Cinema is a medium of meditation. Its essence is relativity, a structure built through the filter of the viewer’s life and values, opening every story to the world of interpretation. Film holds an abstract mirror up to its subject and allows us to explore the grand narratives of what it is to be human: perception, consciousness, sexuality, death, and ultimately—spirituality. However, what is it to be spiritual? This is the peculiar nature of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, as it aims to answer this question through an examination of the divine and the profane, often blurring the two in a paradoxical confluence until the viewer can no longer tell the difference between them. Often planted firmly under the restrictive nature of religion, spirituality is divorced from its modern conception in First Reformed as we follow Ernst Toller through an exploration of faith, meaning, authenticity. Ambiguity is the language of the film, and Schrader withholds just enough to skirt around confrontation and the dissonance we find between faith and reason. As the viewer, we come to see that when a worldview is predicated on a myth for so long, adjusting values to include a sense of veridicality can be a harrowing task.
First Reformed opens a dialogue between faith and reason by filtering the two diametrically opposed values through Ernst Toller’s narration. As the audience, we receive a look into a conflicted psyche, torn between the doubt of silence and the want for something beyond the physical. Schrader, like most great artists, uses the medium to parse the unknown, to investigate what makes us human. One of the most fundamental aspects of our nature is the emotion of guilt. When we have wronged someone or acted in a way that is ostensibly counterintuitive to our constructed morality, we find ourselves experiencing a ping of distress. This leads, for most of us, to a need for absolution. Schrader explores this need through the conversation between Toller and Michael while introducing us to one of the main themes: are we worthy of salvation?
Michael begins the conversation through an expression of anxiety: is it wrong to bring a child into this world? Bearing children is a function not many people question. It is a built into our code. We are meant to grow old and have offspring, but we never consider if a child would want to be born. The world, with all of its improvements in medicine and technology, still offers little sympathy to its inhabitants. When Michael asks about the moral implications of bringing a child into a hopeless world, however, Toller realizes his question is less about the child itself and more of a way for Michael to confront one of the oldest issues humanity has faced: the purposeless life. An idle existence is something to fear, as it forces us to address the ephemerality that looms over us all. The dread of a lonely night and the reflection it brings can lead only to stasis and an incongruity between the physical and the spiritual. There is a sense of duality we all experience. We have the feeling of there being a ghost in the machine, a Cartesian theater where the true self processes every experience. However, when we stare into the abyss of our consciousness, only the darkness stares back. This is the genesis of our anxiety.
During the conversation, Toller continues his examination of the unfulfilled by referencing Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, a book in which Kierkegaard argues it is not the physical death we should fear, but a spiritual one by means of ignoring our true self. Much of the Existentialist movement is grounded in the idea of individuality and authenticity. If an individual fails to nurture either one of these values, they open their life to self-deception, hardships, and despair. As Toller tells Michael that we must not give into anguish, the audience sees him as an unreliable narrator for the first time. As Pastor Jeffers later states, Toller is alway in the Garden, sweating blood and toiling in a perennial darkest hour. Much like our main character’s pursuit of truth, so must the viewer decipher between what is authentic and what is a desperate attempt to force belief in the unreasonable.
Within this consistent state of affliction, we find a parallel between Michael and Toller. While their concerns are different in name, they function as synonyms, as both have found concern with the metanarrative on which they have based their lives. Much like the environmentalism to which Michael subscribes, Toller’s faith has diminishing returns. The comparison to Michael is not wasted on Toller either. As he mentions during the narration, the conversation is much like when Jacob wrestled the angel: “Every sentence, every question, every response, a mortal struggle. It was exhilarating.” Michael is the doubt, festering below the surface of Toller’s psyche, whispering the possibility of God’s death. He emphasizes this point when he tells Michael the only way to combat despair is through courage. Reasoning, when we cannot know the mind of God, is useless. Because we cannot predict the future, we have to choose courage over despair, despite the unease of uncertainty. These thoughts of blind faith are almost reflexive in nature for Toller; something he likely heard from the lips of another pastor who advised him to embrace the absurdity of God and all the ambiguity that accompanies His word, rather than rely on the tangible. However, reflective glance for Toller reveals the truth: there is little comfort in the unknown.
