“Our Selfishness is Our Legacy”: 2018 Moviemaker of the Planet, Paul Schrader

It’s not that the planet is in danger.

The planet is just fine. If we have an all-out nuclear war, in 50,000 years the planet will be great. But for us, I don’t see any cause for optimism. We’ve made our decision. Maybe technology will create the magic bullet that solves environmental problems, but it sure doesn’t look like it. 

People don’t want to hear this, we know that very clearly. But it’s all out there, right in front of everybody. I didn’t watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel, because I knew what the follow-up to his first film was going to be. That’s also why I don’t need to watch Donald Trump on television. I don’t need another lesson on how fucked we are. We were born in a sweet spot of history, America, with the greatest luxuries—time, finance, education, peace, health. We lived in a garden! And what did we do? We selfishly failed to keep it up. And now our selfishness is our legacy, as opposed to our parents, whose selflessness during the Great Depression and World War II was their legacy.

Writer-director Paul Schrader stages a funeral scene in First Reformed. Photograph by KC Bailey, courtesy of A24

The events that get First Reformed going are so scary, when Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) confronts Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who tells him that it’s not responsible to bring life into this world, knowing what life will one day be like. People have said that in the past, in times of starvation and disease and war. But they’ve never said it in relatively good times. 

First Reformed has the same sort of setup as Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. In that movie, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is worried about the atomic bomb. But the bomb is more or less hypothetical. It could happen, or it could not. What we’re starting to look at now, though, is a climate change disaster scenario that is not hypothetical. It is increasing in pace year by year. That lends a gravitas to this crisis. For 10,000 years human beings have been having this argument: “Why are we here? What will become of us?” But it was always a hypothetical argument. You would have it, then your children would have it, and then their children would have it. But now we’re saying, “Maybe my grandchildren won’t be able to have this argument.”

Toller is a man who has a sickness. Kierkegaard called it the “sickness unto death”—angst, despair. He’s tried things to remedy it: journaling for a year, the liturgy of the church, alcohol. Then he meets Michael, a boy who is a mirror image of his own son. Toller consoles him and loses him when he commits suicide, but he does catch the boy’s virus. Does that mean Toller becomes an environmentalist? Or does it mean his pathology of suffering has simply latched onto a justification that it didn’t have before? 

As Reverend Ernst Toller, Ethan Hawke grieves for the earth in First Reformed. Photograph by KC Bailey, courtesy of A24

It’s very hard to wrap the act of suicide up in glory. But when, like Michael, you wrap it up in environmentalism, suddenly you’re a jihadist. You’re not dying, you’re “ascending.” This pathology is in the DNA of Christianity—always has been—and also in the DNA of Islam. The idea is that Christ wants our suffering, and this creates the temptation to believe that “If I suffer as much as Christ did, I will transmogrify and transform myself… cleanse myself.” You see this every Easter, when various cultists go around whipping themselves, climbing onto crosses. It’s not an expression of holiness, but of angst—a pathology.

To put the spiritual crisis into a larger context, I did a seminary tour with First Reformed for two days in three different seminaries. Because I’d gotten so burned with The Last Temptation of Christ, I thought, “Who knows what the alt-right will do with this film?” (Alex Jones put me on his hit list once already.) But I wanted to take the film out to the community first to see how the liberal, humanistic tradition of Christianity responds, because they are actually the majority. The “moral majority” is bullshit. The real majority is actually decent. The “moral majority” are the loudest voices in the room, so they make people think they represent the Christian mission. Their doctrine is based on hatred and greed, and yet they get to carry the flag.

Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), the head of a megachurch called Abundant Life, tells Reverend Toller, “You don’t live in the real world. You’re a minister at a tourist church no one attends.” Jeffers obviously does live in the real world, and he has to get involved with financing to keep his megachurch going. In his case, that means taking some money and not turning your back on a funder just because they’re also a polluter. Those who are exploiters—like the industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), who finances Jeffers and Toller’s missions—are notorious for their largesse in certain areas. The Koch brothers fund the New York City Ballet with the David H. Koch Theater. We wouldn’t have the vibrant ballet program New York has if it weren’t for the Koch Brothers. That’s a kind of modus operandi that’s not uncommon: You help your profile and all the while you’re exploiting things.

Righteous Collar: In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Hawke) finds new religious meaning in environmentalist outrage. Photograph by KC Bailey, courtesy of A24

The very first film I directed, Blue Collar, was a Marxist film. There was a magazine at the time that called me “the new Marxist filmmaker,” and I thought, “I’m not a Marxist filmmaker. My film came to a Marxist conclusion, but I’m not always going to come to a Marxist conclusion!” My films also aren’t always going to come to environmentalist conclusions. First Reformed is not an environmentalist film. It’s a film about the arc of a soul, and how the environmentalist cause plays into that. If Toller hadn’t had his odd environmentalist awakening, he would have found some other thing.

I don’t know how we got here, but the idea that climate science knowledge is dictated by “belief” is amazing. If you want to jump out the window, gravity doesn’t really care whether you “believe” in it or not. You know what would be great? If some individual could do something. But I don’t know what “something” is. The idea is that you must choose hope to counteract despair.

Does Toller do that? I’m not quite so sure. I put it in the film that he’s on all fours puking on the floor and has an ecstatic vision from God in which he sees the world. At the end of the movie, is he alive or dead? I built both interpretations and calibrated them in the edit so one wouldn’t outweigh the other. I don’t know which is “correct.” They both are.

My generation has a lot to answer for. It’s almost too painful. But in the moment we’re living in now, there’s so much temptation to not choose hope, but you have to hold both hope and despair in your mind at the same time. MM

– As told to Caleb Hammond

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2018 issue. First Reformed opened in theaters May, 2018, courtesy of A24. Featured image photograph by KC Bailey, courtesy of A24. 

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