Wittgenstein (1993) Poster


User Reviews

Review this title
11 Reviews
Sort by:
Filter by Rating:
Under-appreciated, perhaps misunderstood, unique surreal treat
moiestatz24 December 2009
I only have a slight idea about Wittgenstein's life and work. Perhaps this is the main difference I have with viewers who hate this film. Unsatisfied reviewers seem to fuss over which things should have been included in a film about Wittgenstein or how his life should be understood or examined. My contention with this approach is that I don't need to agree with a film's views to appreciate it. I appreciate writers' and directors' liberties in interpreting subject matter, especially creative and witty interpretations.

For fans of surreal and different films, this movie is delightfully and intelligently entertaining. The ton of symbolisms--understated, colorful, clever, cryptic, obvious or not--will make you appreciate the directorial style and the screenplay's ingenuity, and help you understand the philosopher in ways that will not put you to sleep like if you're reading one of his treatises. Breaking the fourth wall with the young Wittgenstein's charming and engaging acting is a treat. The old Wittgenstein's portrayal depicts torture and torment well. An evident contrast exists between the black background and the vivid, exuberant costumes and props--much like the dark life of the protagonist, and the flashy treatment of his life here, but far from flash without substance.
22 out of 28 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Wittgenstein--worth a second look
eyetothescreen4 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I must disagree with other assessments of Jarman's "Wittgenstein." While the film is clearly not for Wittgenstein initiates (a bit of reading about the man is probably helpful before viewing), I can't class it as the rather boring, trivial exercise in biography others seem to feel it is. Jarman's films are always so contentiously received(which is a good thing), so all I can do is offer my own reception of it. First, while biographical details are somewhat slight, I think there are enough to frame at least a gist of the man Wittgenstein, and second, I must disagree that the exploration of Wittgenstein's sexuality is trivial or inconsequential. Biographically, Wittgenstein's sexuality troubled him greatly. Cinematically, I don't think it's irrelevant to follow a scene of Wittgenstein vainly attempting to explain his philosophy to students and colleagues, an effort which leaves him visibly upset and isolated, his back to the camera and his audience, with a scene of him at the movies, breaking his icy, rigid posture and his earlier-expressed desire that his companion and student, Johnny, not spoil the plot of the movie by distracting him with questions, to deliberately end his isolation and grasp Johnny's hand. Yes, Jarman's portrait of Wittgenstein is not of an attractive or really likable man, and Wittgenstein doesn't seem to have actually been one, so his abrasiveness in the film is not disagreeable for me, much as the abrasiveness of Gauguin in "Lust for Life" isn't. As for Jarman's allegedly un-daring cinematography, I'm no cinematographer, but Jarman seems to have favored dark backgrounds, long scenes and theatrical stagings in other films, and sometimes manages to produce interesting and subtle arrangements thereby. Perhaps his work on "Wittgenstein" was impacted by his encroaching blindness, though I wouldn't suggest writing off the high or low points of the film as the result of his visual impairment. Finally, "Wittgenstein" seems to me like a film deserving of a second viewing. Perhaps it's rather pretentious, perhaps it's a little harsh. Perhaps, though, it's also attempting to make some subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on what's important in a life, how that ought to be presented, and from what perspectives.
20 out of 27 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Missed the Interesting Part
tedg29 July 2000
I was marching through comprehensive viewing of the Greenaway section in our local art video store, and got into an argument with the proprietor. He felt that Greenaway was excessive pretentious and juvenile and suggested this film as `real' intelligent filmmaking. I really wanted to discover a new director, so watched with expectation.

About the actual art of the filmmaking, I can report that this to be completely mundane. The technique is of stationary filming of a staged play with no risk and little imagination.

But the topic has real promise! Wittgenstein is among the dozen most fascinating men of ideas who ever lived. He anticipated the core ideas about logic and language that are commonplace today. But he was profoundly not influential. All these ideas were reinvented by independent means because his explications were so abstruse. I believe them to be necessarily so, and we still don't appreciate the full ambiguities he noted.

This is grand, fascinating stuff, but in this play we get the most trivial inklings of his middle period. How sad.

Independent of the ideas, his life is remarkable. He was rich and gave it away. He absolutely mastered a strain of philosophical thought and was universally celebrated (though not understood). He tossed it away, disclaiming all his ideas and starting over as his own most powerful detractor. And he did this thrice! He went from the protection of the university to hovels and degradation multiple times. Along the way he designed one of the most puzzling houses on the planet. This is great, great stuff.

