Derek Jarman is one of the best known figures in contemporary British cinema. Often, he has been one of the most controversial. His production of such films as The Tempest, Caravaggio, The Last of England, War Requiem, and Edward II have been a wild mix of radical politics, gay issues, stunning visuals, and fractured narratives. Along the way, he has been generally acclaimed as the definitive filmmaker of post-punk England.
Jarman is now dying. He has AIDS and is rapidly becoming blind. He admits that Wittgenstein is his last
feature film. These facts beg the obvious question: why a movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein?
Granted, Wittgenstein is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. His work was, in part, a critically scathing repudiation of the main currents of modern philosophy. Much of modern philosophy has involved the rigorous defining of terms, entrenched in the belief that philosophic disputes were based on a confusion about language. For Wittgenstein, there was no confusion about language. Instead, language itself was a virtually impenetrable mystery and philosophy was merely a confused byproduct.
Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein did not view philosophy as a special means toward discovering truth. That was the job of poetry and art. Most of all, Wittgenstein loved movies. When he taught at Cambridge, it was not unusual to find him at the local cinema watching either musicals or Westerns.
Which brings us back to the movie Wittgenstein. In a way, it is as much about Jarman as it is about Ludwig. The film is strongly reminiscent of Caravaggio. Scene after scene is presented as an abstract tableau framed against a black backdrop. The adult Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson) repeatedly crosses paths with himself as a boy (Clancy Chassay). Wittgenstein's academic colleagues — specifically Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough) and Maynard Keynes (John Quentin) — are presented as virtual caricatures who seem to only exist in relationship to Ludwig. The entire Bloomsbury Group is summed up by a baroque and snotty Lady Ottoline Morrell (Tilda Swinton) — a performance defined more by hats than by acting.
And yes, Wittgenstein does deal with the long kept secret that he was gay. As presented in the film, Wittgenstein's homosexuality was one of the more human and sympathetic qualities of a man who was otherwise notorious for his arrogant treatment of students.
At its best, Wittgenstein succeeds in balancing the abstract and the humane. It is one of Jarman's best films. Tragically, it is destined to be his last.
(Ed. Note: Jarman died in 1994. This review was written in 1993. Jarman did manage to do one last film, the experimental production of Blue, even though he was blind by that time.)
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