February 16, 1993 (Berlin International Film Festival) — 72 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.78:1 — Drama
Jarman’s 10th feature, a shockingly playful biopic about one of the twentieth century’s most erudite, and fabulously gay, philosophers.
Jarman’s next to last film, Wittgenstein is a witty, visually lush, and probing portrait of one of the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. While unlocking the secrets of linguistics, logic, mathematics and philosophy of mind — and paving the way for artificial intelligence — Ludwig was more likely to be found tapping his toes to Carmen Miranda musicals than lucubrating about Aristotle. This landmark film biography achieves the seemingly impossible: in just over an hour, it dramatizes all of the major turning points in the eccentric philosopher’s life (including his opening up as a gay man, in the arms of a handsome philosophy student), elucidates the main points of his abstruse philosophy, and is often hilariously funny. Yet it’s genuinely moving too, as we come to understand the man (or is it über-nerd?) better than he seems to understand himself. The film has been praised by people who knew the philosopher, and by his biographer, Ray Monk. At the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival, it won the Teddy Award for Best Picture. Wittgenstein is a very special film. So rather than worry about not having done enough ‘homework’ on the subject, just sit back, relax, laugh, maybe cry a little. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself haunted by its images, emotions and ideas, for long afterwards.
Woven throughout Wittgenstein is a series of delightfully cheeky scenes between the philosopher as a boy (Clancy Chassay — War Requiem), who immediately informs us that he’s a prodigy and his family is filthy rich (all true), and a garrulous green antennaed Martian (Nabil Shaban — Cuarón’s Children of Men), who grills him on the ways of earthlings. After a hilarious tour of the boy’s childhood, the adult Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson — John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, television series Rome) finds himself studying philosophy at Cambridge, where he’s befriended by the renowned mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough — Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, Tim Burton’s Batman), the outrageous society maven Lady Ottoline Morrell (Tilda Swinton — many Jarman films, Orlando, 2008 Oscar for Michael Clayton), and economist John Maynard Keynes (John Quentin — Reisz’s Isadora, Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome). Wittgenstein has several bouts of doubt with both himself and the usefulness “if any” of philosophy, and goes on sabbaticals that take him to the trenches of World War I (in between battles he writes a philosophical landmark), and then to idealistic but frustrating work as an elementary school teacher in provincial Austria. Maynard Keynes lures him back to Cambridge with both a faculty position and his handsome philosophy student lover, Johnny (Kevin Collins — The Garden, Edward II; Jarman’s real life partner). Wittgenstein, now with Johnny, tries to persuade him to shuck philosophy and do “honest” manual labor, in Russia, but Ludwig is too gung-ho for the Soviets, and they send him packing. He goes back into solitude to work on his second philosophical masterpiece, that he won’t live to see published. Back in Cambridge, dying with prostate cancer, he’s watched over by his friends… including the Martian.
After we take a brief look at Wittgenstein’s life and major ideas, we’ll explore what Jarman makes of it all in his extraordinary film.
Background on Wittgenstein
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951) tried to solve all of philosophy’s problems — twice — but he felt that in both attempts, for different reasons, he had failed. History disagrees; and Wittgenstein is now regarded as perhaps the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. His revolutionary ideas affect disciplines as diverse as philosophy of mind, psychology, the natural sciences, linguistics, mathematics, logic, the arts (could there have been a Jean-Luc Godard without Wittgenstein?), religion, artificial intelligence and software design and, depending on your personal bent, everyday communications. Ironically, his influence rests on his attempts to solve, or rather dissolve, philosophy at its core.
Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on April 26, 1889, the youngest of eight children of Karl Wittgenstein, a wealthy iron and steel manufacturer, and his musically gifted wife, Leopoldine. Both of his parents came from Jewish families that had converted to Christianity. Their private salon was perhaps the most celebrated in Vienna, with frequent guests including Sigmund Freud (at times Ludwig considered becoming a professional psychiatrist), artists Klimt and Kokoschka, and composers Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. Many of Ludwig’s siblings excelled at music, and his brother Paul became a famous concert pianist (after losing an arm in World War I, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten wrote one-hand pieces specifically for him). The family also knew tragedy, as three of Ludwig’s other brothers committed suicide. Perhaps all of these factors played a role in his unshakeable determination to live his intellectual and creative life to the highest degree, whatever the cost.
The multitalented Ludwig showed both precocious ability in many areas, including music, the natural sciences, architecture, and especially engineering. In 1908, he went to Manchester, England to study aeronautics, then in its infancy. While designing one of the first jet propellers, he became fascinated by pure mathematics. In 1911 he attended Cambridge University to study with the great English philosopher, mathematician and future Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell; he also became friends with philosopher G.E. Moore (a member of the Bloomsbury Group that included Lady Ottoline Morrell, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf). Russell steered Ludwig to logic. After a year, an astonished Russell had nothing left to teach his star pupil, who promptly left for Norway. This indicates Wittgenstein’s lifelong love-hate relationship with Cambridge, to which he always returned: he valued the friendships, lovers, and intellectual stimulation there but loathed its stifling smugness, that caused him to leave for years at a time. Now alone in a wooden hut that he built by a Norwegian fjord, he pondered the ultimate structural forms of logical propositions. Ever his own harshest critic, he never published work from this period, although it served as a springboard for later ideas.
