When last week we featured Bertrand Russell telling a story about his philosophical disciple Ludwig Wittgenstein, I mentioned in passing a film about the latter by Derek Jarman. An English director known for his unconventional choices of theme, form, and medium, Jarman passed away from AIDS-related illness in 1994, the year after making Blue, an autobiographical film that plays out entirely on a solid, unchanging blue screen. He also released in 1993 a less discussed, seemingly less experimental picture: Wittgenstein. Casting Karl Johnson as the philosopher (with Clancy Chassay as his younger self), frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton as noted aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell, and Michael Gough (well known as Batman's butler Alfred) as Russell, Jarman set about telling Wittgenstein's life story, all on his own aesthetic terms.
The result comes off as an only slightly less radical cinematic act than Blue. Drawing on his stage background, Jarman reduces Wittgenstein's visuals to a bare but bold minimum. Watch the clip up top of Johnson as Wittgenstein lecturing at Cambridge under Russell's watchful eye, and you'll see what this means: no backdrops at all; just people, things, thoughts, and language. Though far from Jarman's most famous work, Wittgenstein has been claimed by several film traditions: philosophical, experimental, theatrical, queer, even educational. Yet it has eluded them all, creating for itself an environment of both obvious stage-and-screen make-believe — that black void, those dramatic line deliveries — and the disciplined starkness of reality.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.