(director/writer: Derek Jarman; screenwriters: Ken Butler/Terry Eagleton; cinematographer: James Welland; editor: Budge Tremlett; music: Jan Latham-Koenig; cast: Karl Johnson (Ludwig Wittgenstein), Kevin Collins (Johnny), John Quentin (John Maynard Keynes), Tilda Swinton (Lady Ottoline Morrell), Michael Gough (Bertrand Russell), Clancy Chassay (Young Ludwig), Jill Balcon (Leopoldine Wittgenstein), Sally Dexter (Hermine Wittgenstein), Gina Marsh (Gretyl Wittgenstein), Vanya Del Borgo (Helene Wittgenstein), Ben Scantelbury (Hans Wittgenstein), Howard Sooley (Kurt Wittgenstein), David Radzinowicz (RudolfWittgenstein), Jan Latham-Koenig (Paul Wittgenstein), Nabil Shaban(Martian dwarf); Runtime: 69; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Tariq Ali; Zeitgeist Video; 1993-UK)
“Johnson tore into his role like a hungry barnyard dog into a carcass.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Fascinating artsy biopic on the influential Vienna-born genius philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951), the youngest child in a family of eight, where three of his brothers committed suicide. Wittgenstein died at age 66 in Cambridge of prostrate cancer.
Ludwig studied under Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough) at Cambridge and was professor there from 1939 until 1947. The late great celebrated gay filmmaker Derek Jarman (“Jubilee”/”The Tempest”/”Caravaggio”) shot this film while in the late stages of AIDS, which affected greatly his eyesight. Jarman bravely, stylishly and cleverly captures the essence of the child prodigy Ludwig Wittgenstein and his development as a philosopher (Clancy Chassay as the young Ludwig, Karl Johnson as an adult). The eccentric philosopher was Jewish; rumored to be a homosexual; shared the same young lover of John Maynard Keynes (John Quentin), a poor Cambridge working-class student named Johnny (Kevin Collins); was filthy rich from his father’s inheritance but gave away his fortune to his large family; and was a philosopher who was so disdainful of philosophy that he said it’s ‘A sickness of the mind.’
The playful, irreverent and unconventional examination of Wittgenstein is a sincerely delirious film that never apologizes for being so smart, so gay and so shockingly on the mark in its assessment of the often misunderstood philosopher. It tells us of the soul-searching philosopher’s interest in the study of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of the mind, and the philosophy of language, and how his first book published at the age of 32, in 1921, a 75-pagebook entitled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he foolishly thought he had all the answers and discovered the absolute in logic but later learned that true knowledge comes only with doubt and ambiguity and spent the rest of his life refuting what he wrote.
The argumentative Wittgenstein expounds to his colleagues and pupils that to imagine a language is to imagine a world, that knowing something implies doubt, that there are no genuine philosophical problems, that watching newsreels is like watching the work of the pupils of Goebbels, that the limits of language are the limits of the world, that if a lion could talk we could not understand himbecause his world is so different from ours and that the solution to the riddle of life and time lies outside of life and time.
I personally found it was gratifying to know that the great philosopher loved the breezy musicals of Betty Hutton and Carmen Miranda…and Westerns, low-brow films which I also like.
The low-budget sophisticated talk-fest film used the minimal amount of props because of the lack of funds and was innovative enough to play scenes against a black background to spare costs; nevertheless, the film made by a blind director turns out to be a colorful visual treat and the stage sets are brilliantly conceived. It offers a series of vignettes that depict a unique perspective on the tortured-soul philosopher Wittgenstein, a disagreeable conflicted man, ill-at-ease wherever he was, with a penchant for trying to leave the confines of academia and wanting desperately to be recognized as a member of the working-class even though his demeanor remained aristocratic and he never worked a day in his life as a laborer.
Ludwig volunteered to fight as a frontline Austrian soldier in the trenches during World War I and ended up as a POW in an Italian prison camp. The restless philosopher visited Moscow, but was rejected by the Russian communist authorities when he applied for a job there as a manual laborer and was told Russia has all the unskilled workers it needs. The philosopher lived at times in solitude in Norway and Ireland, reputedly as a repressed homosexual. He tried unsuccessfully to teach philosophy in a provincial elementary school in Austria, but was rejected by the students because he was so strange. The weirdly amusing pic further entertains us with an uplifting hilarious Fellini-like gay fashion show, as Ludwig’s intellectual crowd in Cambridge wear purple sports jackets, sport ostrich plumes in their hats and wear such gay threads that might have gotten them killed in some parts of homophobic America. There’s also the matter of the fictionalized recurring appearances by a cheeky green-skinned dwarf Martian (Nabil Shaban) to debate philosophical theory with Ludwig, which provides some silly skits that irritated some critics but I thought Jarman wisely used them to back up Wittgenstein’s famous quote that ‘If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.’ Kudos must also go out to Jarman in the snappy theatrical way he executes throughout a wonderfuldroll sense of humor, something that might not be for all tastes but was assuredly appealing to me.
I loved this wacky film because it was so bold in its philosophical pronouncements and that its perceived flaws somehow even made it a better watch. A confident Jarman supposedly threw away much of writer Terry Eagleton’s sensible factual script to put on the screen his own vision of how he perceived the philosopher, which I imagine is far more of blast than that screenplay could have been. Also impressive are the performances of the two actors playing Ludwig: the feisty 12-year-old Clancy Chassay as the young Ludwig acts as the film’s chief story teller and Karl Johnson, who supposedly is a dead-ringer for Ludwig, acts as the adult Ludwig. Johnson tore into his role like a hungry barnyard dog into a carcass.
REVIEWED ON 3/10/2012 GRADE: A