John Book and The Crisis of Witnessing: Reviewing “Witness” (1985)

(Yeah, so I watch a lot of Harrison Ford movies these days. What of it?)


Witness is a favourite crime movie of my parents’ and it caught my eye on their DVD shelf when I was visiting them recently, not just because of Harrison Ford’s likeness on the cover, also because of the title, “Witness”. You see, the literary theory I’m using for my thesis is the theory of Testimony and Witness. The theoretics of testimony have arisen in the wake of the Holocaust and were founded primarily by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub in their book Testimony – Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. The basic idea of testimony theory is to debate how or, indeed, whether it is possible for literature and art in general to bear testimony of an event that is so horrible that it leaves no witnesses capable of giving testimony of its horrors (i.e. the Holocaust). I find it a most inspiring branch of literary theory because of the fact that it ties together literature with reality; it seems so meaningful to me.

As a consequence I’ve been reading a lot of books lately with the words “Witness”  or “Testimony” in their titles, and that’s why this 1985 movie caught my eye. I had seen the movie once before on T.V., but I was about 15 or so, and all I remembered from the movie was that:

  1. A cute little Amish boy named Samuel witnesses a murder
  2. Harrison Ford is a cop who goes to live among the Amish
  3. Harrison Ford and the Amish raise a barn in a field
  4. The little boy’s mother takes a spongebath, and Harrison Ford sneaks a peek at her, and –
  5. I was daydreaming for weeks afterwards about escaping from my complicated!!1!!! existence as a highschool girl and going to Pennsylvania to live the simple life as an Amish woman, taking spongebathes, and raising cute little sons with biblical names, and, possibly, getting involved with a random hot cop at some point.

So I decided it was time to re-watch it and see if the movie might have anything to contribute with in terms of the theory of testimony.

So did it, you ask? No, it didn’t, not really. That would have been a little surprising anyway. Felman & Laub’s Testimony wasn’t even released until seven years after Witness premiered.  But it’s still an excellent and rather underrated movie (one of the best crime flicks there is, I’ll venture), and it did have some very interesting things to say about witnessing that I definitely didn’t remember from the first time I watched it.

Police Corruption and the Impossibility of Witnessing
The story deals with police corruption (the murder young Samuel witnesses is related to a group of crooky Philadelphia policemen who deal impounded drugs), and I’d never really thought of this before, but police corruption is a kind of crisis of witnessing in its own right. Not in the sense we see in Felman & Laub’s book, where testimony becomes impossible because the Holocaust leaves no witnesses, but in the sense that if what we witness is police corruption, then we have no one to turn to with our testimony. Testimony is a triple concept that presupposes the act of seeingknowing, and telling about it, and as Paul Ricoeur has noted, language and society could not exist if not for this institution of truth that the credible witness makes. In the legal sense, this institution is dependent on the police. The police are supposed to administrate our testimony, but if they are corrupt our testimony is, at best, ignored, or, at worst, used against us.

This is what John Book learns the hard way at the beginning of the movie as he falls victim to attempted assasination after he has reported the police corruption to his boss. And so it becomes more than just a Hollywood shtick when John flees the city along with Samuel and his mother Rachel to go underground with them in their Amish community.

The Amish as Reluctant Witnesses
Because the Amish community may be the one place John can go where he may be able to free himself of the damning testimony that has made a fugitive out of him. I won’t claim to be an expert on the Amish, but from the way the community is depicted in the movie, it is a community that to some degree avoids being witnesses. In a poignant scene, Samuel’s grandfather Eli talks to Samuel about his having witnessed the evil and violence of the outside world. “By seeing you become one of them,” Eli says, “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’.”

The Amish community, in other words, offers John Book a chance to escape from the realm of testimony, at least for a while. That this can only be temporary goes without saying – even if the bad guys weren’t able to track down Book, the entire Amish approach to life is too different from his: John wants nothing more than to touch the unclean things – to pick them up by his hands and throw them into the trash.

