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Jarman to a T: Brilliant, atmospheric, imagistic, eccentric, and
sometimes homo-erotic. An incredible blend of one of the great 20th
century musical works on (or rather against) war and the
I've seen this film twice now. Some of the comments given by other reviewers seem to miss the point of the film- it is dark and sometimes jarring. Jarman uses historic footage, color and colorization as a technique to refocus the viewer's eyes and thoughts. Jarman is not interested in narrative so much as building a series of images that take the poem and music to a new place of understanding.
Perhaps this film is not for everyone- but then I would love to tie every politician to his or her chair and force its viewing.
War Requiem is a vital film in Derek Jarman's filmography;
handcuffed by a score with which he could not play around at all,
could not work his sonic wizardry with his usual collaborator Simon Fisher
Turner, or any others. However, here Jarman fused many of his passions
obsessions into one of his most personal statements: working with favorite
actors, especially the intense and beautiful Tilda Swinton; using the
shimmering, glorious Super 8 of home and play; collaging and staging and
digging up artifacts to reposition and reexamine them; and composing image
and cuts like a composer working on a new symphony. Dziga Vertov and
Dovzhenko may have been working in this vein this decades ago, but if
gives it a try today, the comparisons are to "music video"; naturally, no
one is really
paying attention if they're making comments like this. The intent
effect of works such as War Requiem (or The Last of England and
Garden) are virtually an antithesis of the shallow, splashy,
seizure-ridden style and pace of MTV and company. Jarman has advanced
uniquely cinematic aesthetic - somewhere between the work of a symphonic
composer and a painter, working with light and celluloid instead of oils -
in this work that treads a tightrope between narrative and poetic verse.
many sequences of this film are powerful and gutsy and utterly moving: the
montage of war footage,
building in rhythm and intensity with Britten's score; the
shot of Tilda swaying to the music; the nurses playing "Blind Man¹s
the smoke and flowers. Derek crafted one of his most hearfelt, original,
and spontaneously lyrical movies in War Requiem; now it only needs a
top-notch release on DVD.
Derek Jarman was the infant terrible of British cinema in the 1970s
with his provocative films Jubilee and Sebastiane, the latter having a
costume budget of £20!
In the 1980s thanks to funding from Channel Four Films he flourished by making low budget films of varying quality in rapid succession. By this time he was getting more accepted by critics and some elements of the public but by now he was also diagnosed as HIV+.
War Requiem was partly funded by the BBC, a collaboration of music of Benjamin Britten (War Requiem) with images of war and conflict. Some of the scenes are recreated and dramatised whereas other scenes have been obtained from the Imperial War Museum. There is also poetry of Wilfrid Owen who is depicted in this film by the actor Nathaniel Parker.
The film also has Tilda Swinton and Laurence Olivier in the opening scenes. In a sense looking at it now its the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. This was Olivier's final film and it was with a future Oscar winner Swinton.
The film was to have no dialogue but once Olivier agreed to play the 'Old Soldier,' Jarman realised that he might as well give the legend some dialogue and he recites a poem from Wilfred Owen.
How successful the film is depends on your mileage as to whether you are a Jarman fan, like Opera or appreciate art-house cinema. The dramatised scenes are interesting but not wholly successful but they are beautifully lit and demonstrates what Jarman can do on a low budget. It helps that along with Swinton, Parker we have a young Sean Bean playing a German soldier.
However the inclusion of the old documentary footage is less successful as it just makes the film drag. You feel that you are just watching old film with music and some of its not very interesting although Jarman did also include footage of modern wars as well including Vietnam, Falklands and the Afghan war with Russia of the 1980s.
Still War Requiem is challenging, provocative, arty and displays the talents of a unique voice in British cinema.
Derek Jarman's "War Requiem" is not a movie in the general sense of the
term. The only dialogue is at the beginning. From there it's all images
of soldiers, set to the tune of Benjamin Britten's* requiem of the same
title. I'd say that the movie works as a look at the horrors of war.
The focus is World War I, but it includes footage of later wars. The
music offers a good contrast to the war, but at the same time it
This is the first Jarman movie that I've ever seen. It has its merits and its weaknesses. It turned out to be one of Jarman's final movies (he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994). What the movie should do is force us to take a serious look at WWI. Not only did it senselessly kill millions and create a lost generation, but Versailles Negotiations set the stages for Hitler's rise to power, the Vietnam War, and the current bloodshed in the Middle East.
