“I knew we stood in Hell”
English composer Benjamin Britten was commissioned to mark the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (after the original was destroyed during World War II). The result is his War Requiem, a work juxtaposing the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead with poetry written by World War I casualty Wilfred Owen. Killed in action in 1918, Owen has become revered as a war poet of note whose work touches upon the horrors experienced in the trenches. He delivered stories of nightmare and death, of despair and anguish with a realism to express what was happening removed from outsider rhetoric. So it’s hardly surprising that director Derek Jarman would begin his cinematic adaptation of Britten’s oratorio with Owen’s “Strange Meeting”, a poem about escape and forgiving the unforgivable.
This specific piece speaks about a soldier’s journey to the underworld to be free of the battlefield only to meet the enemy combatant he killed the day before and realize his actions can never be forgotten. One could look upon Jarman’s film as the manifestation of a communal post-traumatic stress disorder shared by those who fought the war and those who witnessed the atrocities back home. Decca Records, who owned the rights to Britten’s piece, required that it be heard in full without the distraction of sound effects, voices, or ambient noise from the footage shot. So we listen to this beautiful lament as images of early hope and promise devolve into surreal depictions of truth steeped in religion, love, and mourning. We watch as painful memories unfold.
Sometimes those recollections are concrete with actions taken by a young nurse (Tilda Swinton) and her soldier beau (Nathaniel Parker‘s Owen) playing out with a sense of naturalism. And other times they’re abstract moving paintings of fire or water, archival footage of war mixed with fantastical, dark displays of raw psychological anguish. The whole may begin with an old soldier (Laurence Olivier in his final role) caught in reverie, but what follows can either be an account of his specific life or one of universal life where his survivor’s inability to forget simply serves as our entry point. After all, Swinton is his nurse before the nurse of the past. She’s by his side first, screaming over Owen’s dead body next, and finally an angel of death/rebirth herself.
Joy is replaced by futility and then the reverse and back again. We see the bright sky of calm replaced by bombs of chaos, the serenity of a lifeless corpse against the animated shrieks of pain above it. There’s a simple life between man and wife before war tears them apart and then the regimented and safe process of training to steel one’s self to forthcoming violence. We watch Swinton’s nurse comfort fallen men and those men strewn in piles for others to pick clean. And we see the internal war of fear, humanity, and regret when an enemy puts down his rifle to briefly remember what it’s like to have fun before getting killed for his trouble. The meeting of two strangers can never be innocent again.
Jarman includes a ton of motifs from a flickering candle extinguishing to move the story forward, a muddy bugle horn signifying the loss of its owner, and religious overtones from crowns of thorns to rows of crucifixes. It’s a visual poem to match the melody of Britten and the inspiration of Owen, the beats moving from reenactment to real life as the nightmare becomes too much to endure. We see Parker walking alone through a dark tunnel with candle in hand, Swinton covered in blood, Owen Teale dead and then alive to carry the body of the man responsible for his death, and Sean Bean as a German soldier coming to grips with the hopelessness of his fight. And newsreel montages force us to see the carnage firsthand.
It’s not the easiest film to experience from its lack of dialogue to its experimental construction. The adaptation of Owen’s poetry without words makes it difficult to parse what’s connected and what’s not—if anything at all—for someone unfamiliar with the work like me. But even if I couldn’t tell whether actors were playing multiple characters or if anything onscreen occurred outside of their evenings of restless slumber, you cannot escape the feeling of torment the imagery supplies. This is war as seen through the eyes of the dead; an unyielding battle that will ultimately take the soul of everyone involved whether they are alive at the end or not. It depicts a time when soldiers personally witnessed the cost of victory, a time we’ve left behind.