But this film is motivated by a politico-sexual agenda, so while watering down the great intellectual and physical swings, ascribes them to repressed guilt of his sexuality. Wittgenstein would be appalled, I think, to have his great projects and discipline so debased. In fact, he seemed to have repressed guilt about everything he could conceive, and among these homosexuality was a lesser driver because the environment was so accepting, even encouraging. Alan Turing of the next generation, is a different, more apt story.

The report then is that this is not cinematically interesting, and some great drama has been missed in order to make a minor -- and perhaps untrue -- point.
57 out of 88 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Mannerist biopic of Wittgenstein is not very deep but is not heavy either
Andy-29616 December 2011
British filmmaker Derek Jarman's penultimate film consists basically on literate deadpan tableaux dealing with the life of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). The late Jarman, who was known for making gay-themed experimental movies, filmed the whole of Wittgenstein in a indoor stage, as a series of mannerist vignettes. If you want to watch this movie to know about Wittgenstein's theories, don't bother. These are dealt superficially and perfunctorily, while emphasis is made on his homosexuality. This movie is not very deep, but is not very heavy either, I think this was a bit of frivolous exercise on the part of Jarman but it is also lighthearted and quite entertaining.
11 out of 14 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
I agree with the other two reviewers! (SPOILERS!)
zardoz1220 September 2002
Warning: Spoilers
The problem with "Wittgenstein" is that Jarman pushes the man's homosexuality while nearly avoiding his work, and the work is the most important part! Even with a limited budget they could have done a logician's version of "A Brief History of Time," mixing Wittgenstein's biography with his work. I can stand the fact that Jarman used modern theater techniques to tell his story (black backgrounds, unaging and iconic characters, never having a fourth wall, etc.) but the effect and the focus limits Wittgenstein to his surface, that of a standoffish and guilt-ridden Viennese. Read Wittgenstein, read about Wittgenstein, don't see him.
17 out of 24 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
A flawed experiment in combining elements of theatre, performance art and cinema with the life of the esteemed academic
ThreeSadTigers20 March 2008
Although there is no accounting for the audacious and experimental style in which artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman has put together this offbeat biography of the famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one can't help feeling a little disappointed by the slight and unimaginative focus the film gives to the real life concerns of this great and forward thinking individual. As the previous reviewer points out, if you (much like myself) know little to nothing about the philosophical or biographical background of Wittgenstein the man, then this film really offers very little in the way of enlightenment; never giving the audience the chance to gain real insight into the character or the events of his life, save perhaps, for a few brief scenes included to prove a point. This lack of information and development is a serious problem that mars the film greatly and is a problem that can only be attributed to Jarman and the writers.

Much like his similarly themed, off-kilter biography of the artist Caravaggio (1986), Jarman here ignores the facts and instead opts for more of a personal deconstruction. As much admiration as I have for the director to break away from the usually rigid confines of biographical pictures that seem to force feed the audience an entire life in a neat and digestible two-hour course, I do not admire his way of frequently shifting focus from any real artistic or intellectual talent, onto what seem like very trivial, melodramatic examinations of sexuality. Interspersed between serious scenes of Wittgenstein trying in vain to explain his theories to the masses, or amazing sequences where reality is broken down and all sorts of bizarre images are allowed to overflow from the screen, there are irrelevant and silly sequences where Wittgenstein and his lover cuddle in a cinema or have insignificant arguments that recall a homosexual take on a Hollywood rom-com.

What we get from the film is simply Wittgenstein as a contemptuous, arrogant, petty loner who wasn't against berating the children who couldn't decipher his highly intelligent philosophies and wasn't happy unless he was dispelling all around him. Now, this may only be a half-truth, but since we never learn the full fact of the matter this cloddish rendition is the only conclusion we can make, which, for a real and important historical figure is far below standard. There is however a saving grace here, and, as ever with Jarman, it is in the visual presentation of the film. Never overly flamboyant, and never getting in the way of the story, the design of the film still bold, innovative and highly impressive. Faced with a miniscule budget, the limitations of British television and a shooting schedule of just over fifteen days, most filmmakers would have produced a film with no visual imagination whatsoever. Jarman however took that challenge and created one of the most surprising visual experiences ever filmed; and all within the confines of a London warehouse.

