Ethan Hawke as the Reverend Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader's First Reformed
Paul Schrader's First Reformed is a bleak but haunting Indie film about a Rev. Ernst Toller, (Ethan Hawke) pastor of a moribund 250-yr-old Protestant church in the fictional town of Snowbridge in upstate Albany County, New York who confronts a series of setbacks — alcoholism c/w stomach cancer, the loss of his son to the Iraq War and his wife to his guilt over urging him to enlist, a genial fat-cat CEO/pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) of the arena church which now owns his ministry, a crass climate-control denier (Michael Gaston) and his fellow travelers, and his own anguished loss of faith.
I was struck by how many parallels in both plot and tone there were to Igmar Bergman's Winter Light and to Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (I read the Bernanos novel in French class in college). And once Pastor Toller is drawn into politics, there are obvious echoes of two other films, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, both of which director Paul Schrader wrote the screenplays for. And given some of the miraculous and politically-charged events that take place, I think it is no accident that Schrader makes Toller devoted to the great Catholic mystic and social activist, Thomas Merton.
First Reformed is an allusive title for this movie. Obviously referring to the Dutch Reformed Church of America founded in New Amsterdam in the same year, 1628, as the founding of NE's Mass Bay Colony. Toller's fictional Dutch-colonial-style church was founded in 1767 and is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. But 2017 was also the 500th year since the founding of literally the first significant reformed church In Western Christendom — Martin Luther's. So among other things, the film may be asking in 2017 the question Luther posed in 1517: how is man justified before God?
A further allusion is found in the name of the Protestant minister: Ernst Toller.
Ernst Toller (1 December 1893 – 22 May 1939) was a German left-wing playwright, best known for his Expressionist plays. He served in 1919 for six days as President of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, and was imprisoned for five years for his actions. He wrote several plays and poetry during that period, which gained him international renown. They were performed in London and New York as well as Berlin. In 2000, several of his plays were published in an English translation.
In 1933 Toller was exiled from Germany after the Nazis came to power. He did a lecture tour in 1936-1937 in the United States and Canada, settling in California for a while before going to New York. He joined other exiles there. Struggling financially and depressed at learning his brother and sister had been sent to a concentration camp in Germany, he committed suicide in May 1939.
IN MEMORY OF ERNST TOLLER
(d. May 1939)
The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice
Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.
What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head
Already been too injured to get well?
O for how long,like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell
About the big friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?
Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
—W. H. Auden
Ernst Toller (1 December 1893 - 22 May 1939)