With the introduction of Mary, Schrader offers a secular counterpoint to the spiritual milieu that pervades First Reformed, and as her influence becomes more apparent, Ernst Toller continues to resist the temptation of losing his faith. Nonetheless, we see his transformation through his journal. Much of what he writes is a wisp of the virtue he wishes he could possess. Everything in his life is a reminder of his failures, including his position as a spiritual counselor. First Reformed, once a respected sect of the Dutch-Reformed Church, is now little more than a tourist souvenir shop, living in the shadow of its sister location, Abundant Life. Since his son’s death and subsequent divorce, Toller has lived a life of solitude and reflection. However, much like Michael, he has not embraced a life of authenticity. He has buried himself in the faith and become an ethical impostor, going through the motions and measuring his worth against the expectations of others. Unfortunately, these are unreachable standards with which Toller’s grief and shame only grows. Schrader demonstrates this in the scene where Toller is offering a group of school children some of the rich history of his church. When speaking of the Underground Railroad, he says the following, “Can you imagine that? In the dark. The air hot, shaking with fear. The sound of the slave hunters’ horses outside. On their knees, holding each other’s hands, praying for God to save them.” This section of dialogue mirrors Toller’s current state. He has been hypnotized by the abyss, engulfed in the blackness and hoping God will end his suffering. The more he prays, however, the stronger the silence becomes.
A key tenet of existentialism is the belief in the individual. Free will, in the eyes of this philosophy, is a vital part of humanity. While the definitions of individuality are manifold, there is a consensus of the consequences we face without an idea of our true self: through the loss of freedom, we welcome overwrought sensibilities in a senseless world. Jeffers sums the Kierkegaardian view of this nicely when giving his sermon on anxiety. He states anxiety ails only the wicked, caught in their determination to do things their own way. Kierkegaard speaks of this in The Sickness Unto Death. The idea of the self is a product of our relations: do we find ourselves in partnership with the Infinite or the Finite? If it is the latter, we have accepted the temporal over the everlasting and experience despair through our separation from God. Juxtaposing the sermon, however, is Mary. While she is representative of the world, there is an unmistakable divinity to her character. But she suffers from the same sickness as Toller: “I woke up and my heart was pounding and I thought, like, the roof, the ceiling, was just gonna fall in. So I had to get out…Without warning, this dark curtain just fell. I’m scared of everything…I just can’t stop my thoughts. They go on and repeat and repeat.”
In attempt at mitigation, Toller and Mary inhabit a shared consciousness through meditation. For a brief moment, Toller finds peace through Mary, transcending the physical beauty of life and embracing the sense of awe that accompanies the realization of our mortality. Our purpose is found in the brevity of our existence because it is not until a period is placed that a sentence finds full meaning. As he lets go of his dread, he experiences true spirituality for the first time. He later tells Mary a story of his great grandfather, a pastor from Muskegon, Michigan. In the final moments of his great grandfather’s life, the pastor was to have said he was standing on holy ground. The moment with Mary is a taste of this. It is a short-lived reprieve, however. Toller lets go of Mary’s hands and finds himself back in the Garden, lost in the rumination of a hellish landscape.
Paul Schrader is masterful in his ability to force the viewer to inhabit Toller’s world. His minimalist approach encourages the audience to lean into the film with its stagnant camerawork and bleak color palette. This also allows Schrader to break the rules and highlight important aspects of the film. One of the most interesting examples of this comes in the finale. In the last few shots, Schrader plays with color saturation and vibrancy. Moments before Toller fills a tumbler with drain cleaner, we see his parsonage void of color, almost to the point where the film feels as if it were shot in black and white. However, when Mary enters, the room is filled with light and warmth. While the ending is drenched in ambiguity, the key to Toller’s fate lies in how the room is lit and Mary’s mysterious entrance. Because of Jeffers, we know the door to the parsonage has been locked, and there is presumably only one entrance to such a small building. This moment is a vision, the last images of a dying man who sought truth and love all of his life. The embrace with Mary is Ernst’s holy ground, where he experiences divinity at its fullest, shedding the pseudo-spirituality of Christian mythology and embracing the wonder of Mary’s secular touch. In an unreasonably passionate kiss, the camera swirls around the two in order to parallel the meditation scene and indicate we are witnessing a fantasy. The movie abruptly cuts to a black screen. Toller has faced the abyss.
Through Ernst Toller’s ideological evolution, we see that First Reformed is a study of the self and how easily our identities can be blurred by uncompromising narratives. While it is important to find meaning, losing oneself completely to an ideology stands in opposition to the original desired effect. We must find a healthy balance between our desire for authenticity and the timidity of accepting that, in the macro view of things, we live meaningless lives.