Wittgenstein joined the Austrian army during World War I, where he was decorated for bravery in combat. He hoped that by facing death he could focus on what he considered to be the most important things: intellectual clarity and human decency. At this time, he underwent a spiritual conversion, inspired by the socialistic Christianity of Tolstoy’s “The Gospel in Brief,” as well as Saint Augustine, Dostoevksy, and Kierkegaard. Ludwig began joining together his previously compartmentalized thoughts on logic, ethics, aesthetics, and “things that cannot be put into words… [the] mystical.” Later he remarked, to his young chronicler Maurice O’Connor Drury, that although he was not a Christian “I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious perspective” (in the film this remark is aptly addressed to Bertrand Russell). By the end of the war, when he was released from an Italian POW camp, he had finished his first major work, and his only book published during his lifetime, the 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (literally, ‘Treatise on Logical Philosophy’). Its slender size, of 70 pages with lots of white space, belies the intellectual revolution it caused.
Having spent several weeks plumbing the Tractatus, in preparation for this essay, here’s a brief summary of its main ideas. (Below we’ll look at how Jarman plays — one of Wittgenstein’s favorite concepts — with bringing this philosopher-cum-movie-lover’s ideas to the big screen.) Dismissing traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein here argues that language is composed of complex propositions — but that they can be analyzed down into elementary propositions. Analogously, the complexity of the world can be simplified into a series of basic, or what he calls “atomic,” facts. In what you might call his big picture, Wittgenstein has set up a series of correspondences: the shape of ideas in the mind parallels the relationship of words in a sentence, and those in turn are identical in form to the structure of reality that they represent. Basically, a thought is a logical picture of a fact. But the only language precise enough to make sense of the world is that of science. Any attempt to transcend “atomic” facts and reach for something more grandiose — like aesthetics, ethics, or metaphysics — is, as Wittgenstein put it, “non-sense.” The book’s key line is both a warning and, for some, an inspiration to do better: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.6).
Despite its radical nature — that stirred passionate international debate among philosophers who did not like being accused of linguistic sloppiness — the Tractatus sprang from its particular time, and author. In terms of intellectual history, it has its roots in both romanticism — the image of the titanic genius wrestling with The Truth — and modern science, with the underlying belief that the world can be analyzed and understood, and that progress is possible. For all of its exhaustively logical decimal numbering (proposition 1 is modified by 1.1, which in turn is augmented by 1.11, 1.12 and 1.13, and so forth), it’s a highly literary style, with compressed language that’s both poetic and, for all of its rigor, at times mystical. (It also brings to mind the cinematic theory of montage — the precise juxtaposition of individual images, each one modifying both what came before and what’s to come, to create larger meanings — that Sergei Eisenstein formulated just a couple of years later.) Wittgenstein’s first and last propositions give a taste of the whole: “1. The world is all that is the case.” and “7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Wittgenstein wrote in German, and English translations differ.) Literary critic and author of the first draft Wittgenstein screenplay, Terry Eagleton — in his 1993 essay “Introduction to Wittgenstein” — puts this treatise in a larger cultural context, calling it “the first great work of philosophical modernism… the point where the modernist impulse migrates out of film and poetry and sculpture and comes to occupy philosophy itself from the inside. Its true coordinates are… Joyce, Schoenberg, Picasso. Like many a modernist work of art, the Tractatus secretes a self-destruct device within itself: he who understands these propositions, Wittgenstein remarks abruptly at its conclusion, will recognize that they are nonsense. [It] absurdly… strives to articulate what it itself has placed under the censorship of silence — the relation of language to the world.”
The book is also a reflection of its author, whose emotional life is as complex as his ideas. Despite his universally regarded genius, that even his adversaries acknowledged — and his effortless ability to dazzle people, not least his students — he constantly criticized himself, suffered from periodic depressions, occasionally contemplated suicide (how three of his brothers ended their lives), and even questioned his own sanity. His lifelong history of being a world-class overachiever also raises questions about what he was overcompensating for: yes, we’re now going to look at the gay Wittgenstein. This lifelong bachelor was known for the intensity of his friendships, that sometimes drove people away. The extent of his sexual experience can’t be known: gay people put themselves at risk even by keeping diaries, since homosexuality was a criminal offense, involving prison time, in Austria, England, and many other unenlightened lands. But it seems that Wittgenstein was attracted to a certain type: young men who were both brilliant and sweet-natured. At Cambridge, he had a sequence of three lovers — although he was something of a ‘black widow,’ in that each one died in his 20s.
Wittgenstein begins the Tractatus: “Dedicated to the memory of my friend David H. Pinsent;” then he includes a quotation: “Motto:… and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words. — [Ferdinand] Kürnberger [nineteenth century German novelist and playwright]. Those three words might have been Ich liebe dich / I love you. (The free online edition of the Tractatus omits the dedication page.) Ludwig was devastated by the sudden death of Pinsent, a brilliant mathematics student at Cambridge who also shared with Ludwig a passion for music; they were together as much as possible from 1912 until 1918 when Pinsent, who also served as a test pilot, died in a crash. Wittgenstein became intimately involved with Frank P. Ramsey (1903–1930) when the 19-year-old learned German — in one week! — so that he could work side by side with Ludwig translating the Tractatus into English (if you’re in a waggish mood, you may be thinking ‘cheap date’). They were together for almost a decade, until Ramsey’s tragic early death from jaundice. (In his brief life, Ramsey made lasting contributions to both mathematics — with what’s called “Ramsey Theory”, that lays out the conditions under which order must appear — and economics, with formulas for determining the optimal amount that a nation should invest rather than consume.)
In 1930, the year that Ramsey died, Wittgenstein met perhaps the final love of his life: Cambridge mathematics student Francis Skinner (1912–1941). Skinner — fictionalized in Jarman’s film as Johnny — was apparently too devoted to Wittgenstein, who persuaded him to leave Cambridge to pursue socially “useful” occupations like gardener and mechanic, to his family’s horror. In the late ’30s, Ludwig pulled away from Skinner, who died in 1941 from polio.
