Wittgenstein: Watch Derek Jarman’s Tribute to the Philosopher, Featuring Tilda Swinton (1993)

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.

Related Content:

Bertrand Russell on His Student Ludwig Wittgenstein: Man of Genius or Merely an Eccentric?

Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein Released by Archives at Cambridge

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.

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  • Sue Katz says:

    Good piece. It was awful to watch Derek Jarman being attacked by that destructive virus. We lost an important filmmaker and good guy.

    • Vaughn says:

      Once I got a CD that had been printed wrong. It had no music on it. It reminded me of “Blue” by Derek Jarman. The whole thing was blue. It was EXACTLY like someone had recorded a book on tape of depressing poetry on a VCR. What kind of statement is that? It reminds me of two of my “artist” friends who once sold a banana tied to a brick for 300 dollars. The only point of that movie had to be to make lots of money with no effort at all. Blue would take any “filmmaker” all of 2 hours to make. Sorry, but just because someone dies, does NOT mean that they were a visionary artist.

  • D/NO says:


    Ask someone who understands Blue to explain Blue to you.

  • David says:

    I liked this film a lot.
    I am not very experienced in Wittgenstein’s philosophy but I found that the minimalistic, stage-like sets were very appropriate for the life-story and the philosophy being portrayed.

  • William says:

    Wittgenstein was an enormously intelligent, divinely eccentric and supremely insightful fellow.

    His greatest contribution to philosophy, considered among the greatest books ever written on that subject, was a mere 60 pages.

    He gave away his vast fortune.

  • Purpurato says:

    The link is not available anymore, please update.

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