Directed by: Derek Jarman
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: Second Sight
Length: 92 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 10 November 2008
Cat No: 2NDVD3148
Screen ratio 1:1.78
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War Requiem (Jarman, 1989)
Derek Jarman’s critically-acclaimed visual evocation of the original recording of Benjamin Britten’s choral masterpiece which blended the... Read More
Through an hour and a half of unforgettable tableaux, staged reconstructions of Wilfred Owen’s life at war and footage of worldwide conflict, Derek Jarman gives images to Benjamin Britten’s choral symphony of the same name. The film begins simply, with the tolling of a bell and a single candle flame, a flame of remembrance; it ends on a subdued note, with an ‘Amen’. In between, Britten’s music, in which the words of Owen’s poems are interwoven with the traditional Latin mass for the dead, grieves and rages against needless, futile death. The music used is the famous 1963 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Britten himself, and Decca’s requirement that the recording be heard without overlaid soundtrack or effects did much to determine the look and sound of the film.
Laurence Olivier, here in his very last acting performance before his death, plays an old soldier, fumbling with his medals in the garden of a nursing home; Tilda Swinton is his nurse, but also a nurse for all soldiers and all generations. Standing over a soldier’s tomb she looses a silent scream that pierces the fabric of the film with its tormented sorrow at the endless capacity for human conflict; as the scream shakes her body, she gestures at putting out her own eyes. Must it always be like this?
Images of plenty flash into the soldiers’ minds as they are sunk in mud, while apposite juxtapositions – nurses cutting gauze into strips in the antiseptic light of a hospital contrasted with a soldier handing out bayonets in the muddy light of warfare – are precise and telling. As the soundtrack surges, one can imagine the bayonet’s rip through the flesh.
One of the soloists on the recording is the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Now in her 80s, she recently took the lead role in Alexander Sokurov’s meditation on war, Alexandra, playing a woman who visits her grandson in an army camp on the frontline in the Chechen conflict. “it’s easy to destroy”, she says to a commander, “but do you know how to build?”. Hers are the words of a woman who has grown tired of the insatiability of conflict, the endless need for remembrance, and, in Owen’s words, “the pity of war”.