With the Tractatus published Wittgenstein felt that he had solved all of philosophy’s essential problems, so that he could devote himself to helping the “less fortunate” — and, perhaps, simultaneously have a reason to leave emotional entanglements at Cambridge.
By 1919, he had given away the fortune inherited from his father — mostly to his siblings, but also some anonymous donations to authors including Rainer Maria Rilke; this largesse caused him considerable financial hardship in later years. He idealistically became a schoolteacher in small Austrian villages, and lasted until 1925, when the frustration became unbearable. Then he took an even less likely job, as an assistant gardener in a monastery, followed by dabbling in architecture, when in 1926 he helped design a mansion for his sister Margarethe.
For a decade he turned his back on philosophy, but in 1929 his insistent ‘fan base’ at Cambridge — including Frank Ramsey — lured him back with a research fellowship. The other center of Wittgenstein’s followers was in his native country, called the Vienna Circle; Ludwig spent his summers with them. During this time, Wittgenstein tossed out his own earlier views, in the Tractatus, as he came to believe that concepts like meaning and truth were misleading; that what was ultimately needed was a clear view that could eliminate the confusion that had always bedeviled philosophy. He was beginning to formulate his second philosophical masterpiece, that would occupy the rest of his life.
In 1939, Wittgenstein was appointed to the chair of Philosophy at Cambridge; soon afterwards he became a British citizen. But war again intervened and once more he abandoned philosophy, this time to work in hospitals in London and Newcastle, and to shield his siblings from the Holocaust: despite the family’s long-ago Christian conversions, the Nazis deemed them “racially Jewish,” and Hitler (who had attended secondary school with Ludwig) desperately wanted to “legally” confiscate the Wittgensteins’ immense wealth. Back at Cambridge, he lectured on linguistics, logic, and mathematics, until retiring in 1947. Then he led a nomadic life, staying with various friends throughout Europe and the United States, until settling at an isolated cottage in Galway, on Ireland’s western coast, to work on his other great treatise, Philosophical Investigations. And so, for the second time, and from yet another direction, Wittgenstein wanted to solve all of philosophy’s problems.
In this final book, Wittgenstein rejected his earlier concept that language has a single essential function, and now saw words as being like tools. And just as tools can serve a variety of functions, so can verbal expressions. Although some linguistic propositions serve to express facts, others are used to question, to create, to judge, and so on. This recognition of language’s flexibility led to Wittgenstein’s concept of what he called “language-games” and to the conclusion that people play many different language games. In his final work, Wittgenstein emphasized language as description, not as a “picture” of reality. Language does not exist to discover any essential truth, but rather to end confusion — since conceptual muddles, arising from imprecise language, are responsible for most problems in both philosophy and everyday life. A key element of this book is how Wittgenstein presents his argument: like Socrates, he treats philosophy as a real-world activity, encouraging the reader’s full participation. He presents a concrete example, describes a person’s likely reaction — and how it is in fact based on conceptual confusion, then finally attempts to get us to come to our own conclusion, rather than accept some spoon-fed pronouncement. Words acquire meaning from how they are used in everyday, effective communication: there is no ultimate (metaphysical) concept like The Good, but only real-world good deeds in action. As Wittgenstein says, when it comes to the truly “important” things, “nothing is hidden.”
Philosophical Investigations was not published until two years after Wittgenstein’s death in Cambridge on April 19, 1951. His final words were — perhaps with Capra and Jimmy Stewart on his mind — “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
Because of the fundamental nature of his concepts, Wittgenstein has influenced many diverse fields, including philosophy of mind, psychology, the natural sciences, linguistics, mathematics, logic, the arts (could there have been a Jean-Luc Godard without Wittgenstein?), religion and, depending on your personal bent, everyday communications. The most recent applications of his ideas involve artificial intelligence and software design — teaching machines how to think using symbols, objects, and language.
To balance his cerebral side, Wittgenstein also knew how to relax. After a day of grueling mental labor, he would dip into a detective story, or go to the movies — always sitting in the front row — to see a musical (Carmen Miranda and Betty Hutton were favorites) or a western. Jarman’s film has a wonderful scene with Ludwig and his boyfriend simply enjoying a film together. And Wittgenstein might well have been delighted by Wittgenstein, munching on popcorn and cracking up at the jokes, while savoring its moments of subtle wit… and perhaps flinching at its poignant insights into his life.
Analysis of Jarman’s Film
So how does Jarman bring this philosopher-cum-movie-lover to the big screen? With enormous ingenuity, a brilliantly devoted cast and crew, and next to no budget — although you wouldn’t guess it, from the opulent costumes and lavish, but few, period props.
You also would never guess that a film of such ravishing visual beauty, so filled with vitality and ideas, was the work of a dying man, on the verge of going blind. Not only does the finished picture rank with Jarman’s best, it’s been acclaimed by Wittgenstein’s friends and former pupils as a spot-on depiction of the man, down to the gestural tics. Now that, in preparation for this review, I’ve not only learned about Wittgenstein but read his major works — an author’s voice, or style, can be as revealing as their content — it seems that this film might have earned the highest praise of all, from Ludwig himself. One of Jarman’s inspired decisions is to have Ludwig begin to open up emotionally, for the first time, with a man when the two are alone together in a cinema, holding hands. Johnny is a fictionalized but close version of Francis Skinner, his third major lover not his first, but the aching universal truth of the scene, like so much else in this picture, is what moves audiences, even if they haven’t done any “homework” about Wittgenstein. But Jarman hasn’t just done research; he has — the word is — joyously transformed Ludwig’s ideas into the film itself, in the narrative flow, the set design, and art direction. The picture strikes a miraculous balance between giddy entertainment value and a rare joining of two minds into a unified vision… all in just a little over an hour.
