Witness

An Essay by Moira Robertson



Narrative Structure
If we view the film as being about the clash of two ways of life, the line is very clear. The opening credits in stark white letters on a black background suitable for a Plain community give way to a field of waving corn which dominates the screen. The united Amish people dressed in black clothes with white shirts and black hats for the men, bonnets for the women, walk to the farm where a member of their group has died. The mis-en-scene of horse and cart, bearded men in old fashioned clothes and bonneted women with dated, severe hairstyles combined to convince me that I was watching a film set in the past. It therefore came as a shock when the words 'Pennsylvania 1984' appeared on screen. The music by Maurice Jarre is serious, sombre, slow and gentle, with an under tone of 'other-worldliness' entirely appropriate for the theme.

Throughout the film it represents the community life. We hear it as Rachel and Samuel travel to the station, although it has to compete with the noise of the traffic threatening to overwhelm it. Daniel, Rachel's would-be suitor comes to see them off, and remarks with heavy dramatic irony to Samuel "You will see so many things."

The low-angle shot of the train as it thunders over us suggests the threat of the journey which takes them to another world, the city, source of much that is new, noisy, violent and evil, and indeed when they arrive the tune ceases altogether. At the station Weir uses point of view shots very effectively to enable us to see this strange new world through Samuel's eyes. Everything is strange to him, and visual jokes like his immediate and wrong assumption about the old Jew dressed like him, help to reinforce the point. Montage is used to great effect when the child stands puzzled in front of a huge statue of an angel holding a dead body. Christ, or a soldier, we do not know. But clearly a victim of violence, the violence abhorred by his community. Immediately after, the camera moves to a very high angle and shows the child a tiny, insignificant object. It is after this that Samuel disappears in to the toilet and becomes the Witness to a murder, and thus in turn a target for the killers, policemen who have gone wrong.

Book, the good cop, goes with the widow and child to the Amish community, and poses a threat to their whole way of life, symbolised by his car crashing into a dovecote, an icon of this peace-loving community. While recovering from a bullet wound Book finds real peace and wholeness, but his gun, symbol of the urban America, festers in their midst. However he cannot relinquish the violent way of doing things, and when he retaliates violently on a local youth who had been taunting Daniel he unwittingly gives away his whereabouts to those who sought to kill him and Samuel.

In a memorable sequence the three evil cops come with their huge rifles and walk down the hill, the heavy music full of danger and foreboding. The scene had started with the camera on an empty road, then car headlights are seen while a low pulsating note alerts us to the danger. The car then rolls back down hill out of sight, and we know we are in for trouble. This ironically echoes the opening sequence when the Amish community had walked down the same hill to bring not violence and death, but comfort and support. Book manages to kill two of them, one using agricultural methods (choking on grain!), and the other by a police rifle. This he relinquishes to save Rachel, held hostage by the third cop. But the strength of the united community who come in response to the ringing of the alarm bell finally overcomes the armed cop, and he and the guns are removed. Finally Book leaves, wearing again his city clothes, having repaired the dovecote he damaged, and goes back to the city where he belongs, leaving the community in peace and unity once more, underscored by the music of the community which weaves its spell again.

A second way of viewing the structure is to see it as a police story with a killer anxious to deal with the witness to his murder. This hunt starts with the search in the station at the toilet, and ends with the chase at the farm, where he himself is killed by the good cop. Thus it follows the classical narrative structure for the police film.


The third strand is the love story between Rachel and Book with the possibility held out of a whole and healing love inside the Amish community. On one side Daniel is the rival for Rachel's love, and on the other Book has the attractions of the life of a policeman who goes round "whacking" people. The film ends with Book driving up the hill past the restored dovecote as Daniel walks down presumably to continue his wooing of Rachel.

