1h 12min | Biography, Comedy, Drama | 17 September 1993 (USA)
A dramatization, in modern theatrical style, of the life and thought of the Viennese-born, Cambridge-educated philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), whose principal interest was the nature and limits of language. A series of sketches depict the unfolding of his life from boyhood, through the era of the first World War, to his eventual Cambridge professorship and association with Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes. The emphasis in these sketches is on the exposition of the ideas of Wittgenstein, a homosexual, and an intuitive, moody, proud, and perfectionistic thinker generally regarded as a genius.
I knew nothing of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein before seeing Derek Jarman’s ‘biopic’ of the great thinker, and after the film, felt I didn’t really know much more. Wittgenstein came from Vienna, born into an aristocracy that produced many geniuses in various mediums. Although his great mind would have no doubt seen him become prodigious in whatever he chose to do, his real love was philosophy, the only subject that gave him any true satisfaction. Through his publications and teachings at Cambridge, he amassed an almost disciple-like following of those who understood his radical musings. Plagued with a psychological affliction that saw three of his brothers commit suicide, he was often ashamed with his privilege and sought refuge in the working man, who he romanticised through the literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Most of that knowledge I gained from internet research after watching the film, as Derek Jarman opts for a more interpretive approach – less of a timeline biopic and more of a quasi-abstract work of art. Jarman strips back all conventional cinematic methods and employs a plain black background, with the only presence on screen being the actors and few minimalistic props. He also ignores period detail, having the characters dress in costumes from various periods, often in bright, outlandish colours, using objects that had yet to be invented (similar to his excellent Caravaggio (1986)). This is successful in attempting to portray Wittgenstein’s obviously haphazard look at the world, almost like being trapped between his deep ideas and reality (something that is observed by Maynard Keynes (John Quentin) later in the film), but this also makes the film so visually unappealing that it can be rather dull, like watching a small drama group enact a live play.
Yet although the film is rather un-inspirational in terms of cinematic techniques, Wittgenstein is undoubtedly intriguing, putting a fresh outlook on the tired sub-genre of the biopic. Welsh actor Karl Johnson is fine in the role of Wittgenstein, embodying the disconnection his character feels with the world. There is also fine support from Michael Gough, Jarman’s muse Tilda Swinton, and Clancy Chassay, playing the narrating young Wittgenstein. His life was rich and full of incident, and Jarman’s failure to really grasp the enormity of Wittgenstein makes the film ultimately a disappointment, focusing mainly on his relationship with a young philosopher called Johnny (Kevin Collins) – as though Wittgenstein’s torment could have been the result of sexual repression – and only the skimming the surface of his time fighting in World War II, and the physical abuse he inflicted on his young pupils during his time as a schoolteacher. So Wittgenstein will remain somewhat an uncelebrated mystery, even though he is remembered as one of the greatest in his fields by his peers.
Director: Derek Jarman
Writers: Derek Jarman, Terry Eagleton
Stars: Karl Johnson, Michael Gough, Tilda Swinton
Country: UK | Japan
Language: English | Russian
Release Date: 17 September 1993 (USA)
Also Known As: Витгенштейн