Considering the exceptional level of this achievement, it’s odd to thank that Wittgenstein — unlike Caravaggio, that Jarman plotted to film for close to a decade — sprang up almost overnight; and it wasn’t even Jarman’s idea. It all came together in the eventful year of 1992. Having finished Edward II, Jarman had a major exhibit of his paintings at the Manchester City Art Gallery, even while he was working on two books simultaneously: At Your Own Risk, the latest installment in his ongoing autobiographical collage, and Chroma, his poetic treatise on the meaning of colors (the chapter “Into the Blue” provides the scenario for his last film, Blue). It was also a time of deteriorating health, with increasingly extensive medications but failing eyesight. As he wrote in his journal in August 1992: “Blindness is on the cards. I’m relieved that I know what is happening, the worst is the uncertainty…. I’ve lost 1/2 to 1/3 the vision in my right eye, it’s a strange sensation, I can feel it, it is like being accompanied by a shadow. [His partner Kevin Collins], walking beside me, appears and disappears.”
That summer of 1992, producer Tariq Ali approached Jarman about working on a series for the BBC’s Channel Four entitled The Philosophers. It was planned as a twelve-episode series, with four 52-minute mini-biographical films done in a given year. The first season scripts were ready to go — or so the producers thought, pre-Jarman — with the prominent literary critic and Oxford professor, Terry Eagleton, having written one on Wittgenstein; the other season one subjects were Socrates, John Locke, and Spinoza (written by Tariq Ali). The financing was in place — the Lilliputian budget of under £300,000 came from Channel 4, the British Film Institute, and Uplink, Japan — and Jarman agreed. He would have preferred doing a film about the codebreaker and computer visionary, Alan Turing, but the timing was wrong. (Turing deciphered the Nazis’ “unbreakable” code: after helping win World War II, the British police used antigay laws to threaten him with prison unless he submit to “heterosexualizing” hormone treatments, but he chose suicide; Turing was well represented on stage and screen in 1992, with the new documentary The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing, and Hugh Whitemore’s acclaimed play Breaking the Code, that opened in London in 1986, followed by Broadway and many international productions, and a television film in 1996.)
Turning to Eagleton’s script, Jarman became fascinated with Wittgenstein — more so than with the rather academic 52-page distillation of his life and thought. Jarman and his writing partner Ken Butler (who also co-wrote Jarman’s Edward II), did what in Hollywood would have been called a “page one rewrite,” changing almost everything in Eagleton’s version. A nasty feud erupted, but both screenplays were published in Wittgenstein: The Terry Eagleton Script, The Derek Jarman Film (1993), along with revealing essays by the divergent screenwriters. Eagleton’s contribution was pivotal: without his teleplay as a foundation, this Jarman film, profoundly different though it is, could never have been made.
Jarman and Butler affectionately referred to their radical rewrite as their “Loony Ludwig script,” but their dramatic sense was exactly what the doctor (of philosophy) ordered. While Eagleton set his dialogue-heavy script at Cambridge, Jarman encompassed Ludwig’s entire life, from childhood to death, with stops in Austria, England, Norway, World War I battlefields, an Italian POW camp, Ireland and The Beyond. To take a specific example, Eagleton had dialogue that went into great detail about why Wittgenstein’s students sat in lawn chairs (it’s what he had), but Jarman, without comment, simply presents the fun props as a given and moves on with the tale. Jarman and Butler also gave a bit more prominence to Wittgenstein’s being gay, although this is perhaps Jarman’s most “chaste” film. A major addition was young Ludwig as a boy, providing a series of sassy commentaries on his entire life, while hashing out philosophical quandaries with a xylophone-toting Martian named, after his skin color, Mr. Green.
Jarman took one look at the extensive use of Cambridge exteriors and said, Cut! He would film the entire biopic on a soundstage hung with black curtains — an idea he’d once envisioned for Caravaggio. Not only is this a shrewd cost-cutting measure, but the effect is both visually gorgeous and, more importantly, true to the spirit of the philosopher. It suggests both his intense focus — shutting out the external world — but also a dreamlike, almost eerie quality, that hints at a kind of limbo, in which (a possibly post-mortal) Wittgenstein is trying to make sense of his life. Jarman has used similar claustrophobic realms, that serve as psychological, and perhaps even metaphysical, pressure cookers for the title characters in Caravaggio and Edward II.
The producers, unlike Professor Eagleton, were so impressed with Jarman’s Wittgenstein that they persuaded him to expand it by about fifteen minutes, so that it could be released as a theatrical feature. Would they increase the budget or lengthen the shooting schedule? Heavens, no: Derek, just think of the prestige of making virtually the only film biography of a philosopher!
Wittgenstein was made at a shoebox-size studio in London, at 12 Theed Street, Waterloo (the Martian, at one points, claims to believe only in the reality of that specific location). The twelve-day shoot began October 5, with work days starting at 6:00 AM, but every night they ended later. Jarman filmed master shots in the day, and close-ups at night. Jarman veterans on crew included costume designer Sandy Powell, art director Annie La Paz, makeup artist Morag Ross, editor Budget Tremlett, and executive producer Takashi Asai; and actors Karl Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Michael Gough, John Quentin, Kevin Collins (his stage name: he refers to himself as Keith Collins), and Clancy Chassay. Newcomers include cinematographer James Welland, executive producers Eliza Mellor and Ben Gibson; and actors Nabil Shaban, Lynn Seymour, Sally Dexter, and professional musician Jan Latham-Koenig (who both played Paul Wittgenstein and composed the original music).