The interweaving of these narrative threads keeps the film interesting, and allows Weir to play around with the generic conventions . The love scenes are sizzling because of what they choose not to show. I appreciate Weir's restraint in these scenes. Rachel washing herself is shot in golden light with the mis-en-scene of a pitcher and bowl. We then see Book as Rachel catches sight of him watching her in the mirror. The cut from one close up to the other allows the actors to register the burning emotion between them. I would suggest that a still from this scene would look very like an oil painting. Similarly the chaste dance in the barn carries more erotic weight than many explicit sex scenes which exploit nudity and turn the viewer into a kind of voyeur. When Rachel realises Book is going to the city and runs out to embrace him, the camera leaves them so we do not really know what happens.

The generic conventions in relation to the iconography of romance are again not slavishly followed: there is no gift of flowers probably because this is a 'plain' culture which does not prize beauty. Instead Book demonstrates his carpentry skills, highly regarded by the Amish in making a wooden toy for Samuel - his love extending to Rachel's son. This gift echoes the earlier toy given by his rival Daniel to Samuel on his way to the city. Similarly 'their' music is a 50's song What a wonderful world this would be : appropriate in its longing after a world which is not ultimately attainable. Their dance to the music is interrupted by Eli who makes it plain that this dream can only come true at the expense of Rachel's expulsion from the community. And of course the ending is not what a traditional romance would deliver. The audience expectations of a continuing relationship between the two are frustrated when we see Book in his city clothes, ready to return to the world he belongs to, as Eli reminds Rachel. Unlike Pretty Woman or An Officer and a Gentleman there is no last-minute reprieve for the couple. The parting is more like the Casablanca or Brief Encounter type scenario, and all the more effective for that.

The police element of the story allows Weir to exploit the appropriate generic conventions. The settings of urban America demonstrate the typical claustrophobia, after the wide open spaces of the farm. The police tend to operate at night, in blue light, through streets wet with rain. They seek a suspect in a night club, and frequently operate in heavily shadowed situations. In a scene typical of any cop movie we follow Book's back as he walks in an underground car park, lit by fluorescent light and with many shadowed areas. The mid shot of his back with his dry-cleaning slung casually over his shoulder makes him seem very vulnerable to the threat the music alerts us to. We watch Book in CU as he turns to see a figure emerge from the shadows. We share his point of view and recognise McFee as his face comes into the light. A shoot-out follows, with the cars used as shelters. Even here though, Weir demonstrates his humour with the materialistic American woman who puts herself in danger by opening the elevator to explain that they are shooting near her car!

The police genre has the gun as one of its more obvious icons. Weir uses this in conventional ways with close-ups of Book loading his gun in the phone booth, and placing it down on his laundry as his blood spots the cellophane. However he also uses it as a symbol to question the values of the urban, violent way of life. Rachel registers her disapproval early at her son's association with a man who uses a gun, and handles it as if a mere touch could contaminate her. As Book becomes more and more absorbed into the Amish community, he leaves it hidden and unloaded to be retrieved only when he goes to the city. The threat posed by the three bad cops as they walk down the road to the farm is due to many things, camera angle, blue lighting, music, but also to the two huge rifles they have armed themselves with in pursuit of an unarmed policeman and a small boy.



Weir is skilled in exploiting the excitement of the chase, an inevitable part of any police film. The scene in the toilet, a classic, repays close study. The music is full of tension and menace with its high, pulsating notes. We have lots of ECUs of McFee and Samuel as they play hide and seek. The split-second timing involved in getting the door bolted, in Samuel escaping into the next cubicle and then retrieving his hat just before McFee kicks in the door is very familiar in the genre. At the final chase in the barn Weir has very carefully prepared us so that none of the moves made are melodramatic. Earlier we saw Book come through the trapdoor with Eli, and Samuel showed him the grain store where he hides from bad cop nod, before finally dispatching him. The bell used to summon aid is not a surprise either, since we saw Rachel use it to announce breakfast. Our expectations are fulfilled when the good cop overwhelms the baddies, and survives. The twist which Weir provides is that Book is now at home in this community, and when his car, vital for urban policing, fails to start, he can use his knowledge of the barn, and corn store against the city police so out of control in this rural setting, with their suits and good shoes spoiled by dung!

