A Moving Picture
At the start of Witness, Samuel Lapp, an Amish child on his first journey from his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, sees the murder of a police officer. Incarnated by then eight-year-old Lukas Haas, Samuel observes this event, entirely alien to his experience, with an expression that isn’t fear, at first, but interest. The violence is so new that he can’t be sure it isn’t “normal” in the big city.
Such wonderment lies at the center of Peter Weir’s Witness. Police detective John Book (Harrison Ford) is assigned to the murder case and so, must find out exactly what Samuel saw. Undercover with the Amish, Book too is observing a foreign environment. Bemused at times, he is nonetheless captivated by its simplicity, its decency, and its ability to thrive despite its antiquities.
This blending and occasional clashing of cultures inspired Weir and producer Edward S. Feldman to make the film. On Paramount’s new Special Collector’s Edition DVD, they discuss the concept as they saw it represented by Book’s cop habits and the Amish community, who live without electricity and plumbing, very humbly. Speaking during a 90-minute documentary, “Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness,” Weir says, “Within the one film, you were having not just two cultures, but two time zones. So, without it being science fiction, you really had the 19th century and the 20th century in the same frame.” The juxtaposition finds its romantic apotheosis when Book falls in love with Samuel’s recently widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis).
Weir, as Feldman notes in the documentary, relies on his actors’ ability to communicate without words in order to establish moods and shape anticipation. “Don’t use dialogue if you don’t need it. It’s a ‘moving picture,’” Feldman says, quoting Weir. The film highlights John and Rachel’s mutual desire to peer into each other’s worlds in images that are nearly without dialogue. In a pivotal scene, John and Rachel dance to music from John’s car radio in her father’s barn. As the music begins, they stop speaking. Before reaching for her hand, John looks at Rachel. She’s unsure, as is he, but he wants to “free” her for a moment, his desire made visible as they dance to Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World” (performed here by Greg Chapman).
Ford says of Weir’s style that there are times when dialogue becomes intrusive, when it “starts to talk about the scene” rather than setting or expressing it. Following the dance, Rachel has seen what John can give her, and John, startled when her father, Eli (Jan Rubes), scolds Rachel, realizes that what is normal for him is abnormal for Rachel.
He and Rachel are engaged in a tug of war throughout the film, as each invites and resists the temptations of the other. John watches through a cracked doorway as Rachel washes herself with a sponge and a tub of water, intently, and Weir’s camera acts as his eye, moving along Rachel’s arms and legs as she bathes. The moment is sexual but not sexy, and it’s revelatory for John in that he finally sees all of Rachel, her body and her culture.
When Rachel catches him looking, however, she doesn’t hide as her previously reserved nature might have suggested. Instead, she turns her body to him, naked, embarrassing him so that he turns away. This in turn causes her to feel rejected and embarrassed as well. The more they understand—or at least see—about each other, the more lost they become. When John is about to leave Lancaster, again they cannot speak. Her face is almost free of expression, and his is confused and longing. In effect, Weir’s “time zones” almost repel one another. There is no way for the relationship to continue without severe consequences: “If we’d made love last night,” Book says, after that revelatory moment in the bathing room. “I’d have to stay, or you’d have to leave.”
This relationship is explored briefly in “Between Two Worlds,” but the documentary focuses mainly on the film’s genesis, its endurance as an audience favorite, and its eventual look, which Weir compares to a Vermeer painting: “The stillness and the feeling of another time that those pictures give you,” he says. “They disturb your view of time in a way. You can feel the clocks ticking somehow more slowly as you look at these paintings.” Witness works exactly this way, assisted by the shifts from bustling Philadelphia and serene Lancaster. It’s a picture that takes its time. The participants in the documentary note how unusual this kind of delicate filmmaking looks 20 years down the track—even Weir says he thought the film would end up “like wine, to be drunk in a season,” almost devoid of lasting appeal. He’s happy to have been wrong.
Ford, Feldman, Hass, and Viggo Mortensen also discuss the film’s significance for their lives and careers. Ford considers it one of the best on his resume, and Mortensen, who debuts here as an Amish farmer, reveals it as a phenomenal education. It’s McGillis, though, who, through tears, sums up the film: “What a blessed gift, and you know, there’s not a day that I don’t think about just how random that was [in reference to her casting]. And when it happened, when that magic happens, it lasts forever.”