Because of his meticulous planning, plus his dedicated — and happy — cast and crew, Wittgenstein wrapped on time and on budget. (My favorite supplemental feature in the Glitterbox collection, is the half hour of behind-the-scenes footage that Tariq Ali shot, showing a glowing Jarman, despite his pain, working with energy, brilliant creativity and kindness to everyone.)
By the time Wittgenstein was released in 1993, Jarman’s health had failed to the point where he was completely dependent on Collins. Reaction was favorable, and at the Berlin International Film Festival, in February, it won the Teddy award for best picture. It opened in the UK in May, in the US and Canada in September 1993, and throughout the rest of Europe later that year and into 1994. It’s long-overdue DVD release will enable it to reach a much wider audience. It’s a special film whose reputation should grow exponentially, by word of mouth. Jarman called it a “sophisticated comedy,” but it’s much more than that — just as it’s much more than the ultimate Über-Geek film. Maybe the day will come when almost every philosophy student, computer aficionado, and film buff has a Wittgenstein poster on their wall.
Let’s take a closer look at how Jarman embodies Wittgenstein’s biography — and thought — onscreen. Taking a cue from the Tractatus, Jarman lets us see what the philosopher meant when he said, “The world and life are one.”
Jarman provides a useful, if elliptical, key to what he has in mind. He wrote in his diary that the basic approach would be “time and colour. [Wittgenstein as a boy] could tell his story into the camera. Black drapes.” Yes: less is more.
Embodying that aesthetic, Jarman opens with a playful dare — emphasis, like much of the film, on ‘playful.’ The boy Ludwig looks us straight in the (camera) eye and states, with deadpan conviction, that “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.” A moment later, little Ludwig pops up from below the frame, wearing a Roman sash and golden Egyptian tiara (must be an Antony and Cleopatra thing), announcing that “I’m a prodigy” and “my family is filthy rich.” As if with Prospero’s magical powers, he now parades out and introduces, one at a time, his entire huge clan — dressed in the height of Roman Empire fashion, and with the sound of an offscreen Coliseum crowd cheering. As Ludwig dishes each one (including the “bent” brother who “favors Berlin”), they gather around a huge concert piano (it had to be a genuine Bösendorfer, Austria’s premiere piano maker). But the frivolity imperceptibly gives way to genuine family feeling; and later we’ll realize that this is the only moment of familial connection in the entire film, with the Wittgensteins united through their shared love of music. Tilt up to the black curtains, and roll the opening titles that — announcing the extreme importance of color to this film — represent the entire spectrum in order, one hue per credit. As Jarman said, it’s time, and space, and color against blackness — a tale told by a boy looking directly, if not ‘straightly,’ into the camera, at himself and, not least, at us.
The anachronistic trappings might make you think that you’d stumbled into one of the surreal biopics by Jarman’s former boss, Ken Russell (for whom he designed The Devils and Savage Messiah), or the even more avant-garde Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Although Wittgenstein’s debt to Russell is apparent, this is uniquely Jarman’s work — closer to his Caravaggio than to Russell. Jarman eschews the ironic phantasmagoria of Mahler (in which the composer jumps through a flaming circus hoop, heralding his politically expedient conversion from Judaism to Catholicism), as well as Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1978), to focus — even with all of its wit, and some slapstick — on getting under the philosopher’s skin.
With Jarman — and this is perhaps the film’s single greatest strength, and why it can connect deeply with audiences — the emphasis is always on emotional honesty. For all of his inventive visual brilliance, this is one of the rare biographical films to explore fully the psychological complexity of its subject, even when it goes into such horrendous areas as Wittgenstein browbeating a young village girl who can’t understand his blackboard filled with logical propositions. It’s a very raw scene, perfectly performed by both actors, and it provides one of the film’s biggest, and perhaps least expected, emotional jolts — even as it puts to rest any suspicions that this is going to be the life of Saint Ludwig. Continuing with what you might call this ‘children motif,’ there’s a complementary ‘revenge of the schoolgirls’ scene set several years later, with Ludwig back at Cambridge. But those three girls’ obscene “fairy-baiting” gestures inspire Ludwig to rethink his entire earlier philosophy of language, and lead him to his magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations (certainly one of the more productive uses ever made of homophobia).
Of course, the most important child in the film is Ludwig himself, as an in-your-face wunderkind, often conversing with a Martian, who seems to be of exactly the type an imaginative prodigy would conceive. Despite the considerable entertainment value of these scenes — they are often very funny, even as they painlessly illustrate key ideas of Wittgenstein’s mature philosophy — there is also a poignant biographical dimension. One can’t help but feel the enormous gap that’s grown between the dazzling confidence of the boy and the haunted, repressed quality of the man acknowledged as the greatest philosopher in Britain, and perhaps in the world.
Jarman offsets, but never disguises, that melancholy by his use of narrative momentum that puts most big action movies to shame: this movie really moves. There are about sixty-five scenes in as many minutes; and virtually every one has enough detail to let you understand what’s happening, even if you’re unfamiliar with the subject’s life. But rather than a Proustian remembrance of things past, with cascades of associative details, here we’re treated to what often feels like music hall (or its latter-day incarnation in TV shows like Saturday Night Live), with blackouts in between the sketches. There’s a wonderful scene featuring Wittgenstein’s famous argument about refusing to believe that there is no rhinoceros in the room, when of course we don’t see one. But after Wittgenstein and Russell walk off, what should pop out from under the table but young Ludwig dressed in a silly rhino costume, horn and all. Talk about ending with a music-hall gag and blackout.