Like any good crime flick, however, nothing is entirely black or white, and the theme of witnessing is twisted and turned several times throughout the movie, making the Amish the eager witnesses, and John Book the reluctant one. “You’ll see so many things!” Rachel’s Amish suitor Daniel tells Samuel with an excited smile as Samuel is set out for his first visit to Philadelphia at the out-set of the movie. Similarly, when Samuel first delivers his dangerous testimony by pointing to a picture of McFee in the police court, a shocked John Book covers Samuel’s pointing finger with his own hand. 

At its perhaps clunkiest and least subtle, the theme of witnessing is also present in the name of the main character: John Book. The name is undoubtedly a reference to the tenth and eleventh chapter of The Revelation of St. John, in which John is given a book to eat and is asked to “prophesy” and in which we are introduced to the two witnesses of Revelation.

Rachel at her Bath
The differences between the Amish and John’s world come into play most obviously in the increasingly romantic relationship between John and Rachel. Love stories between two opposites are always touching, and so are doomed love stories, and of course you just know that a love affair between the hard-boiled cop and the Amish woman is bound to be a doomed one. What I especially like about it, however, is that it manages to be an erotic cinematic love story in a way that is both unconventional and ties in very well with the theme of testimony and witnessing.

There is no actual sex scene between John Book and Rachel Lapp, and I would say that it is open to discussion wether the two ever even have sex off-screen. Even so, we get a startlingly erotic scene between the two – the sponge bathing scene mentioned earlier. This is also an example of a movie scene that manages to use frontal nudity in a meaningful, rather than pornographic way.

In the scene, we see a semi-nude Rachel washing herself with a sponge. The camera lingers on Rachel, the dim lighting of the scene emphasizing the aesthetics of her body, but we only gradually become aware of the fact that John Book is actually watching Rachel in the process: Along with Rachel we see John in the reflection of Rachel’s mirror, gazing at Rachel through a partly opened door. The image of John’s face between the door and the door frame recalls the image earlier in the movie of Samuel watching the murder unfold from a bathroom stall, and it thus re-establishes the theme of witnessing: John Book witnesses  Rachel’s semi-nudity in the shower.

As any art connoiseur will know, the image of a man peeping at a woman at her bath is a recurrent image within art history: There are numerous interpretations in paintings of the old testament story of the Elders peeping at Susanna at her Bath (or, indeed, of Peeping Tom looking at Lady Godiva. Or Actaeon looking at Artemis at her bath).

Rembrandt's Susanna

Rembrandt's Susanna

The image is piquant not just because of the naked female body, but because the part of the spectator is emphasized: As spectators contemplating the picture showing Susanna in her bath, we in turn become a kind of double to the peeping Elders, staring as we do at the naked Susanna. (There is without doubt a lot more to be said about this motif, but I am not an art historian, so I will leave it at this).

In the scene in Witness, however, the peeping Tom situation gets an extra dimension, because as Rachel sees John, she doesn’t turn away bashfully or try to hide her nudity as is the case with Susanna. Instead, Rachel turns and looks directly at John (and, thus, directly into the camera, facing us, and meeting us with what feminist film theorists term the taboo of the female gaze), returning his gaze and revealing her exposed and naked breasts, and this is what gives the situation its sense of something reciprocally erotic. Not only does John witness Rachel’s nudity, Rachel witnesses John looking at her, and her gaze back at him is testimony to the fact that she’s aware of what he has witnessed.

One might argue that the theme of witnessing is also there in the scene in which John and Rachel dance together in the barn loft after John manages to fix his car radio. The song that they are dancing to is Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”,  the lyrics revolving around the theme of knowing versus not knowing (“Don’t know much about history/Don’t know much about geography/[…] But I do know that I love you.”).

But the sponge bathing/peeping Tom scene is definitely the more memorable love scene, and the one that truly reveals to us how much is at stake for both John and Rachel in this budding relationship. It’s also worth noting that John never touches Rachel in this scene, and actually casts down his gaze, seemingly overwhelmed with the situation. Just as Rachel engages in an markedly un-Amish situation of witnessing, the usually very hands-on cop John keeps “separate” from Rachel and “touch[es] not.

