A Requiem From World War I. FILM: REVIEW. `Trench poet' Wilfred Owen's ordeal recalled in a regretful, melancholy movie
WEST BERLIN — ALL over the world, moviemaking means storytelling. Audiences expect a lively yarn - or at least an interesting one - every time they walk into a theater, and the vast majority of film directors think of narrative as their most important stock in trade. An exception to this widespread rule is Derek Jarman, who'd rather weave a web of stimulating images than spin a conventional yarn. This attitude isn't rare among ``experimental'' filmmakers working on the fringe of commercial cinema, but it's unheard-of among widely celebrated moviemakers. And that's exactly what Mr. Jarman is: the most well-known and talked-about British director of his generation, despite his disdain for popular storytelling.
Jarman's career took another step forward at the recent Berlin Film Festival, where his eagerly awaited ``War Requiem'' was one of the hottest tickets around. When screened, it met with mixed reactions from festival patrons, including critics and ordinary moviegoers. Yet at least three qualities marked it as a major event: its visual boldness, its openly musical structure, and its success at communicating a deeply felt message without relying on the narrative formulas of mainstream cinema. Equally refreshing is its proud awareness of 20th-century high culture - from the music of Benjamin Britten, which provides the score for the film, to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose life inspired much of it.
``War Requiem'' begins when a man known only as the Old Soldier is wheeled away from a hospital where he has spent much of his life in a ``war scarred'' condition. Played by no less a tragedian than Laurence Olivier, he represents the aged veteran that Wilfred Owen, a ``trench poet'' during World War I, might have become if he hadn't died in combat when 25 years old. As the strains of Britten's ``War Requiem'' fill the sound track, the film turns into an extended fantasy of this old man, who recalls a youthful love affair in a quiet English village as well as the horrors of war to which he was later subjected. All the images have a dreamlike drift, and their unexpected juxtapositions recall the innovative ``slant rhyme'' that helped make Owen the greatest of the trench poets, with the possible exception (in my view) of Isaac Rosenberg.
Jarman sees his ``War Requiem'' as a sequel to his previous film, ``The Last of England,'' which is currently touring the United States in ``The Cutting Edge,'' a traveling series of challenging non-American movies. Differences between the two films abound, however. For all its imagery of combat, killing, and destruction, ``War Requiem'' is mellower and even gentler than its predecessor, which presents a deliberately abrasive vision of what might be the end of the world - or at least of Western civilization - in the near future. Whereas that film is rude and aggressive, ``War Requiem'' is regretful and melancholy, inviting us to mourn for lost possibilities even as we celebrate the power of art to capture and transcend them. It's less powerful and less ingenious than ``The Last of England,'' yet it marks a new maturity for Jarman in its sense of human warmth and artfully tempered nostalgia.
In addition to Lord Olivier as the Old Soldier, the cast of ``War Requiem'' features Nathaniel Parker as Wilfred Owen and Tilda Swinton, a star of ``The Last of England,'' as the nurse he loved in his youth. Britten's composition is resoundingly played by the London Symphony under Britten's own baton, with Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Vishnevskaya as the able soloists.
Jarman's career has been uneven in artistic terms, carrying him from the aestheticized excesses of ``Sebastiane'' and his Shakespeare disaster, ``The Tempest,'' to the soporific ``Caravaggio'' and the unexpected vigor of ``The Last of England.'' While his ``War Requiem'' is no masterpiece, it captures the essence of Owen's most justly celebrated lines: ``My subject is war, and the pity of war/ And the Poetry is in the pity.''