So the movie does a good job showing the horrors of the war, although I doubt that it's possible to portray to the full extent. It's not clear if Jarman meant for the emphasis to be on the war, or on the operatic soundtrack accompanying the scenes. The result is an OK, not great effort.
PS: Jarman, an openly gay man, fought Thatcher's proposed anti-gay laws in the '80s. I wonder what he would think now that the UK has marriage equality.
*Benjamin Britten's music more recently appeared in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom".
Maybe it would have helped to have listened to the music first and more
often. At times I would try to follow the poem/lyrics and just get
Other times I would watch Tilda Swinton, and then go back and time her. Six whopping minutes of watching her run through her emotions. Sorry this was a breaking point for me... It reminded me that she does a sleep in a museum exhibit sometimes, and sort of made me dislike all actors.
Snowballs and pianos and soldiers, that was quite a scene, but it's small humanity gone wrong within the framework of war is lost in the bombast of the soundtrack for me.
I did find the use of the gruesome footage towards the finale had an interesting effect. Other footage was used throughout but typically cannons and shots from the trenches paled in comparison to some of those shots towards the end, that many viewers might have a difficult time with. I know I did, on two levels.
First it made me move from disliking actors to disliking humanity. War is failure but never more blatantly so than seeing the anguish and destruction of a single man, no matter what his uniform indicates. But again these images, like so many other lingering scenes, went on long enough to alter their affect from powerful to overpowering. Instead of feeling the loss of the individual, I felt like I was being thrust into a viewing of Faces of the Dead (or whatever that cult film is called which I have no desire to see).
The opera itself was torture enough for me. With time and exposure, I could perhaps appreciate it more, or become a fan of it. Not so with the carnage of war.
I was watching War Requiem which is Derek Jarman's conception of images
of the music of Benjamin Britten and the poetry of Wilfrid Owen and I
thought this was a work better left to the imagination. Beautiful, but
something I might imagine hearing it would be a lot different.
Newsreel footage of World War I and more contemporary conflicts are mixed in with live pantomime like performances of various players and singers including Laurence Olivier in his farewell performance. Olivier plays a wheelchair bound veteran of World War I in whose eyes all the images are seen.
Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was originally composed for the dedication of the new cathedral in Coventry, the old one as well as the town itself pretty much blasted to smithereens by Hitler's Luftwaffe. The words are by Wilfrid Owen, the various verses he wrote are put to Britten's music. Owen was killed almost exactly a week before the Armistice was signed in 1918. Oddly enough both men were as one British friend of mine puts it, 'as gay as green shoes'.
This is Jarman's vision, not necessarily mine, not necessarily your's. I think that art like this is best left to the individual imagination. But Jarman does a vision of terrible beauty as W.B. Yeats put it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is of course the meeting of three artists. The poet Wilfred
Owen, the composer Benjamin Britten and the film maker Derek Jarman.
Let's speak of Jarman here. He is perfectly at ease with this project because of many reasons but first of all because he is a visual painter and as such he is probably at his best in this film because he has to follow the music and the words, half of the latter being in Latin and the rest in English. He is not the author of this text that is sung to the music of Benjamin Britten. So Jarman must paint the music, paint the words, show us in striking live images the meaning of this oratorio or requiem and the strong trauma this war was and still is, even today when we are going to "celebrate" the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the most absurd human butchery, the most meaningless barbaric slaughter that leaves us senseless when we look at it.
He shows first of all the tremendous suffering this war was for the men, for each man and for the clusters of men that had to live the war through together, a fighting unit and within that fighting unit some smaller groups or couples that more or less got bonded by the absurdity of this suffering. The officer that was living with the men in the trenches was necessarily the empathetic and supportive "father" of his men, though he was hardly older than them and even at times younger. This bond between men in uncontrollable suffering, pain and inevitable death becomes superhuman and even divine. The real god for such men is the small gestures of help and compassion they find in the men they are sitting next to, they are fighting with not even against a common enemy, but for the sake of invisible industrialists and politicians.
Derek Jarman is a genius when he deals with suffering.
You can imagine the extremely high level of pictorial power the trenches, the mud, the snow, the ice, the blood, every soiled element of the soldiers' life can have under the brush of Derek Jarman's eyes.
But he is also a great color painter and he skillfully alternates total mud in nearly black and white, in fact in grayish brown on grayish brown, dark olive green on feldgrau kaki with other scenes out of the trenches. That muddy gray universe is the universe of the soldiers. Then you have the universe of the nurses which is brilliantly red, blood red for sure but also the red of fire, of molten metal, of the famous red poppies that have become the memorial of this war every year. That red is of course contrasting with the white and light blue of the nurses' uniforms. You can suffer and die in their arms, because they are your mothers at that moment, your lovers too, those in whose arms you can abandon yourself to go to eternal sleep.