Comedy is key, but it also reminds us of one of Wittgenstein’s deepest regrets: that he wasn’t funny enough. At the end, there’s a deeply moving moment when he confesses that he’d always wanted to write a (serious) philosophy book that consisted entirely of jokes… but, he adds ruefully, he didn’t know how.
If you like the dialogue — and there are probably more jokes per minute (if you count word play) than in most self-described comedies — you can thank the sources. They are not necessarily writers Jarman, Butler, and Eagleton, but rather Wittgenstein, Russell, and Keynes themselves, along with several other historical figures. Whenever possible, and whenever the dialogue could play onscreen, Jarman uses actual lines from journals, letters, and, now and again, Wittgenstein’s tomes.
While Wittgenstein is the most real, of these historical figures, he also embodies the most expansive meanings. This is the geek as a larger-than-life Byronic hero — against all (intellectual) odds, fighting against society, to be himself — while it’s simultaneously an affecting psychological exploration of a man frightened of the world, and of his own “forbidden” self. Of course, everyone is unique, but there’s enough universality in Ludwig that many people can connect with his fractured nature: part vaunting ambition, part frightened kid that’s never grown up.
The other principal characters also seem true to their historical selves, especially Bertrand Russell, who is Ludwig’s main confidante in the first half of the film (until they have a falling out, as actually happened). Michael Gough gives a superb performance, perhaps the best of his long and distinguished career. John Quentin is John Maynard Keynes (often called Maynard, by his friends) — Wittgenstein’s droll soul mate in the film’s second half — even when Jarman dresses him and the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova in matching lavender and green (yecch). In that antigay dark-ages Britain, even “The Father of Modern Economic Theory” needed an opposite-sex “beard” to protect him from persecution, enforced “hormone treatments,” and/or prison (recall the fate of Alan Turing). Jarman slips in not mentioning that Keynes and Lopokova were married: who would know, since we frequently see the economist lovingly in bed with his boyfriend, while the ballerina — clearly his friend — practices at the barre. As the irrepressible Lady Ottoline Morrell, queen of the Bloomsbury Group, Tilda Swinton steals all of her scenes, mostly with Bertrand Russell; but she’s almost unrecognizable, swathed in billowing organdy and with multiple chins, from all those sweets that she devours. Kevin Collins as the philosophy student Johnny — both Keynes and Wittgenstein’s lover — is sincere and sweet natured (suggesting what Caravaggio’s devoted mute assistant might have been like, under very different life circumstances).
Johnny provides Wittgenstein with emotional stability and love but, as Ludwig says in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, he still doesn’t know how to overcome the social forces that make him feel guilt over their relationship — this from one of the greatest intellects of his time, and a man who longs for deep connection: in today’s clinical jargon, it would be called ‘internalized homophobia.’ Jarman’s visual metaphor is striking: Ludwig, suspended in a giant cage (perhaps recalling Iago’s fate in Welles’s Othello), accompanied by a parrot in a smaller hutch.
Even in such a brief feature film, all of these characters, and others, are richly developed, with layers of psychological complexity. It’s a credit to the extraordinary writing, performers, and director. But even beyond that, Jarman uses every cinematic means to develop the world of this film.
How can you convey the horrors of World War I trench warfare, on an all-but-empty stage? Sound effects, coupled with Karl Johnson’s performance of immense, but seemingly effortless, concentration. On a more metaphorical note, Jarman suggestively uses the sound of water, at key points. In the Norway rowboat scene, played against the ever-present black backdrop, listen to how Jarman conjures up the fjord simply by the sound of lapping water. At the same time, the (never seen) water takes on a psychological resonance: its echoes also suggesting the vast expanses within Ludwig, both of loneliness and of openness. And that’s exactly where the philosopher as that point, somewhat adrift but poised to begin his grand intellectual adventure. A parallel use of sound (in a film filled with subtle parallels on all levels, from color to props to scenes) comes at the end, when Wittgenstein is at his final cabin of solitude, this time on the Irish coast of Galway. There the water doesn’t echo; instead the surf sounds like it is constantly pulling at him, wearing him down — not unlike the fatal cancer within him.
Music also adds layers of richness, and tense beauty, to the film, even as it (literally) underscores the emotion of scenes, and helps propel the narrative forward. And it reminds us that music was what bound the entire Wittgenstein family family (as we saw in the opening sequence). While two of his brothers were musical prodigies, Ludwig was musically gifted too: one missed opportunity in this film is a moment showcasing his special ability… as a virtuoso whistler! Most of the music that Jarman employs, Wittgenstein knew; and he and his family might even have played it on one of their eight pianos. The soundtrack includes works by several of Wittgenstein’s favorite composers, who were Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. (Despite Mahler’s and Schoenberg’s visits to the Wittgenstein home, Ludwig despised their and all other “modern” compositions: for him, great music ended with that written by another family friend, Brahms.) But the pieces in the film are more than high-toned ear candy. The Schumann, Brahms, Janáček, and other works (full music credits below) share a basic quality: beneath their exquisite surfaces, they seethe with passion, constrained only by their inventively formal structures. Even the most playful pieces, by Satie (including the well-known “Gnossiennes”), are founded on aural tensions that you can feel in your bones, even as your ears delight in the outward elegance.
