Directed by Derek Jarman. Starring Karl Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Michael Gough, Clancy Chassnay, John Quentin. (1993, NR, 75 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 18, 1994
With Wittgenstein, film director Jarman explores the mind of the twentieth-century Viennese philosopher. Using highly stylized visual and dramatic strategies, this British director has once again merged the historical with the contemporaneous (Edward the II, Caravaggio, Sebastiane) to create a unique biographical text quite unlike any other film biographies (except, perhaps, those of Ken Russell, for whom Jarman, early in his career, worked as a set decorator). The history of Wittgenstein's life is told through Brechtian tableaux set against a black backdrop. Beginning with his childhood, we're given glimpses of his aristocratic family background that produced three brothers who committed suicide; his intellectual probes into the nature of philosophy, communication and language; his interplay with the intellectuals of the Cambridge and Bloomsbury circles; his thorny yet ongoing relationships with his early mentor Bertrand Russell and antagonist John Maynard Keynes; his dialogue with a small, green-skinned Martian; his devoted coterie of young believers; his physical self-denial, emotional arrogance and ill-fitting romance with manual labor; and his repressed homosexuality that is, nevertheless, critical in shaping his thoughts and beliefs about self-identity. Staged with wit and humor, this hypothetical biography is hardly the dry recitation of a philosopher's life. In fact, oftentimes the tableaux are downright silly and fanciful, but as young Wittgenstein says, “If people don't sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.” Throughout the movie, abstract ideas are presented in concrete visions that bring the ideas to life, though the tableaux vivants set-ups keep the material from getting too pedantic or overwhelming. As in his recent Edward II, Jarman posits conflicted homosexuality and social intolerance as some of the building blocks of personality. Openly gay himself, Jarman, was a rarity amongst major filmmakers. Forthright about his status as an HIV-positive individual, Jarman has always included his modern sensibilities and concerns in his work, be it historical or fictional. In that sense, Wittgenstein is more an essay than a biography. It merely uses the past as an avenue into the present. Sadly, Jarman died from AIDS this past week and thus, Wittgenstein and his yet-to-reach-Austin movie Blue are the last new works we'll ever see from this most original of talents.