on 1 August 2008
With only the soundtrack of Britten's War Requiem in the background and Wilfred Owen's poetry -- read by Sir Laurence Olivier, in his last film --this film packs a powerful punch. It's not without its occasional flaw, but it's still one of the most moving, beautiful films I've ever seen. Despite the still of Sean Bean on the cover of the new edition, it's Tilda Swinton and Nathaniel Parker (in his first film) who are the main actors, and they both do a very fine (as in delicate and subtle) job. You'll also recognise several other well-known character actors from the British Isles.
Jarman's message isn't a subtle one -- it isn't meant to be -- but it speaks clearly. Please don't sit through this with a bowl of popcorn on your lap: it's not that kind of film. It's serious stuff and, generally, brilliantly done. Highly recommended.
on 5 July 2014
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. The black man, half nude, pulled by the legs and dragged in some indistinct grubby soil is there to remind us that war has no color, war has no soul, war has no god, war only has greed and the extreme love of man for violence and suffering, torture and slow death. In this last sequence of the film the images are so strong that we cannot even listen to the music, what's more to the words. The wounded soldier in civilian clothing carrying a wreath of red poppies towards us, the audience, between two files of soldiers in full uniform carrying bland anonymous crosses like those in a military cemetery is the most shocking image we retain from the film and that man without any expression n on his face is looking up at what or who we cannot know, maybe god, the king or the president of any type that dominate us and order us to go fight in a war they are waging from the comfort of their shelters.
I could of course speak of the words and the music. But I am speaking here of the film. Let's say the words are the absolute denunciation of war, the music is the absolute dirge and tenebrae we can imagine against war and yet with the fatality of knowing there will always be some leaders foolish enough to start a new war tomorrow. The big mushroom on Hiroshima is in no way a deterrent for these leaders, if they can do it without being rejected by their electors. Harry Truman did it after all.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on 21 July 2012
This will appeal to a narrow group of people who are interested in experimental cinema. It can in no way be regarded as an "easy" introduction to Britten's great War Requiem oratorio. You need to know the oratorio itself and some background to the poet Wilfred Owen in order to make sense of the film. Much of the libretto comes from the Latin Requiem Mass and no text or subtitles are provided. Getting to know the oratorio itself is worthwhile homework, as it ranks as one of the major musical achievements of the 20th Century, with a universal and very moving impact. So if you don't already know the oratorio, get a CD of it first (one that contains the libretto with translations) or better still attend a live performance, and be prepared for an unforgettable experience.
The original Decca audio recording of the musical work is presented in its entirety without interruptions or additions, apart from a short prologue spoken by (and featuring) Sir Laurence Olivier (incidentally, his last performance, made shortly before his death). The visual material varies between illustration of, and reaction to, the musical work. At its best (e.g. the Hiroshima scene towards the end) it combines brilliantly with the music to overwhelming effect, but at other times can seem curiously at variance with the oratorio text. This is a film on which critical opinion is likely to be deeply divided.
on 14 September 2011
The 20th Anniversary Edition of Derek Jarman's bold and imaginative, if not unflawed, visual interpretation of Benjamin Britten's oratorio is valuable for its Special Features as for the film itself. There is a 'Recollections on the Making of the Film' with the producer Don Boyd and principal actors Tilda Swinton and Nathaniel Parker. As usual with such material there are too many fulsome tributes to the brilliance of the artists but much that is interesting (for example, the gay connexion between Jarman, Britten and Wilfred Owen, whose powerful First World War poetry provides part of the text of the oratorio). A feature on a performance in Liverpool Cathedral in 2008 makes one regret not being a member of the audience on that occasion; and Don Boyd provides a fascinating audio commentary on the film itself, which includes some horrific but, in the context, appropriate archive footage. Mercifully (at the insistence of the Britten Estate) there is no compromise with the musical score : the composer's own definitive Decca recording with soloists from Britain, Germany and Russia is used without any editing. Its concluding pages are as moving in their evocation of eternal rest and reconciliation as any music ever written.