But then there are two other moments in this war picture that Derek Jarman stresses out. First the religious sanctification of the war with church altars that are also used to deposit bodies waiting for their burial, or that even can become the top part of some anonymous and collective tomb for the dead that will never go back home. The church is the culprit here, or the accomplice, the accessory to a crime, and one priest puts on his butcher's apron to terminate one soldier who has been too traumatized by the death of his "friend" in front of his own eyes to be able to go on living. So the priest in his reddish "uniform" of sorts can cut his throat with a razor and then hold and let seep his blood through his fingers, retaining his life for just a few minutes more. Of what? Suffering? Or life? How can such suffering be in any way seen as life? The priest is retaining the man alive for him to suffer more, for the audience to understand the suffering such a war can be, but that is our easy interpretation. In the film the priest has an audience: the rich, the industrialists, the politicians, etc, standing or sitting in elevated alcoves overlooking the altar on which the slaughtering of the soldier is being performed by the priest.
The next element Derek Jarman is great at is painting the rich, the industrialists, the nobles, the politicians, the powerful and the vain when looking at the show of this man being killed with a razor by a priest we can imagine Anglican. Jarman is here again a genius at showing the hypocrisy and the barbarity of these men who are made up like whores and behaving in their fatness like hogs. He also has some cameos of the "king" that are worth the best images of the Sex Pistols about "God save the Queen it's a Fascist Regime," which came out as a song and as a film that I cannot trace anymore in the late 1970s. And I saw the film twice, and once with students I had taken to London, some Easter 1978 or 1979.
And yet there is one more phenomenal pictorial and picturesque artistic achievement. When at the end he widens the description of war to what it is today, what it was in his days, what it may always be, he finds the proper pictures to show the racism of war, and at the same time the racelessness of such events. Wars are probably waged to protect the interests of some and to destroy those who could menace these interests, be they religious, political, geographical, economic or whatever, but wars drag in mud and slime everyone without any distinction.[...]
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
With the exception of an opening sequence in which the music is
introduced over a tolling bell and the text of Wilfred Owen's Strange
Meeting read, this film follows the scheme of Britten's War Requiem, a
poetry-expanded musical setting of the Requiem Mass. It's an
intermittently effective project, Jarman using both narrative scenes
and more abstracted tableaux that rely on the actor in frame to channel
some sort of internal narrative. There is also scattered use of period
footage from conflicts both pre-1963 (the date of the oratorio's
composition) and as recently as the Falklands conflict (1981). All this
is, in turn, the extrapolated daydream of a veteran of the Great War,
played by Lawrence Olivier.
Olivier's is the almost the only scene done on location and really does carry weight for all that it's mere seconds of screen time. Other scenes are rather more mixed: given the huge emotional and indeed satirical charge of the music the most affecting set pieces are those that play a straight narrative. That said, there is undeniable charge in the formal composition of static shots which reflect in their old master/biblical referencing the liturgy of the text. 5/10
Music has been blended with film to incredible effect before: Greenaway's Prospero's Books, Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi spring to mind and I was naively expecting something of similar quality here. Instead I watched an appalling succession of tasteless, overwrought and prosaic imagery married with hysterical howls emanating from the bony profile of Tilda Swinton. Here the actors only served to detract from the music. The directors of the previous films were virtuosi and I think it requires something of that quality in editing, camera work and imagination: to actually add something to a piece of music rather than just take a ride on its tresses. As a backup plan I decided to concentrate more on the Requiem and found it peppered with sung passages of Wilfred Owen's poetry that do them no justice whatsoever.
A misguided attempt at a music video for Benjamin Britten's piece of the
same name, "War Requiem" falls flat because of this very concept. To their
credit, the filmmakers add or subtract nothing to the performance of the
Requiem but rather present a montage of images to be seen along with the
performance (which thankfully is top-notch). Unfortunately, the end result
is a long almost MTV quality production which makes one realize how
unbearably pretentious the phenomenon of the music video can be.
War Requiem is a work which invites personal involvement, so I can appreciate the obvious love and need to contribute which the filmmakers have for it, but Britten's music and Wilfred Owen's poetry speak so eloquently for themselves that this pretentious performance art approach merely detracts from them.
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