The visual style is no less resonant — making us wonder what Wittgenstein, the movie lover, might have done as a filmmaker (perhaps the closest anyone has ever come is Godard in his intellectually rigorous but playful 1969 film about linguistics and politics, Le Gai savoir). There is a montage-like quality to Wittgenstein’s writing, as it’s split into a series of “atomized” single thoughts that continuously modify what has gone before, even as they build cumulatively into a complex whole — basically, that’s Eisenstein’s theory of montage. Although there’s no record of his fantasizing about a career behind the camera, consider that underlying his philosophy, in the Tractatus, is the assumption that “there are… things that cannot be put into words,” that may only be “shown” not “said… They are what is mystical.” That’s also a good motto for Jarman’s film. His use of visual style here is Wittgensteinian — both concrete and evocatively metaphysical. The black curtains, as noted above, conjure both a claustrophobic void and the pure, beautiful austerity of Wittgenstein’s literary style, even as they suggest, on a less positive note, the emptiness of all those countless sentences (including, alas, every one in this review) that are not based on either logic or science.
But Jarman rarely draws our attention to the black curtains — and then, at the film’s climax, only to draw them back to reveal the startling vista that they conceal. Instead, he wants us to focus on what they accentuate: the blindingly bright color scheme.
Color meant more to Jarman now than perhaps at any time in the painter/filmmaker’s life. On the one hand, he was thinking with genuine depth, and poetry, about color in his book Chroma, but on the other, he was losing more of his eyesight every day, and knew that he would soon be blind. Jarman may have taken a cue from Wittgenstein’s passion for gaudy movie musicals, with a palette drawn from Carmen Miranda’s trademark fruit basket hats — while maybe adding, from the opposite extreme, some of Godard’s passion for bold primary colors in his 1960s films like Pierrot le Fou. (There’s even a nod to Godard’s agitprop makeup in the scene where Ludwig asks Ottoline about the three schoolgirls’ hand gestures: Ottoline, with far more paint on her face than the portrait she’s doing of Bertrand Russell, recalls star Anna Karina in her loopier theatrical face painting moments in that film.)
Of all the film’s uses of color, the most notable are the outrageous, eye-popping costumes, led by Lady Ottoline’s. Jarman specified that characters wear the same costume, throughout the film, but in different colors. The Wittgenstein angle here is that we need to look beneath the superficial characteristics of things, like coloration, to get at the essences. And clothes certainly do make the man, and woman, in this picture. Lady Ottoline is — literally, metaphorically, and hilariously — drowning in oceans of gaudy frills. And Keynes may think he’s fooling the homophobes by marrying a ballerina, but not in that lavender get-up. The Martian owns green: period.
Taking the example of Johnny, lets look at what the changing colors of his ubiquitous sweatsuit reveal about him, as the picture progresses. When we first meet him, his sweats are a neutral gray, next they are gold to reflect (perhaps punningly) on his ‘golden boy’ status at Cambridge — both in the classroom and in the sheets, with his lovers Keynes (who sends him off to seduce Ludwig back to the groves of academe). Johnny’s sweatsuit is blue — Jarman’s special color — when he lets Ludwig get close to him in the cinema, and an ironic red when he’s working in the motorcycle repair shop: red as a Communist joke (Jarman, not Johnny, mocking Ludwig for wanting to work in a factory in the Soviet Union — and take Johnny with him, although his poor parents had sacrificed everything to send him to Cambridge), but also red as a reflection of Johnny’s passionately loving nature. This strategy recalls how Fassbinder uses a series of differently colored wigs, to wittily underscore the dramatic transformation of his title character throughout The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, one of Jarman’s ten favorite films.
Relating to Wittgenstein the philosopher, color has long been an example of how we can never be sure if what we are seeing is what someone else is seeing: Is your idea of ‘crimson’ the same as mine, and how can we ever know for sure? Of course, to Wittgenstein, this is a “non-sensical” question, since all that matters is how we use the word in everyday speech (what he called a “language-game”). But there’s also a delirious joy to the cartoonish primaries that Jarman employs: those colors actually provide some of the film’s considerable energy, even as they delight our senses. The colors are so playfully bright, that you keep expecting Bugs Bunny to pop up — maybe asking, “What’s up, Doc Wittgenstein?”
Spoiler Alert! I never thought there’d be a need for such a warning — regarding set design — but consider yourself duly alerted. The most visually astonishing moment in the film comes, of course, at its climax — when the black curtains are drawn back. As Wittgenstein lies dying, his friend Keynes offers loving but sharp insights into his friend’s life, saying that he wanted a world of perfect logic, as smooth as frictionless ice. But after he achieved that and went to take his first step, he fell smack on his face. Young Ludwig pulls opens the omnipresent black curtain… to reveal a cyclorama of dazzling, but ambiguous, beauty. Is it a sunrise, or a sunset? Where are we supposed to be, in time and space? And why does it copy the look of the “You Were Meant For Me” number from Kelly and Donen’s 1952 Singin’ in the Rain, with Gene Kelly wooing Debbie Reynolds on a deserted Hollywood stage? Then we see the boy Ludwig ascending in the silliest possible manner, with white wings and white balloons — but where is he going, and why? As Keynes says, “Roughness and ambiguity aren’t imperfections. They’re what make the world turn.” But part of the philosopher still clings to the frigid perfection of unyielding logic, although it was “absolute and relentless…. And now he was marooned between earth and ice, at home in neither. And this was the cause of all his grief.”
But there’s still more, in the final minute. We now see the Martian, no longer green but flesh-colored, holding one of Jarman’s trademark glowing prisms (used in many of his films), while he sits by Wittgenstein’s body. He announces — in language borrowed from both particle physics and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (that had opened in London in January 1992) — “Hail Chromodynamics, Lord of Quantum. This is Quark, Charm and Strangeness reporting…. The solution to the riddle of space and time lies outside space and time.” The transformed Martian, with a knowing grin, ends, “But as you know and I know…” — quoting the Tractatus to its now-dead author — “If a question can be put at all, it can also be answered.”
