Two men sit opposite each other. One is an unshaven, shaggy-looking man in his early thirties, perched on an office desk chair. The other is a priest, older but not old, sitting in an armchair. Both of them look worn down, ill at ease. Behind the younger man is a desk piled high with papers and books cracked open and left face down, a mostly-empty bottle of whiskey and a laptop with a screensaver which is cycling through images of global heat maps that are getting gradually redder. On the walls around the desk are a number of photographs, framed and unframed, and large hand-drawn graph with blue and red lines moving sharply upwards. The priest, named Ernst Toller, is here to offer counsel. The other man, who is called Michael Mensana, is uncomfortable. He is withdrawn, and reticent, until all of a sudden he isn’t; he tries to hold himself back, to not give himself away too much, to speak from a position of certainty, but he can’t control himself. His tension, his anxiety, his fear, his sense of his smallness and his feelings of futility start to spill out of him and into the room. He fidgets; his speech becomes less clear, more disconnected, he stops finishing his sentences. Michael is an environmentalist. The charts pinned to the wall behind him represent the fast-approaching ecological catastrophe. His wife is pregnant with their first child, and he is scared shitless. Though he tries to hide this fear behind a mask of climate pessimism, it is clear from his behaviour—from the way his eyes suddenly become wet and red, from the way he loses hold of himself as he speaks, from his deep unease in being looked in the eye by another man—that he is deeply afraid of the situation he has found himself in. He reveals this fear to the priest, almost despite himself. The priest tries his best to help, but it’s clear that neither of the men is quite capable of hearing what the other has to say.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a film about the emergence of despair in the face of breakdown. It traces the spiralling crisis in the life of Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke): an alcoholic and former military chaplain, deep in mourning following the death of his son and the collapse of his marriage, Toller has found himself serving in a benefice at a pristine tourist-trap church in upstate New York. The crisis which erupts into Toller’s life is not a crisis of his faith in God, as we might expect from a film about a dissolute priest. It is a crisis of Toller’s faith in humanity—a crisis which develops out of his inability to hope for redemption and salvation on a poisoned earth. The catalyst for this crisis is Toller’s brief encounter with Michael Mensana (Philip Ettinger). The film opens with a service delivered by Toller to a pitifully small congregation, including Michael—who is uncomfortable, reluctant, awkward, hovering like a child waiting for his mother’s permission to leave, except the woman that he’s with is his wife, not his mother. It is wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who arranges a meeting between Toller and Michael, making time for it between the irregular temp shifts Michael has managed to pick up at the local Home Depot. Michael is freshly back in town; he’s been away, spending a few years involved in climate activism in Northern Canada, which resulted in some jail time for some unspecified eco-sabotage. He’s only been out of jail for two weeks; he has been granted compassionate release because of Mary’s pregnancy. But now he’s unemployed, sitting around at home with time on his hands and a sense of having failed in his quest to halt climate breakdown, and the news of Mary’s pregnancy has sent Michael into a steadily-worsening depression, which manifests itself in a constant stream agitating questions which gnaw at him: Is it right to have children, despite everything we know about climate breakdown? Knowing what I know, how can I bring a child into the world?
In the only scene in which the two men speak at length, Toller tries to comfort Michael by referring back to his own personal loss: coming from a military family he persuaded his own son to join up, only for him to die in the war in Afghanistan. After the death, Toller left the military, then his wife left him; he winds up where he is in the film: isolated, in physical and spiritual agony, barely holding himself together. “I promise you,” he tells Michael, “the despair of bringing a child into this world cannot match the despair of taking one out of it.” This is cold comfort. Michael has developed an unsteady anti-natalist position: the world into which his child will be born will be poisoned, it will be unliveable, and it will be his fault for not stopping the catastrophe. He is afraid of the day when he might have to look his child in the eye and answer the question he thinks is inevitable: Daddy, what did you do during the first signs of the climate crisis? In this scene Phillip Ettinger, who plays Michael, refuses to allow his face to pause on any one emotion for too long, flickering rapidly between different modes of feeling: from beatific hope, to crushing despair, to nervous tension, to tearful sentimentality. His ambivalence—not uncertainty here, but the holding of at least two equally strong feelings at the same time, the simultaneous experience of both hatred and love—is clear. He looks physically bad: a man at his lowest ebb. Michael ends the meeting by offering Toller a drink. Toller is an alcoholic, subsisting on a diet consisting predominantly of bread soaked in whiskey. When Michael asks if he’s a drinking man, Toller replies—somewhere between hypocrisy and self-doubt—“Does it help?”
Does it help? Toller has enjoyed himself. He thinks of himself as Jacob wrestling with the angel; he describes the conversation as “exhilarating”. This is the problem, though the film never exactly expresses it this way: for Toller, the conversation is an interesting and engaging discussion about faith, about courage and despair and the necessity of holding both together at same time. He participates in it as a kind of affirmation of his own capacities to argue, to persuade, to counsel. It allows him to think of himself, momentarily, as a good priest, a man who has helped someone. He can mobilise his own pain for this end, but he is incapable of permeating the barriers Michael has erected around himself. Both Toller and Michael are trapped in their own agonies. Toller goes home and writes about the conversation in his diary, replaying what he should have said, what he’ll say when he meets Michael the next day. “I know that nothing can change and I know that there is no hope. Thomas Merton wrote this. Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are. Perhaps it’s better I didn’t say that to him.” Perhaps indeed.