Of course, many will balk at the idea of using a little imagination when watching the film -- having been weaned on a combination of high-concept and MTV, I myself found it a struggle to look past the minimalism of the set design or the disconcerting contrast between picture and sound -- but if you look a little deeper, the effect of Jarman's theatrical framework gives way to a wealth of hidden details. This is a film in which the visuals capture the imagination, even if the story doesn't; creating an amazingly sensory feel similar to what Lars von Trier did with the film Dogville (2003). By the time the film is over you'll swear you saw scenes and images that never actually appeared, images that were formed purely in your imagination.

Wittgenstein (1993) demonstrates a talent for creating an outrageous atmosphere in a restrained setting and the ability to instill a feeling of longevity to the visual design that manages to outlive both the narrative and the character. Still, it could have been so much more - Jarman's self-serving and idiosyncratic storytelling approach means we can only imagine what could have been. If Jarman had restrained his need for self-assessment and put as much imagination into the script as he did with the iconography we could have been looking at a near-masterpiece. What we have instead is simply a bizarre, confused, interesting, though inconsistent experiment that leaves the viewer with some seriously mixed feelings.
21 out of 31 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
What's on the other side of pictures
chaos-rampant8 May 2014
This is the type of biography where the protagonist (as a child) introduces his family to the camera and they proceed one by one to climb a stage and gather around a piano. It is theatric, sparse, with often a few props arranged on an empty dark stage: Wittgenstein in bed with his lover, arguments around a table, a blackboard with a few chairs around it where he taught.

I came to it after a series of film viewings on celebrated thinkers: Socrates, Augustine, Pascal, Descartes. All done by the same maker, Rossellini, they featured more or less adequate exposition of thought against sober tapestries of history. By contrast here we have bare snippets of the thought, no scenery and only a vague history: the man in soldier's costume alone enacting a WWI trench etc. It's called surreal; more apt to simply call it unusual, eccentric.

What was missing from that series I felt was an inclusion of someone more recent and preferably from our own century. Fittingly the only one I found was on Wittgenstein who would have been my own choice as well. Incidentally Wittgenstein fits better than any other with what was delineated in the other project starting with Socrates: drawing limits to reason as what can be reasonably said, embodying what's on the other side.

His disdain for philosophical noodling (seen in the desire for a concrete logic), refusal to bother with an academic knowledge of Aristotle and view that philosophy only creates muddles of thought, in all these he can be seen to be in line with Socrates, right down to the quest for a rigorous moral life.

His algebraic formulations of logic have disappeared along with that whole school that depended on them for a mechanics of truth, what still seduces is this: the notion that we can strive to speak clearly about the things we can, and more deeply something on the other side of that ('of which we must remain silent') opens itself to us. His project was perhaps obscure in details, a bore; but so amazingly attractive in its large span.

And he does deserve a better film than this; not because this one is eccentric by convention rather because the craft is too simple.

It's not the fact that homosexuality is so central as many users complain either; it is, but the filmmaker resists implying this wholly explains the man; it softens him if anything as someone who seeks his lover's hand in a dark theater, but it's not said to be the real cause of tension, that remains the quest for a life of clarity.

We do get only a rough sketch of the thought; but I urge you to bother with the film on Descartes I mention above, three times the length and full of lengthy dissertation, and you'll see no more than a sketch there either. It's after all the sketch of Wittgenstein's thought that seduces; it's a clear picture. So it's not that either.

No for me the real issue is that the cinematic medium offers a richer language (the richest one we know next to personal experience) to lightly sketch the air of those things of which logic can remain silent; love, doubt, being, all this wonderful ambiguity that opens to us. The man's project is the ideal opportunity for such examination.

(In other words it's not a fault for me that we learn too little about the real Wittgenstein to be able to explain him, or too little of his words to know the thought and only barely enough; Wittgenstein would probably balk at the thought that knowing more would explain a real him. But that we miss the richly layered picture that constitutes any life.)

The film ends with a powerful (deathbed) admission about exactly this; the world that our modern mind, logical, obsessed with knowing, attempts to freeze into sparkling ice, but take a step onto the ice and you land on your back, there's no friction; no the real world where you can go places must be embraced with all its ambiguous friction.
6 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Don't waste your time
maardal25 April 2009
Don't waste your time on this film.

Some films are so bad they are fun. This is just so bad it's boring.

