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Film / Wittgenstein

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1993 sort-of-Biopic of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, directed by British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Notable for serious Lampshade Hanging of its studio set, in which brightly coloured costumes stand out against black-draped backgrounds, and in general a high degree of Breaking the Fourth Wall in the form of its onscreen and distinctly Lemony Narrator, who is Wittgenstein himself as a 12-year-old boy.

It had a difficult Script Life Cycle. The original draft was written by Eng Lit academic Terry Eagleton. Contrary to his reputation as a left-wing maverick, Eagleton delivered a rather low-key, realistic script, but Jarman didn't think it was fun enough and he heavily rewrote Eagleton's version, not entirely to the latter's unqualified delight. Jarman injected a lot of visual jokes and generally upped the level of humour, and the result was widely praised as one of the more original and thoughtful films ever made about a philosopher. When Eagleton's and Jarman's screenplays were published in one volume, it was pointed out that whereas in Eagleton's script the characters just talked about Wittgenstein's ideas, in Jarman's movie the ideas themselves are dramatised.


Jarman made the film while suffering from AIDS, and it was the last feature he made before his eyesight deteriorated to the point that he could no longer direct conventional films; his final film Blue consists of just a blue screen and a complex soundtrack of voices.

The adult Wittgenstein is played by Karl Johnson, who would go on to play another philosophical stoic. Also features a memorable early-ish appearance by Tilda Swinton as Bertrand Russell's Cloudcuckoolander mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell.



  • Anachronism Stew: Wittgenstein is taunted by Lycra-wearing girls with 20th century racing bikes.
  • Aside Glance: Ottoline gives one of these when she's reading aloud from Bertie's letter about Wittgenstein.
    Ottoline: [reading aloud] "His disposition is that of the artist, intuitive and moody. He affects me, just as I affect you. I get to know every turn and twist of the ways in which I irritate and depress you...[Aside Glance, beat]...from watching how—" [CUT to:]
    Bertie: [reading aloud] "...he irritates and depresses me."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Wittgenstein as an adult. Every account of Wittgenstein's real-life behaviour confirms that this is Truth in Television.
  • Camp Straight: Camp Bi, really: John Maynard Keynes, as camp as a row of tents, having a casual snog with a handsome male student, and yet deeply in love with his ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova. Once more, Truth in Television: Keynes in real life was quite open about his affairs with handsome young guys, and then in 1921 he fell in love with Lopokova and, after he married her, remained faithful to her until his death 20 years later.
  • Composite Character: Wittgenstein's sister Hermine (Sally Dexter) is a composite of two of Wittgenstein's real-life sisters, Margarethe and Hermine.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell.
    Ottoline Morrell: So what are you planning to do for the rest of your life.
    Wittgenstein: I shall start by committing suicide.
    Bertrand Russell: Champagne before you go?
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Wittgenstein is prone to this: again, Truth in Television.
    Wittgenstein: [on his deathbed] You know, I would have liked to construct a philosophical work made entirely out of jokes.
    Keynes: Why didn't you?
    Wittgenstein: Sadly, I didn't have a sense of humour.
  • Little Green Men: Young Wittgenstein has regular conversations with one of these, a Martian who's on Earth to try and figure out human behaviour.
  • Mathematician's Answer:
    Keynes: [after one of Wittgenstein's tutorials] That was quite masterly.
    Wittgenstein: It was frightful.
    Keynes: I don't know. Made me feel like a vegetable.
    Wittgenstein: [suspicious] How could it possibly? It doesn't feel like anything to be a vegetable.
  • More Dakka: Wittgenstein, armed with a Bergmann MP 18, attempts to use Dakka to achieve enlightenment.
  • No Name Given: Johnny.
  • Precision F-Strike: Young Wittgenstein drops one, aged 12.note 
    Young Wittgenstein: God, the English are a queer bunch. Lady Ottoline Morrell was the queerest. She was fucking the gardener and Russell. All the fun was in the country houses. Everyone else was miserable.
  • Reluctant Warrior: Wittgenstein goes off to fight for the Austrian side in World War I only because he hopes that the proximity of death will bring him closer to God. It doesn't work.
  • Smart People Speak the Queen's English: Played largely straight but averted in the case of Wittgenstein, who's the smartest person in the movie: Karl Johnson's Austrian accent is sometimes hilarious. (Also not Truth in Television: in real life, Wittgenstein spoke English with Received Pronounciation, and had barely a trace of an Austrian accent.) Also averted with Johnny, who's a philosophy student from Oop North.
  • Straight Gay: Many of the gay characters are this, Wittgenstein most of all. Justified in his case in that he wasn't entirely comfortable with his sexuality. Wittgenstein's biographer Ray Monk has asserted that Wittgenstein wasn't entirely comfortable with sexuality as such.
  • Tribal Face Paint: Ottoline Morrell wears this in one scene and doesn't seem to think that there's anything weird about it.