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Wittgenstein (1993)


Main image of Wittgenstein (1993)
35mm, colour, 71 mins
DirectorDerek Jarman
Production CompanyBFI Productions
 Channel Four
 Bandung Productions
ProducerTariq Ali
Written byDerek Jarman
 Terry Eagleton
 Ken Butler
PhotographyJames Welland

Cast: Karl Johnson (Ludwig Wittgenstein); Clancy Chassay (Young Wittgenstein); Jill Balcon (Leopoldine Wittgenstein); Michael Gough (Bertrand Russell); Tilda Swinton (Lady Ottoline Morrell)

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The life of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, his original ideas, his personal torment, his relationship with Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes, and the intellectual and social circles within which he moved at Cambridge.

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One of Derek Jarman's last films shows a starker, leaner imaginative vision than in his early work. Once again, he draws an idiosyncratic portrait of a famous man, this time Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Viennese philosopher who revolutionised the way the limits of language were understood. As with Caravaggio (1986), the film is shot entirely in the studio but again, Jarman turns this to his advantage, creating pools of light in the darkness, concise chronological cameos and minimal art direction to convey a very particular sense of time, place and intellectual space and even the universe itself, with the insertion of a Martian character.

Performances by Karl Johnson (as Wittgenstein Senior), Michael Gough (as Bertrand Russell) and Tilda Swinton (Lady Ottoline Morell) are impeccable, driving the action forward with economical gestures and humour. Swinton convinces as a much older, down-to-earth hedonist who, faced with one of Wittgenstein's conundrums, replies, "How the bloody blue blazes should I know?". She excels instead in wearing garish and extravagantly-feathered hats. And if one asks if Jarman's films were sexist, one might answer as Maynard Keynes does to one of Wittgenstein's questions, "That's like asking why you can't play a tune on a carrot".

The film is at its best when showing the gap between Wittgenstein's ground-breaking enthusiasm and mental fervour and the bewildered reception his ideas received, with friends like Russell complaining that "he was trivialising philosophy". The blackness beyond the edge of the set seems to echo the intellectual pits of doubt Wittgenstein stumbles upon, especially when he cannot reconcile his own homosexual desires. His naive but earnest idealism is handled with wry humour, as Jarman repeatedly cuts between the adult and boy philosopher as if to suggest that some part of the man never quite matured emotionally.

Wittgenstein insists on going to fight in the First World War and then visiting the Soviet Union, intending to work in a factory to become a "decent human being". His attempts to reach the common people, by teaching logic in a rural school, lead to cruelty and dismissal. In a final scene, in which the philosopher is stranded inside a cage back in Cambridge, Jarman suggests that the answer to some of his questions lay where he refused to go, namely the arms of a good lover.

Cherry Smyth

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Lessons in logic (2:54)
2. A trip to Vienna (2:26)
3. Orbital patterns (1:04)
4. I want to be perfect (1:14)
5. Language games (3:05)
Production stills
Balcon, Jill (1925-2009)
Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)
Powell, Sandy (1961-)
Shaban, Nabil (1953-)
Swinton, Tilda (1960- )
Channel 4 and Film