From a Wittgenstein scholarship perspective, it doesn't get worse than this. It's a mix of rumors, inaccuracies, falsities and "fun-facts" that lack all respect for its subject. Since Terry Eagleton and the other writers have chosen to give the story what I'd imagine they will call a "subjective" or "personal" slant, you wold expect them to at least make it fun! No such luck.

Here what's wrong: 1. Andrew Lloyd Webber costumes. 2. Every eccentricity is exaggerated. 3. Horrible actors. 4. Wittgenstein was afraid of being misunderstood and only create a jargon self-proclaimed disciples would propagate. This film is what he had nightmares about. 5. Wittgenstein lived at a time when categories like "homosexual" weren't as firm as today. This films premise that "he was gay and therefore weird and a great philosopher" shows lack of respect. 6.It's a case study of why psychologising your subject leads to disaster. 7. They made an interesting person into a fraternity joke.

And, no. It's not bad in an interesting way. Do you're self a favour. Really.
41 out of 80 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Undoubtedly intriguing, but ultimately unsuccessful
tomgillespie200226 January 2013
I knew nothing of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein before seeing Derek Jarman's 'biopic' of the great thinker, and after the film, felt I didn't really know much more. Wittgenstein came from Vienna, born into an aristocracy that produced many geniuses in various mediums. Although his great mind would have no doubt seen him become prodigious in whatever he chose to do, his real love was philosophy, the only subject that gave him any true satisfaction. Through his publications and teachings at Cambridge, he amassed an almost disciple-like following of those who understood his radical musings. Plagued with a psychological affliction that saw three of his brothers commit suicide, he was often ashamed with his privilege and sought refuge in the working man, who he romanticised through the literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Most of that knowledge I gained from internet research after watching the film, as Derek Jarman opts for a more interpretive approach - less of a timeline biopic and more of a quasi-abstract work of art. Jarman strips back all conventional cinematic methods and employs a plain black background, with the only presence on screen being the actors and few minimalistic props. He also ignores period detail, having the characters dress in costumes from various periods, often in bright, outlandish colours, using objects that had yet to be invented (similar to his excellent Caravaggio (1986)). This is successful in attempting to portray Wittgenstein's obviously haphazard look at the world, almost like being trapped between his deep ideas and reality (something that is observed by Maynard Keynes (John Quentin) later in the film), but this also makes the film so visually unappealing that it can be rather dull, like watching a small drama group enact a live play.

Yet although the film is rather un-inspirational in terms of cinematic techniques, Wittgenstein is undoubtedly intriguing, putting a fresh outlook on the tired sub-genre of the biopic. Welsh actor Karl Johnson is fine in the role of Wittgenstein, embodying the disconnection his character feels with the world. There is also fine support from Michael Gough, Jarman's muse Tilda Swinton, and Clancy Chassay, playing the narrating young Wittgenstein. His life was rich and full of incident, and Jarman's failure to really grasp the enormity of Wittgenstein makes the film ultimately a disappointment, focusing mainly on his relationship with a young philosopher called Johnny (Kevin Collins) - as though Wittgenstein's torment could have been the result of sexual repression - and only the skimming the surface of his time fighting in World War II, and the physical abuse he inflicted on his young pupils during his time as a schoolteacher. So Wittgenstein will remain somewhat an uncelebrated mystery, even though he is remembered as one of the greatest in his fields by his peers.

7 out of 11 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Logic and language are a prison and a straight jacket for philosophy
Dr_Coulardeau2 July 2014
Warning: Spoilers
This film is the most surprising film you can expect from a deeply impressionistic film maker. Philosophy is by definition not impressionistic since it has to be logical and perfectly well organized in a rational way. Yet Derek Jarman dares to make a film on a philosopher, and actually more on philosophy because the man himself seems to be in a way made secondary.

Wittgenstein was obsessed with language, but not as a tool to express some thoughts or concepts that was able to build itself and its own architecture along with the mind and the mind's architecture that carried language, both through the very use of language and the mind themselves. Language is not seen as self-made and self-making expressive tool used by discourse to enable human thought to emerge, to build itself by expressing itself in communication.

Language for him is a limitation.

