Thursday, July 30, 2009
Derek Jarman's War Requiem is a potent, poetic visualization of composer Benjamin Britten's grandiose anti-war composition of the same name. Britten's epic choral music, written in 1962 and recorded with Britten as conductor in 1963, incorporates Latin texts along with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who served during World War I and was killed in the final week of the war. Owen's posthumously published poetry captured the experience of war with a combination of romanticism and unvarnished realism, and Jarman's film is similarly conceived. The film is entirely dialogue-free, relying on the juxtaposition of Britten's music, Owen's poetry and Jarman's ripe imagery. During the prologue, Laurence Olivier appears, in his final role before his death, as an old soldier, also in his last days, reminiscing about his long-ago wartime experiences with his nurse (Jarman regular Tilda Swinton). On the soundtrack, Olivier reads one of Owen's poems. The remainder of the film is set to the entirety of Britten's War Requiem with no other sound, which was a requirement imposed upon the film by the holders of the recording. Nevertheless, Jarman makes brilliant use of this music, setting Britten's sweeping orchestrations and vocals against a collage of images, archival war footage and semi-narrative vignettes.
Tilda Swinton reappears in the body of the film as a wartime nurse, and much of the action cuts between her tending to patients and various scenes with Wilfred Owen (Nathaniel Parker) and other frontline soldiers played by Sean Bean and Owen Teale. Jarman's dialogue-free storytelling is lyrical and haunting, capturing the feel of war, its horror and misery, both for those in the middle of it and for those waiting elsewhere for news of their loved ones. These soldiers are dirt-smeared, caked in mud and blood, lying in piles to sleep, huddled together; there's a certain homoeroticism in Jarman's depictions of soldierly comradeship, inspired by the homoerotic subtexts in the poems of the possibly gay Owen. These men, suffering together, take comfort only in each other's presences, and in the periodic letters they receive from home. In Jarman's vision, there is no meaning to war, no advances or victories or even concrete battles: he shows only the aftermath, the men bleeding and dying, the muddy survivors lounging around in their bunkers, blank-eyed and exhausted, or the wounded, shell-shocked men who fill up the beds of the hospitals.
Interspersed with these scenes are memories of pre-war happiness, shot by Jarman in his characteristic grainy, hazy super-8 to contrast against the crisp formal quality of the wartime scenes. For these men, their memories are thus rendered ephemeral and indistinct against the hyper-real present of the war, and yet the past seems even sweeter for its gauzy imprecision. These memories are often simple, just glimpses of domestic tranquility, like a soldier helping his mother fold laundry. In other scenes, children play at war, making a game of it, not understanding that one day they will see its horrors for real. In one of the film's most haunting sequences, a group of children hold a warrior's funeral for a beaten-up old stuffed teddy bear: they place the bear in a red-lined coffin with solemnity and pomp, then lay it on a pyre of burning leaves, crying as they say goodbye to their beloved toy. It is a child's memory of a ritual that would later be enacted as an adult, with friends lost and buried instead of toys.
The film also incorporates a great deal of religious imagery, making a metaphor of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Jarman imagines Abraham (Nigel Terry) killing his son (Parker again) to the applause of corpulent businessmen in theatrical makeup, smoking fat cigars — the angel's last-minute change of plans goes unheeded in this version of the story. The film inventively recontextualizes the Biblical tale as a metaphor for war, as fathers send their sons off to war, to be killed on the basis of vague orders from above, all for the benefit of the wealthy classes, who profiteer as the blood of the young flows through the trenches. Later, the soldiers evoke another Biblical sacrificial figure, donning crowns of thorns as they carry the dead and wounded through an apocalyptic wasteland of burnt-out fields and rubble.
Jarman's imagery, without telling any particular story, nevertheless manages to capture the one larger story of war: the companionship of the men at the front, the letters home, the friends who die and are mourned. His dialogue-free storytelling and vague characters suggest that all wars have only this one story: young men suffering and dying and losing the people they care about. In the film's final half-hour, Jarman largely switches from depictions of individual soldiers to a more generalized image of war itself. Using archival footage of various conflicts, stitched together into an increasingly frantic, frenetic montage as the pace of Britten's music accelerates, Jarman moves smoothly from the suffering and death of the individual soldier to the horrors of war as a whole. He splices together images of soldiers dying all over the world, representing different nations, different races and ethnicities, different conflicts. But they're all dying or dead, all of them ripped apart, bleeding bright red, their brains exposed within their split-open scalps, as the cannons fire, different guns, new developments in warfare, all of them intended to cause more and more fiery death. This montage reaches its seeming climax with an image of the atom bomb exploding, an apex of horror, but then the collage of dead soldiers merely resumes, as though to confirm that the dropping of the bomb was not a horror to end all horrors, but merely one more especially devastating entry in the 20th Century's massive death toll.
Another of the film's most poignant sequences is more personal, a lengthy closeup on Tilda Swinton during a particularly elegiac movement of Britten's piece. The shot opens with Swinton braiding her long red hair, her eyes staring blankly off into the distance. As Jarman holds the shot, his camera gently bobbing, reframing Swinton's distinctive face, she begins swaying with the music, closing her eyes and mouthing the lyrics. It's the only moment in the film in which the images and the music are explicitly synced in this way, and it drives home the agony of those waiting at home for news of a soldier, as Swinton soulfully dances in place with the music, its melancholy tones moving her body, her graceful limbs arcing in balletic sweeps over her head as she's overcome with grief and the bittersweet smile of nostalgia. These complex emotions, the emotions of war and its aftermath, are at the heart of Jarman's intense, affecting film.