Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Response to Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”
With Nicholas Wolterstorff on May 28, 2018

1. In the early decades of the 20th century a Dutch polymath, Gerardus van der Leeuw, published a book whose title, in English, is Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art. Van der Leeuw was, I say, a polymath: he was learned in anthropology, in art and aesthetics, in theology, and in liturgy; all of these areas of expertise contribute to his discussion in Sacred and Profane Beauty.

The question van der Leeuw posed was this: can works of art be expressive of the holy? In asking this question, he was the inheritor of the 19th century Romantic tradition of writers emphasizing the intrinsically expressive qualities of art: some works of art are expressive of joy, some, of sorrow, etc. Van der Leeuw asked, can works of art similarly be expressive of the holy – intrinsically expressive, expressive by virtue of their style, not by virtue of what they represent?

It was van der Leeuw’s reading of history that led him to ask this question. Once upon a time, he argued, religion shaped the life of society as a whole, hence also its art. Then secularization set in. And that poses the question: is it now inevitable that art and religion go their separate ways? Or is some connection still possible?

His answer was: It is still possible for art to be expressive of the holy. He then went through the various arts seriatim to identify what it is about a work’s style that makes it expressive of the holy.

Note well: for a work’s style to be intrinsically expressive of the holy is very different from Cecil de Mille-like depictions of biblical scenes, and also very different from characters expressing their religious convictions.

Van der Leeuw did not discuss film.

2. I interpret Schrader’s book, Transcendental Style in Film, published in 1972 and now re-issued with a new introduction by Schrader -- of which the talk he just gave is a condensation -- as taking up where van der Leeuw left off, namely, applying van der Leeuw’s general picture to film. Schrader, in fact, refers to van der Leeuw.

Schrader noted that certain films by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, by the French director Andre Bresson, and by the Danish director Carl Dreyer, have the power “to draw the viewer into contact with the ineffable, the invisible, the Wholly Other.” He further noted that these three directors used similar techniques to accomplish this. His project in the book was to identify the cross-cultural elements of what he called “transcendental style.”

3. I’m not sure whether Schrader interprets First Reformed as a pure example of transcendental style or as just employing some elements of the style. So what I propose doing is interpret it as a pure example of the style, and then invite Paul to tell me whether I am right, or wrong, or part right and part wrong.

I feel sure that you have not all read the book, so let me begin with a very abbreviated description of transcendental style, as Schrader understands it.

A fundamental feature of transcendental style is its meditative lingering quality. Almost everything is slow, often slower than we expect. Did you notice how often and how long the camera lingered over closed doors in First Reformed – and how slowly the doors opened? I am reminded here of the music of Olivier Messiaen: a good deal of Messiaen’s music stands still.

Another feature of transcendental style is the spareness of settings and scenes. Did you notice how spare were the interior settings – with the exception of the Abundant Life Church? And did you notice how spare were the outdoor scenes: bleak autumn?

A third feature of transcendental style is the relative lack of human expression. Did you notice how relatively inexpressive are the faces of the characters in First Reformed  -- with the exception of the pastor of the Abundant Life Church? In most cases, faces are shot frontally; but even so, we cannot read their emotions from their faces, with the exception, I would say, of Michael in that early conversation with Rev. Toller. I am reminded here of the paintings of Vermeer. The faces in Vermeer’s paintings are expressionless.

Schrader points out that a consequence of these stylistic features is that the viewer contributes a great deal more to interpreting what is going on than is normally the case with film.

4. These features do not yet give us transcendental style; a film-maker could use these features in films that do not bring “the viewer into contact with the ineffable.” Quite a few have done so since the publication of Schrader’s book. Transcendental style depends on what is done with the features mentioned.

A film in transcendental style focuses on the ordinary, the everyday, and presents the central character as alienated from his or her everyday surroundings: in Ozu’s films, alienated from his physical environment, in Bresson’s and Dreyer’s films, alienated from his social environment.

Then, well along in the film, there is a disruption, a shredding apart of the fabric of the everyday, and an intrusion of the transcendent. The film closes with stasis –the ceasing of activity.

5. So now my attempt to interpret First Reformed with this schematic grid. The focus on the everyday is evident. So too is the depth of Rev. Toller’s alienation from a normal flourishing human life. He is wracked by guilt over the death of his son and in the grip of religious doubt – he goes through the motions of his religion and talks the talk, but it’s nothing but surface.  He is rejected by his wife, trapped by his dependence on the Abundant Life Church and the industrialist Balq, virtually abandoned by his congregation, and probably suffering from a mortal illness. Toller’s alienation is obvious.

6. Now I get to points where I am less sure. Where is the disruption? At what point is the fabric of Toller’s alienated existence torn apart? It’s torn apart, is it not, when Toller first puts on the suicide vest and then, after taking that off, flagellates himself with barbed wire? This is the first disruptive action on Toller’s part; up to this point he has just gone along. There were hints of disruptive action earlier, when Toller resolved to engage in protest action. But he backed off.

The disruption spreads to the people waiting nervously in the church, not knowing why the pastor has not appeared.

7. And where do we locate the intrusion of the transcendent? Where else, but in that final ecstatic kiss – this is the first ray of light in the film, is it not? That this broken man can give and receive love is a miracle. The kiss is paired, recall, with the soloist in the church singing, over and over, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The kiss just is leaning on the everlasting arms.

This is stasis: standing still. Nothing happens. The same musical line, over and over. The kiss, prolonged.

8.  And what are we to make of that dazzling colorful scene of cosmic levitation by Toller and Mary – almost the only colorful scene in the entire film? I’m not sure. Is it a disruption which is, at the same time, an intrusion of the transcendent? Is it already a ray of light into the everyday?

I think it doesn’t change anything in Toller’s life. I think it’s a visual equivalent of how things could be, and an adumbration of how they will be.

But I’m not at all sure.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. These remarks were originally written in response to a screening of First Reformed and subsequent lecture on Transcendental Style in Film delivered at Calvin College on February 19, 2018.

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