Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein (1993) is the last in the series of biopics he made about gay or bisexual men of historical note. While Wittgenstein’s private life is an important aspect of this film, the focus is much more on his ideas. So, who was he? Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher active in Cambridge throughout the first half of the 20th century. His work on logic and language, which changed dramatically through his life, was unified by a rejection of traditional philosophy. He thought that most philosophical questions arose from linguistic confusions and that instead of looking for profound truth, philosophy should be a kind of “intellectual tidying up” where language is analysed to avoid these conceptual confusions. These ideas are presented in a very abstract way in the film; it is stylistically much more like a piece of theatre, being filmed in a dark studio with no real sets and just a few props.
What makes this film so special is that, unlike other intellectual biopics (e.g. Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx), it makes use of stylisation to explore the ideas of the philosopher it is studying. The image of Keynes, Russell, and men in yellow raincoats sitting on deckchairs as Wittgenstein lectures, undermines the perception of philosophy as a serious look into profound and important questions in a surreal way. This is equally shown through the presentation of Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, pillars of the early 20th century intelligentsia, as frivolous and excessive in their clothing and tastes. The scenes where a young Wittgenstein talks to a Martian not only gives a great demonstration of his idea of linguistic confusion, but also associates epistemological speculation with images that are, on the one hand, ridiculous and on the other hand very literally show this speculation as divorced from the real terrestrial world.
Along with this, Jarman makes an effort to connect the philosophical and personal struggles that Wittgenstein faced in his life. The image of Wittgenstein in a bird cage is used to show how in philosophy we just “run up against the walls of our cage” (which is language). It also serves to represent the problems of facing his own deeply ingrained homophobic “moral integrity”. Later there is a scene where he starts to challenge the Cartesian model of philosophy, which begins with the isolated self, while in bed with his male lover. This gives an efficient account of the transition from his earlier, more solipsistic philosophy, to his later work which focuses on what is public and shared. It also serves as a metaphor for his overcoming of his “shame” about his own homosexuality and his increased willingness to share closer relationships with others. While the abstraction and ambiguity of this film can sometimes be off putting, it is refreshing to see something that utilises cinematic techniques to explore ideas instead of attempting to explain them explicitly. Wittgenstein himself said that “in art it is hard to say anything as good as saying nothing”.
Image: Austrian National Library