Weir, as an Australian, is an interesting person to portray American stereotypes. The American police by and large, conform to audience expectations. McFee, the killer, is in fact the holder of an award for youth work. As a narcotics officer he confiscated 550 gallons of P2P necessary in the manufacture of speed. Since this did not find its way to the police storage area it is obvious it was sold - its value? $22 million. This hypocrisy is a common feature of cop films - the idea of the police corrupted by the prospect of such vast sums of money. He is completely ruthless in his despatch of the victim in the toilet, and his determined search of every cubicle leaves us in no doubt that he would kill even the big-eyed Samuel given the opportunity. He shoots at Book in a public car park, and is ready to kill him at the end.

His superior officer, Paul Shaeffer, was once Book's partner, and a good cop. When Book phones him on learning of Carter's death, the mis-en-scene carefully builds the image of a family man with his wife answering the phone in what looks like a hand-knitted sweater, beside the standard lamp. He says he will take the call in his study, and as he leans over to pick up the phone the camera shows us the patio outside the window with four teenagers enjoying lunch. Now however he has been corrupted, and is ruthless in his pursuit of Book, harassing his sister to obtain information about his whereabouts, and killing his partner Carter presumably because he would not tell what he knew. He attempted to cover his tracks by the chilling phrase 'killed in the line of duty.' There is an amusing scene where we see his complete frustration at his inability to get any information about where Book is staying. All the police technology and methodology fails because the Amish people have refused to participate in the technology of the 20th century and do not have phones. And since they are such a closed community, hundreds of them have the surname Lapp, the only information he has to go on. In the final scene he uses Rachel as a hostage, hiding behind a woman, but is finally overcome by the strength of the united community.

These 'bad' American cops occur in a long line of film tradition from Serpico to The Godfather and TV series where the police are frequently tempted to take bribes to offset their poor salaries, and compensate for the danger of their lives.

The 'good' cops consist of Carter a loyal American police partner. Book trusts him with the knowledge that he has gone to the Amish Community, and enlists his help in the destruction of the documents relevant to the case. Despite the danger to himself, Carter does this, then loses his life when he refuses to give information to Shaeffer or McFee who was "working" on him.

Book is a more interesting development of the stereotype. He is honest, and the bad cops do not even attempt to secure his silence by bribery. His intelligence and quick- wittedness are evident from the moment Samuel identifies the killer. He knows they are both in danger and immediately reports it to his superior. However it did not occur to him to suspect that he too might be implicated. This is typical of thrillers where we never know who to suspect. In this film though we are not left wondering for long, and as soon as McFee comes after Book in the car park, he and we know that Shaeffer must have tipped him off. Weir is not interested in pursuing the 'who is on which side?' game so beloved of many thrillers. Book is concerned about the safety of his witness and takes Rachel and Samuel back home although he has been wounded and is very ill. He is tough and not above 'whacking' suspects to get information, a trait disapproved of by the peace-loving Rachel. He relinquishes his gun while he is in the Amish community, but takes it with him when he ventures into the evil urban environment. This must be one of the few cop films which does not end with the almighty gun resolving the problem. The gunholding Shaeffer has to realise that he is powerless against the united force of a community all of whom are willing to expose themselves to great risk in protecting Book and the family. However his world needs him and Book returns presumably to honour in the police world for uncovering the corruption.

The Amish people are portrayed in a very positive way from our first view of them rising out of the field of corn to the force of their unity against outside threat at the end of the film. Weir stresses the exclusive nature of their community by their black, plain clothes. They speak German, audible symbol of their separation. Hard working, an early sequence demonstrates their labour-intensive toil in the fields as the sun is low in the sky. Their activities are corporate; they come together for Jacob's funeral, for building a barn for the newly-weds, to answer an alarm bell. Their way of life is seen as simple and in harmony with the natural world. Old-fashioned courtesy is demonstrated in the frequency with which they touch their hats and shake hands in greeting each other. Although generally serious, they are not portrayed as devoid of humour, as Eli laughs at Book's joke during milking. Their food is wholesome, home cooked or preserved like Rachel's peaches. It is interesting that as Book stays with them he acquires an appetite and eats and drinks the home-made lemonade with relish. The one meal we see in the city is when they have self-service hot dogs. Rachel and Samuel wrong foot Book by saying grace first, and for once, the director does not mock their faith but chooses to show the embarrassment of the one who omitted grace. Interestingly, apart from a reference to praying for Book to survive, there is very little stress on the religious nature of their community, and no Bible ever appears as part of a mis-en-scene.

