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Wittgenstein (1993)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

The young Ludwig Wittgenstein, announcing himself as "a prodigy", introduces us to his Viennese family, describes the rigours of his Austrian education, and debates philosophical questions with a Martian. His intellectual talents take him initially to England where, at Manchester University, he studies Engineering. He quickly transfers to Philosophy at Cambridge, where he is befriended and encouraged in his radically original philosophical ideas by Bertrand Russell who, writing to his mistress Lady Ottoline Morrell, proclaims him the most gifted philosopher of his generation.

Wittgenstein leaves Cambridge to journey first to Norway where, in seclusion, he begins to write his Notes on Logic, then back to Austria, where he informs his family he intends to volunteer for the army. His sister Hermione regards the decision as stupid; his brother Paul is encouraged to join up with him. During World War I, Paul loses an arm and Ludwig begins work on what will become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

On returning home, he decides to delay his return to Cambridge by taking up a provincial teaching post, further angering Hermione who insists that he is wasting his talents. Ludwig experiences the elementary school as deeply frustrating and is forced to leave after being accused of brutality towards his students.

His return to Cambridge is facilitated by the offer of a teaching post and a grant arranged by the Professor of Economics John Maynard Keynes. Wittgenstein, however, finds it frustratingly difficult to relate his ideas to his students, and seeks solace in daily visits to the local cinema. He is accompanied by his friend Johnny, a young philosophy student who is also Maynard Keynes' lover.

Wittgenstein and Johnny begin a relationship, during which the philosopher attempts to persuade the student to relinquish his studies in favour of the more 'honest' world of manual labour. Russell and Keynes reprimand him for influencing a young man whose working-class background meant that his parents underwent great sacrifices to educate their son at Cambridge. Wittgenstein attempts to leave Cambridge to work as a factory labourer in Soviet Russia, but the Soviet authorities offer him instead a choice of two University posts. He returns to Cambridge in 1951 where he is diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the prostate. After a last voyage, this time to Ireland, he returns to Cambridge to die, where he is attended at his deathbed by Maynard Keynes and the Martian.

Sight and Sound, 1st April 1993