Update: (March 2 2010) I discuss the bath scene in another entry, here, for those interested.

Death by Corn and Raising the Barn
There are also plenty of scenes where the theme of witnessing isn’t especially prominent and in which the movie is allowed to be simply an exciting crime flick. The scene where the dirty cops catch up with John Book and chase him around the farm is an example of this. The scene in the silo, where one of the dirty cops finds his death in the corn is especially outstanding. A most disturbing movie moment! And brilliantly effective. Choking to death as tons and tons of corn is being poured over you has to be one of the more unusual deaths in the history of crime flicks, and there is something almost biblical about perishing in a flood of corn, so it goes well with the biblical theme of the movie.

And then there are scenes in the movie that are just so aesthetically pleasing that they transcend the genre. Kelly McGillis looks beautiful, like she stepped out of a Dutch 17th century oil painting in all of her scenes. And the barn raising scene is an absolute classic: pictures and music really come together in this beautiful scene. I’ve heard some people say that they regret that the music wasn’t arranged for a full orchestra instead of a synthesizer, but I actually disagree. I think the synthesizer lends to the scene that kind of dreamlike, transcendental touch that electronic music excels at. One might also argue that the synthesizer music combined with the old-timey images of straw-hat-donning craftsmen raising a barn establishes the conflict between 80s cop John and the old-fashioned community of the Amish. In any case, I think a full orchestra would have been over the top and kind of cheesy.

You can watch the scene here (sadly, I could only find a German dubbed version):

Awesome Ford, Adorable Haas, and a Random Viggo Mortensen Cameo
And then the movie is very well acted. John Book is often mentioned as Harrison Ford’s best performance ever, and I’m inclined to agree. Ford plays equally convincing John’s scenes as a hardboiled cop whacking drugdealers and his more sensitive ones like the one where he stands breathless and passive in front of Rachel. Kelly McGillis has a good take on the hidden spunk of her otherwise demure Amish character, and Lukas Haas is absolutely adorable as Samuel and a very appropriate cast: His big, dark, expressive eyes alone are enough to strike up the theme of witnessing.

Also, the attentive viewer may spot a very young Viggo Mortensen as one of the men inthe Amish community. Don’t blink or you’ll miss him, though. He hardly even has any lines.

Clunky German Lines
Oh, and speaking of the Amish and their lines; that’s one of my only peeves about this movie. The Amish are depicted as speaking German to each other, but I don’t think the movie was meant for an audience that actually understood the language, because the lines they’ve written for them are awful. Very clunky. The Amish go around saying ridiculous things to each other like “The man is afraid! Very bad!” (after seeing a near-fatally wounded John Book for the first time) or “Those are not his own clothes – those are the clothes of Jacob!” (after Rachel has lend John some clothes that belonged to her late husband Jacob). They might have hired some kind of German speaking coach to help them write some better lines. Nobody talks like that.

2 responses to “John Book and The Crisis of Witnessing: Reviewing “Witness” (1985)

  1. Pingback: Manusförfattarens guide:Karaktäristika del 1 « Blog à la Mr Chapel

  2. I recently watched Witness again, almost 30 years after the first time, and it’s still an amazingly good movie. It has not lost pace or anything like other movies from the 80 have, it’s one of the most intense thrillers ever made, and very original. As you wrote, it has these twists around the theme of witnessing that gives it immense depht. I didn’t get that the first time around, but now it’s really striking. I have many favourite scenes, and one is where Samuel shows Book the farm, his kittens (“Would you like to hold my kitten?”), the silo (“What’s up there?” – “Corn.”) and how everything works on the farm. It’s flows so naturally, you’d think they didn’t have a camera at all there because Lukas Haas’ acting is so comfortably and natural. Beautiful to watch.

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