Book is healed of his bullet wound by the local healer and his poultice of milk and linseed oil, administered with loving touch by Rachel, and by his special herbal teas. They refuse to deal with technology and have no phone. The house is lit by oil lamps, and the polished golden wood of the simple furniture suggests a quality of life which Weir approves of. This allows him to light the scenes in a warm gold colour suggesting great richness. Being 'plain' there are no pictures on the walls, but frequently the grouping of actors and mis-en-scene are so carefully crafted the result is like a Rembrandt oil painting. Two obvious examples of this are the women clustered around Rachel as Daniel brings his condolences at Jacob's funeral, and Rachel at the kitchen table with her preserved fruit. They are at peace with nature, using horses to draw their carts and gather the harvest; the cows are milked by hand and a simple water pump serves the house with water. The skills of carpentry are valued and Rachel begins to look on Book in a positive light when she learns that he is capable of more than "whacking" with his hands! Indeed it is after this that she offers to lengthen her dead husband's trousers for Book, a sign that he is becoming a part of the community, and also that she is beginning to think of him as a husband replacement. A peace-loving community, they turn the other cheek when taunted by tourists or other local people. Book's gun is a source of great distress to Rachel, and she handles it like an unexploded bomb.

The most lyrical part of the film occurs in the central section where the whole community unites for one day in building the barn. The music which represents the community is loud and strong and the editing flows in a melodic way suggesting the harmony of this idyllic scene where Book is accepted as one of them, and his contribution is valued. The men work on the barn building, cooperating in the tasks, and even the rivals in love work together, and share a glass of lemonade. The children participate in hammering in a row of nails. The women work together to prepare and serve the meal, then gather to make a patchwork quilt, presumably also for the young couple. At the end of the day they all walk home singing. In this scene there is very little dialogue, Weir allowing the music, warm light and the slow pace of the editing to paint the picture.
However, Weir is not blind to the negative aspects of their community. Rachel is warned about the talk about her and Book and learns that it is not charitable. There is always the threat of the elders with their power to expel a rebellious member, and the rules of the community are strict. Book recognises that had they slept together he would have had to stay, or she would have had to go with him to the city. He clearly recognises the moral code so different from his sister whose behaviour upsets him. It is noteworthy that when Rachel finally goes out to Book and the kiss, she first removes her bonnet, badge of her submission to the community. The final view we have though, is of an old man's instruction to a child to ring the bell, and the instant response of the community as each downs tools and goes to help.

It would seem that Weir admires the Amish and their values, and structures his film so that we come to share his view.

The rest of America conforms to the standard stereotype. At the station Rachel is treated with haste and discourtesy by the ticket seller, and Samuel is an object of curiosity: 'Isn't he cute?' The Amish function as a tourist attraction for the loud, garishly- dressed, camera-wielding group who emerge from the bus determined to 'do' the Amish in 15 minutes. Weir clearly expects the audience to seethe at these people, and when the fat lady in the red dress asks to take Book's photo we rejoice at his threat to strangle her with her own bra. After Book intervenes in the taunting scene with Daniel and breaks the local boy's nose, the local tour operator informs the police because he is worried about the loss of business he will suffer if the Amish people are going to demonstrate the standard human response to aggression. This stereotype of urban America as loud, aggressive, money-grabbing is one which most audiences have no difficulty in relating to.

Clearly Weir is a master director who knows the generic conventions, and classical structures of film. In Witness he has transcended these rules to produce thoughtful, satisfying, art.

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