For all of it quirks, charm, and strangeness, Jarman makes everything come together in Wittgenstein, and it all works. What makes this film so involving is the portrait of Wittgenstein, from Jarman’s script and Butler’s performance. He is like a cross between Descartes (“I think, therefore I am” — although Wittgenstein rejected his notion of “the lonely self,” even as he lived it) — and The Little Engine That Could (“I think I can”). It’s the optimism of the latter that drove his need to understand, clarify and share his discoveries about language and life, for all of his self-isolation. Wittgenstein’s famous line in the Tractatus — “I am my world. (The microcosm.)” — is one the boldest, and loneliest, ever written (perhaps bringing to mind, however unintentionally, Milton’s Satan, in Paradise Lost, who says, “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell…”)
Wittgenstein is the very model of a trying human being — ‘trying’ both in terms of testing one’s patience with his eccentricities (that he uses to keep himself ‘unentangled’), but also nobly attempting to understand, to use the rational essence of his humanity, to make sense of the world, to separate the real from the arbitrary and limiting: to see, clearly. There’s a wonderful scene between Wittgenstein and Lady Ottoline, in which he asks, “I want to be perfect, don’t you?” She laughs — like an upscale version of those other connoisseurs of human foibles, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Joyce’s Molly Bloom — and says, “Christ, no!”
Jarman’s use of two separate Wittgensteins — the irrepressible child and the repressed adult — is the film’s most important, and poignant, device. If only this great man, divided against himself, could unite his two halves. To borrow a line from the song “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” in Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical play Follies: If the two “could only combine, / I could tell you someone / Who would finally feel just fine!”
Wittgenstein remains a dis-integrated human being. But we see — and admire — that, until the day he dies, in all things he quixotically strives to do his best. And in his writings, if not his life, he succeeds. For all of us.
- Directed by Derek Jarman
- Screenplay by Jarman, Terry Eagleton and Ken Butler
- Produced by Tariq Ali
- Executive Producers: Takashi Asai, Ben Gibson, and Eliza Mellor
- Cinematography by James Welland
- Art Direction by Annie La Paz
- Costume Design by Sandy Powell
- Makeup: Morag Ross
- Edited by Budge Tremlett
- Production Managers: Anna Campeau and Gina Marsh
- Associate Director: Ken Butler
- Original Music by Jan Latham-Koenig
- Classical selections as follows:
- * Johannes Brahms: “Intermezzo” (Opus 119, No. 1 — for solo piano) and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B Flat Major (Opus 83)
- César Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major
- W.S. Gilbert (libretto) & * Arthur Sullivan (composer): “I Am Alone and Unobserved” from the operetta Patience
- Leoš Janáček: “In the Mist” (for solo piano)
- Mozart: Rondo in A Minor (K.511)
- * Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
- * Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Flute and Piano, 1957
- * Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto For the Left Hand [composed especially for Ludwig’s brother Paul]
- * Erik Satie: “Ogives” and “Gnossiennes”
- Robert Schumann: “Carnaval” (for solo piano)
* LGBTQ+-identified composers.
- Jill Balcon as Leopoldine Wittgenstein
- Anna Campeau as Tutor
- Clancy Chassay as Young Wittgenstein
- Kevin Collins as Johnny
- Roger Cook as Tutor
- Vanya Del Borgo as Helene Wittgenstein
- Sally Dexter as Hermine Wittgenstein
- Steven Downes as Student
- Peter Fillingham as Student
- Layla Alexander Garrett as Sophie Janovskaya
- Michael Gough as Bertrand Russell
- Karl Johnson as Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Jan Latham-Koenig as Paul Wittgenstein
- Aisling Magill as Schoolgirl
- David Mansell as Student
- Gina Marsh as Gretyl Wittgenstein
- Donald McInnes as Hairdresser
- Mike O’Pray as Tutor
- Tony Peake as Tutor
- John Quentin as John Maynard Keynes
- David Radzinowicz as Rudolf Wittgenstein
- Ashley Russell as Student
- Fayez Samara as Student
- Ben Scantlebury as Hans Wittgenstein
- Nabil Shaban as Martian
- Lynn Seymour as Lydia Lopokova
- Howard Sooley as Kurt Wittgenstein
- Tilda Swinton as Lady Ottoline Morrell
- Michelle Wade as Tutor
- Tanya Wade as Tutor
In unnamed roles:
- Stuart Bennett
- Samantha Cones
- Sarah Graham
- Christopher Hughes
- Perry Kadir
- Hussein McGraw
- Kate Temple
- Budge Tremlett
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Zeitgeist Films’ DVD has vivid sound and image quality that is, especially whenever Lady Ottoline Morrel (Tilda Swinton) is onscreen, jaw-dropping. All of the many supplements are of great interest. Like all five films in the collection Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4, this is a superb release. Following is a list of special features for this release.
- Restored anamorphic transfer, created from Hi-Def elements
- Video interviews with actress Tilda Swinton, actor Karl Johnson and producer Tariq Ali
- Extensive behind-the-scenes footage
- Video introduction by film historian Ian Christie
- “The Clearing” (Alex Bistikas, 1994), an enigmatic short film featuring Jarman
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
- $29.99 suggested retail — In Region 1, this film is available both as a separate DVD and as part of the four-disc / five-film box set, Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 (The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, and Blue, plus the posthumous Glitterbug) — $74.99 suggested retail
Reviewed June 24, 2008/ Revised October 20, 2020