find themselves in new relationships, this idea persists: that close contact can bring together even very different people, that what you see and touch becomes a part of you. It’s a process that old Eli fears: “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord.” The film’s purpose is to show us these two communities interacting and ask us whether or not Eli is right, whether Book should come out from among them and be separate. What it concludes is that Eli is half right; Book comes out from among them, but is no longer separate.
This quiet, economical, precisely balanced film isn’t just about two communities, it’s about two genres, the police/crime thriller and the forbidden romance. Although the film begins and ends with the thriller, neither half is given short shrift, and the film finds fascinating ways to integrate the two stories. Samuel’s innocence as a young witness to a murder is magnified by his Amishness, which has sheltered him from not only violence but also many aspects of mainstream society. This allows us to see an otherwise standard policier through new eyes. Later one of the killers discovers that the Amish community is a perfect hiding spot, due to their lack of telephones and the ubiquity of certain surnames. The flip side, however, is that when they do find Book, he’s left with no one amid the pacifist Amish to help him fight. The way the two environments intersect and motivate one another is both clever and organic to the situation.
Most fascinating to me, though, is the way in which the film uses camera angles and blocking to tell its thematic story. Witness is all about communities forced to intermingle, whether that’s Rachel and Samuel in the big city or Book on the farm, and these relationships are expressed via a strong predilection for shots that combine foreground and background elements. Action mostly takes place along the z-axis–for example, John loads his gun in foreground while Rachel watches from the back of the room–in a way intended to visually juxtapose differing attitudes and contextualize characters within the environments that define them. (I want to emphasize that this is unusual; the film doesn’t necessarily call attention to this technique, but it happens far too consistently to be any accident, just as is Wes Anderson’s preference for the opposite style, a reliance on planimetric compositions.)
There are a few major exceptions to this rule, additional associations the film makes visually.
First, the film relaxes these restrictions whenever the Amish community is acting in concert–the crowds at the barn-raising, for instance, or the mourners in the opening scene. At moments like these the camera gives us a wider, more naturalistic view of the scene, demonstrating the group’s unity.
Second, Witness saves its planimetric compositions (where the action is flatly horizontal across the frame) to show people transitioning from one society to another, as when Book drives Rachel and Samuel back. In visual terms, Philadelphia is a z-axis corridor on the right end of a long horizontal road, and the Amish community is a z-axis corridor on the left end of that road. These transition shots are really what establish the schema in a meaningful way, allowing each community to be expressed in similar ways but separated by that visual/spatial center.
Third, the film takes a different approach with the romance. As John and Rachel begin falling in love, the film supplants the z-axis shots with matched points of view. Where another film might use the conventional over-the-shoulder shot to indicate a shared space (something I discussed in my Silence of the Lambs piece), Witness is cognizant that John and Rachel’s connection is built across a cultural divide, one bridged not by physical intimacy but by mutual regard. That regard, the way each looks at the other with care and curiosity, prioritizes the individuals over the relationship. Rachel watches him drink her lemonade and feels attracted; John looks at her across his car in the barn and is moved to sing and dance. When they finally embrace their mutual passion, kissing and laughing in the outdoor gloom, it’s all the more joyful for the cinematic techniques that culminate here in a shot that has them together, centered, on the same plane, each given equal weight and respect.
Finally, the film’s visual approach when it comes to the action scenes is (relatively) more chaotic. The two major action sequences in the film, the garage shootout and the climactic hunt across the farm, are aligned by this chaos but also instructive in their contrast. Both begin with an ominous shot of a car.(1) In the road just outside the farm, the bad guys’ car appears in the far background of the shot, inching forward and then receding like the fin of a hungry shark. In the garage scene we get just the opposite–as Book drives down into the garage, parks his car, and takes his clothes out of the trunk, a following lateral pan reveals the edge of a black car in the extreme foreground. It’s so subtle we don’t notice it until the very end of the shot, when a light turns on out of frame and the car shifts slightly, suggesting someone has opened the door and stepped out. This difference in introductions is indicative of the difference between the two spaces. The garage represents modernity, where violence is at home, lying in wait everywhere; on the farm, violence comes from outside, an intruding interloper. The contrast continues through the action. In the garage, Book uses the other cars to protect himself (poorly), seeking to drive the killer off. On the farm, his knowledge of the buildings and the environment (carefully established earlier in the film when Samuel shows him around) gives him a new (successful) strategy–draw the killers in and use his superior understanding of the area to defeat them.
This tendency to compare and contrast Book’s society with Rachel’s pervades the film, perhaps nowhere more tellingly than with the back to back scenes of authority figures within the community seeking to enforce the rules of the group. First, Rachel’s father warns her against any kind of romantic attachment or engagement with Book, reminding her that the community will shun (expel) her if they believe there has been impropriety. (Later, John will come to this conclusion on his own–that if they consummated their love, either he would have to stay or she would have to go. This prospect is ultimately untenable to both of them.) Immediately afterwards, the corrupt police official (Josef Summer) lectures Book’s partner, Carter (Brent Jennings), on the rules of their own community, that of the police. According to him, Book has broken these rules by turning on his fellow cops, and for this he must be found and punished. This doesn’t seem to be a lie, either–in the climax, we see that the bad guy only wants to kill Book, not the child witness. The transgression becomes more important than the cover-up, just as the potential for transgression seems more important to old Eli than his daughter’s potential happiness. Both elders are acting to enforce the rules and principles of their respective communities, and both scenes give us reason to question those values.
But Weir’s discussion of these communities is more nuanced than, say, Koyaanisqatsi‘s. The modern, mainstream society is a place of violence, but also one of diversity and progress; and violence, too, is a necessary component of life at times, or at least a cost worth paying. On the Amish side, the film recognizes the values of that lifestyle while not covering up the problems. The Amish people have less freedom in certain ways, but they can also come together and raise a barn in a day. There are trade-offs on either side, and over the course of the film Book begins to appreciate and in some sense integrate those tradeoffs. He learns to participate in the Amish community without necessarily letting go of his own strengths. When violence descends upon the farm, John acts to defend the people and the place he’s come to care for, using both his own skills and willingness to fight as well as, finally, the peaceful supporting strength of the Amish community.
When Book finally leaves to return to his own world, the film gives him two measures of respect. Eli tells him, “You be careful out among them English,” a statement of acceptance so simple and powerful that it speaks volumes about what Book’s experiences have gained him. And then John drives away; but for the whole of that long last shot, Book’s car doesn’t turn right to take the planimetric road back home. Instead, he heads into the background along that z-axis, as though this place and these people will be the context that defines him long after he has left them. It’s true that neither the big city nor the little Amish farm are fundamentally changed by the experiences we’ve seen–“be ye separate,” they remain. But Book has changed. And neither will the Lapps forget him. For this quietly wonderful little movie, that’s enough.
(1) Cars are potent symbols in this film, standing for both transportation between worlds and technology/modernity. Book’s car reflects first his own physical damage, then his healing is mirrored in its repair; finally, as he grows more Amish and less “English”, it represents his diminished connection to the modern world, one he tries to regain/restart when the villains approach and he once again needs the violence of his previous life.