He considers logic is the acme of human intelligence, not language and language does not contain the whole logic of the human mind, even if it can express it. In fact he is a visual mind and he tries to express with words a logic he can represent in his mind's eye visually. He does not see that without language logic would never have been constituted. He ignores the fact that time, space and logic are human inventions for the cosmic duration, distance and orientation, and dependent origination (as the Buddhist would say for the last dimension) and are nothing but models of what the human brain and mind can observe in the outside world.

Wuttgenstein was a friend of Bertrand Russell but apparently he did not integrate Russell's lectures on logic delivered in the USA in the 1920s. Russell spent a tremendous amount of energy to demonstrate that what we get from the outside world is nothing but sensations and that these sensations are nothing if they are not interpreted in a way or another by the brain-mind into perceptions. Russell could not know how the brain and mind did it but he knew that these perceptions in their turn should not be considered as the outside world. They were only humanly interpreted representations of the outside world and all our mental work is using these representations and not the real world.

This means that these representations are models and models are nothing but metaphors: they are or are behaving like the outside world, more or less, never entirely. And this is only possible because we have words, and syntax and sentences and discourse to express these models that could not have been built or abstracted from the magma of our sensations without words, sentences, syntax and discourse.

He sees that a dog is what a certain culture calls a dog, more or less I will add. But he misses the other side of the word dog. It is a concept that is produced by man's power to conceptualize that is developing with age and training and that is deposited in our mind, itself developing from brain work as some kind of virtual abstract complex totally human conceptualizing machine.

But in Wittgenstein's vision language becomes a cage, a prison in a way and our mind is like a parrot in a cage itself inside the cage in which we are imprisoned. Derek Jarman is quite right when he reduces Wittgenstein's thought to this image, metaphor, set of metaphors. And it is cruelly but realistically reducing Wittgenstein's thought to nothing but a set of words repeated without them being understood by the repeater. That is very sad.

Hence Wittgenstein reduced intelligence to logic and then life to direct experience of the dirt, dust and mud of the path. There is no way to articulate the real world onto the conceptualizing power of the brain- mind. Then logic is not in anyway helping us to understand man's intelligence or man's consciousness. Logic becomes an escape from real dirty and muddy life and a straight jacket, an escape into the straightjacket of what is socially acceptable and nothing else with a very limited lee way for those who are philosophers supposedly over and higher than normal simple ordinary people.

He missed Russell's basic principle that life is life (the evidence of the pudding is in me being able to eat it) and logic is a conceptualized abstraction of a model from what we capture of the world through our senses for that to be interpreted and architecturally modelized by the brain-mind.

Descartes was seeing our existence in the fact that we were able to think. Wittgenstein went further in a way in identifying language but he did not see that we are not our language. Our language is produced by us in a social context and it may appear as a limitation (grammar is fascist as is well known since 1968) though it is a tremendous power, the power of abstraction and conceptualization that makes man the only being on earth able to create models of the outside reality that give him some power over this reality. The mind is not the parrot in a cage, itself in a cage in which man is imprisoned and reduced to repeating words he has learned by heart. There is no parrot. There is no first cage. There is no second cage. There is self-creating mind in each man whose experience determines what his mind is going to be or rather to become forever because its becoming will never stop, just like the linguistic tool it uses.

A beautiful attempt at making a film on such a subject, but it remains dry and rather cold. Even the personal life of the philosopher is reduced to very little.

8 out of 14 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
An eclectic and engaging journey
tobydale25 September 2020
This is a charming quirky little piece from Jarman at somewhere near his best.

Light, engaging and entertaining, the director has made far more difficult and challenging films than Wittgenstein. This is to the good - as the philosopher was undoubtedly a highly complex personality. He needed simplifying.

Jarman treats his subject with great love and sensitivity. The care and attention extends to ensuring that things are kept easy and simple. Wittgenstein's philosophical outpourings are exceptionally hard to access, but we are given just enough so that we appreciate the genius. It's cleverly done.

The craft extends from Wittgenstein's early life and subsequent work right through to scenes on his deathbed. Via this device we catch glimpses of the whole person. We come to learn a lot about our subject through Jarman's deft and sympathetic treatment.

Don't watch this expecting the surreal grit of Jubilee or high art of Caravaggio. Instead, ready yourself for an eclectic journey through the life and works of one of the world's greatest minds. Your guide is Jarman. He clearly cares about Ludwig Wittgenstein and by the end so do we.
1 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.

See also

Awards | FAQ | User Ratings | External Reviews | Metacritic Reviews

Recently Viewed