It doesn’t matter, because Michael reschedules their next meeting, postponing it, eventually telling Toller to meet him in a park somewhere near the beginning of a hiking trail. When Toller arrives, he finds Michael’s ruined corpse in the snow. Michael’s violent death unleashes the animating energy of the film. Toller interprets it as a sign of his own impotence; his inability to counsel the souls under his care. The death contaminates his life: already teetering on the edge of collapse, Toller throws himself into deep late-night research into the forthcoming environmental catastrophe, picking up on Michael’s obsessions, developing an increasingly erotic fixation on Mary, who has been left alone and seeking solace.
Michael’s suicide is motivated by what, in contemporary pop-psychological parlance, might be called eco-anxiety. In 1881 an Italian physician called Enrico Morselli calculated that the number of suicides in European countries tended to be higher in summer, writing that “suicide is equally subject to the influence of the periodic and constant changes in the astronomical conditions of the earth, and above all of the variations in temperature, humidity and barometrical pressure.” The hotter the month—the hotter the year—the higher the suicide rate: the regularity of this rule is, in Morselli’s words “too great for it to be attributed to chance or the human will.” Of course, ‘hot weather’ alone is not enough to lead to suicide. The effect that the heat has on our mood depends on a number of factors—social, political and economic as well as psychological, personal and internal. Climate breakdown won’t lead to more suicides just because the weather is hotter; the hotter weather will contribute to societal fractures, to the development of new difficulties, new crises. Think of the relation between the summer heat and everyday violence we see in a film like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Think of that sweatbox intensity on a planetary scale.
Psychoanalysis has tried to answer the riddle of suicide many times. How can someone find the mental energy to kill themselves? How can the ego destroy itself? Freud wrote about suicide on a few occasions. In his essay from 1917, “Mourning and Melancholia”, written in the last year of the First World War, on the cusp of the devastating global influenza outbreak called the Spanish Flu, Freud tells us that, “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.” Melancholia manifests as self-recrimination, but this is often more complicated than it seems:
If one listens patiently to a melancholic’s many and various self-accusations, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love … we perceive that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it onto the patient’s own ego.
For Freud, this shifting of the reproach inside—along with the subsequent self-tormenting, self-loathing feelings of despair which accompany melancholia—transforms the reproach into a sadistic pleasure. The ego treats itself as an object, taking on a relationship to itself that is both sadistic and masochistic in turn. Now it can express its antagonism towards itself—ultimately, in some cases, now it can kill itself. More succinctly, he addressed the topic again in an essay from 1920, suggesting that “probably no one finds the mental energy required to kill himself unless, in the first place, in doing so he is at the same time killing an object with whom he has identified himself, and, in the second place, is turning against himself a death-wish which had been directed against someone else.”
This line of thinking was developed by Melanie Klein who, in an essay from 1935, wrote: “in some cases the phantasies underlying suicide aim at preserving the internalised good objects and that part of the ego which is identified with good objects, and also at destroying that part of the ego which is identified with the bad objects and the id.” For Klein, the act of suicide is about the relation between the internal world and the outside world; the feelings of guilt and the need to make reparation for the melancholic’s “own sadistic attacks on his mother’s body, which to a little child is the first representative of the outside world.”
This insight has continued relevance today. The last few decades have seen a gradual increase in psychoanalytic writing addressing the topic of climate change. Within this sub-field, there is a tendency to lean heavily on the image of Mother Earth: the idea that the feelings of guilt following the sadistic attacks on the mother’s body undertaken by the breastfeeding infant can be expanded to understand our guilt about the sadistic attack on the earth’s body that leads to anthropogenic climate change. In this interpretation, climate despair comes from the realisation that the Earth is not—despite what our unconscious infantile wishes might demand—an infinitely nourishing mother, not a breast that we can return to again and again with no effect, but rather a source of exhaustible resources, something which—through our hunger and greed—we can poison and destroy.
This psychoanalytic framework might be useful for thinking about what Michael’s character goes through in First Reformed. It’s notable that in interviews about the film Schrader has tended to refer to Michael as ‘the boy’, placing him always in the role of child, incapable of maturity. Michael’s position is one of ambivalence: not half-hearted uncertainty, but rather equal and contradictory feelings of love and hate existing at the same time. He loves his wife, of course, but it’s possible that he also fosters an unconscious hatred of her, who—through her pregnancy—has taken away his sense of noble imprisoned martyrdom. He loves the idea of his child, but at the same time hates this imagined figure of the future, who will one day turn to him and hold him to account for his failings. In his conversation with Michael, Toller confirms with him that any potential abortion would be Mary’s choice, rather than Michael’s, and that the problem Michael is facing is in fact not really about the unborn child, or about Mary. It’s about Michael and his despair; his lack of hope in the future of humanity, in a capacity to act in order to stop the apocalypse he sees ahead. But maybe this is wrong. On a psychoanalytical reading, it might be that what Michael feels is less a despair about the fate of the world and more an unconscious hatred towards one bad object or another, a hatred which has since been directed inwards. Where does his despair come from? Is it just his lack of faith in humanity to stop climate change, or is it the limitations of his power as an individual? Or is it something else: this feeling of hatred which is too difficult for him to accept, too complicated to acknowledge and work through; a narcissistic hostility in response to his feelings of being castrated, his impotence in the face of catastrophe. We aren’t given much about Michael’s family in the film, other than a throwaway line delivered by a police officer after his suicide about his father: “A businessman. A morbid son of a bitch. Guess it runs in the family.” Is Michael’s despair a hatred of his own father, turned inwards—a hatred of the idea of becoming someone who fails his child?
