Many 1980s thrillers, including Roman Polanski’s Frantic (which also starred Harrison Ford), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Brian De Palma’s 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, shadowy 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 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’s 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 in the final thirty minutes. Book is also not in a menacing place at all, but rather, navigating daily life within a small Amish community in Pennsylvania.
Witness 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, how they naturally conflict with each other, and how people can bridge gaps in shared experience through humanity and collectivism. The film’s 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 are the pains taken by the filmmakers to emphasize that neither Book’s “English” ways nor Eli’s Ordnung Christian beliefs 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 gag 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 and uncertainty. The submissiveness and “quiet in the land” that regulates Amish life has a cost, whether it’s the exile or “shunning” that 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 that everyone knows you, and the downside about a small town is that everyone knows you.” In a city there is potential anonymity and release from obedience. Because of scrutiny, Rachel must go to a distant, isolated field in order to even 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 Chief Schaeffer, whose line about corrupt officers losing the meaning is thrown back in his face by a furious Book.
The corrupt officers’ intent is only to cover up their crimes through a series of dead bodies, and their eventual entrance into the Amish community feels like an invasion, a violation of the conduct this place requires from outsiders. The violence they unleash, and that Book later perpetrates to save their hostages, is depicted without romance or fanfare but with active consequences. Ferguson’s burial in a grain silo is about as nightmarish and painful as anything in your standard horror film. Witness as a whole treats both non-violence and violence as paths a person must choose and then 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.
Witness 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 aggressively even against a man carrying a weapon—uses non-violence to end the conflict. Whereas Lethal Weapon’s resolution features Riggs fistfighting Gary Busey in hand-to-hand combat on a suburban lawn, and Gruber plummets from Nakatomi Tower at the climax of Die Hard, 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 pans 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 in their eyes is devastating. Schaeffer in broad daylight, in front of a hundred people, isn’t even a corrupt cop cleaning up his mess. He’s a desperate thug using a gun to threaten a family, and the chief finally sees that truth in the clarity that 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 after making one last, bloody stand. With his mouth quivering and 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 Schaeffer’s gun says it all. It is also crucial that actor Josef Sommer, as Schaeffer, plays the scene out as a total recognition of what he has become. Defeated, his hands in his pockets, Schaeffer just stares at the ground, clearly exhausted and astonished it ever got to this point.
The police chief is an interloper who doesn’t belong in the Amish settlement, but then, neither does Book. Witness can only end with Book departing from both the community and Rachel to return to the “English.” Modern life and Ordnung cannot be reconciled because the latter requires surrender to both Jesus Christ and the collective. One source at UNC writes that the Amish wish to lose themselves in their actions and society, whereas 21st century people want to find an authentic, truest possible “self” to restore and nurture. Book is stubbornly individualistic, and though he may love Rachel, and can help raise a barn, he cannot give up his distinct, centralized identity. Few people can.
Nevertheless, Witness 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, go to the bathroom, and make dirty jokes, and we usually can identify true wrongdoing when we are witnesses to it. Violence and selfishness, after all, have a near-constant presence 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 through the title act of seeing, of fully recognizing that something is wrong and refusing to look away.