Suicide is a sin, but martyrdom is not. Martyrdom is the cloak in which sin can be wrapped in order to turn it into redemption. Michael asks Toller if he believes in the martyrdom of the early Christians who would not abandon their faith. When Toller says that he does, indeed, believe in martyrdom, Michael points him to a photo on the wall of some Brazilian activists (José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria) murdered in the Amazon in 2011. In various interviews, Schrader had described the relation between Ernst and Michael in terms of contamination: Toller ‘catches’ Michael’s ‘virus’. In this reading, Toller’s online radicalisation is just an excuse for the hours spent sitting alone in a dark room, illuminated by a laptop screen, drinking his Pepto-Bismol and whiskey cocktails. Martyrdom in the name of a radical environmentalism becomes the vehicle through which Toller’s death drive expresses itself. The problem with this—and possibly one of the reasons why Toller fails at the end of the film to commit suicide using Michael’s explosive vest—is that the death drive insists that each of us die our own death. In the climax of the film Toller is heading towards dying Michael’s death for him over again. He baulks when he sees Mary walking to the church: he realises that it isn’t Michael’s death that he wants: it’s his wife and child.
Each suicide contains its own mystery within it—a mystery that psychoanalysis can only gesture dumbly towards. Michael’s suicide in First Reformed is, like all suicides, unanswerable, unresolvable. But in Schrader’s film suicide is not a question of unconscious motivations; it is a question of faith—or a lack of faith. This might seem like a way to remove the environmentalist elements of First Reformed, and make it about the internal psychology of the characters. Perhaps it also might take what Paul Schrader says about the film too much to heart—to believe the film’s author too much. But First Reformed—and Michael’s role in it in particular—is a deeply ambivalent work. Much of what Michael says is faded out in favour of Toller’s internal monologue delivered in voiceover. When passes on his obsession to Toller, something gets lost; Toller becomes an environmentalist because environmentalism is conveniently available for him as an object for his own confused desires to latch onto. Michael’s own environmentalism—some unspecified illegal activism in Northern Canada, an obsessive accumulation of bad news, turning his funeral into a protest site—is no doubt a genuine commitment, but there’s something I find troubling about it.
Part of this trouble might be my own sense of, well, there but for the grace of God go I. In the past I have been prone to despair, to a feeling of desolation and a sense of deep pessimistic futility about the world, especially in relation to climate change. Michael is about the same age as I am now. He’s scruffy and unkempt, looking like a man who hasn’t willingly left the house in months. There have been times in my life when, in a state of profound loss and hopelessness, I have not been able to see how it could be possible to go on, either as an individual or as a species. When I watch the scenes in which Michael talks to Toller, and I see the stacks of books and print-outs on his desk, I can see a part of myself reflected—or a part of myself projected into him. I can identify with him; I can understand his cynicism towards Toller, and I can also understand the momentary flickering towards wanting to be persuaded by the priest. There is something compelling about Michael, but there’s also something I find slightly repulsive. I don’t know what that is.
Ultimately—as Toller observes, before he gets caught up in the spiral the death unleashes in him—Michael’s suicide is about him, his despair, far more than it’s about climate change. There’s something almost narcissistic about his act. While Toller touches on this arrogance when he asks who can know the mind of God, I would not take this theological approach myself. Instead I try to start from Jonathan Lear’s concept of radical hope: “a commitment to the idea that the goodness of the world transcends one’s limited and vulnerable attempts to understand it.” I take solace in that, and in the more claustrophobic and compulsive patterns of Samuel Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” We don’t have a choice. This might seem naive in the face of the apparently unstoppable growth in carbon emissions, the continued devastation of the environment and forms of animal life on this planet. But what are the alternatives? It’s either cynical denial of the climate crisis, or the false maturity of a position of ‘realism’ and disavowal, or it’s the despair that leads to suicide. None of these positions helps.
Andrew Key writes the Roland Barfs Film Diary. He grew up on the border between England and Wales. He earned an M.A. in the Landscape of Ideas at the University of Sussex and spent some years in the graduate program in the English Department at UC Berkeley, during which time he mostly frequented the Pacific Film Archive. Since dropping out he has pursued a number of careers, including pizza chef, layabout, sommelier, bid writer, and novelist-manqué. He currently occupies himself as a social care worker in a care home for adults with complex mental health needs. Writing has appeared—or is forthcoming—variously.