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Kino on Video presents
War Requiem (1989)

"I mean the truth untold, the pity of war."
- The Old Soldier (Laurence Olivier)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: September 08, 2008

Stars: Nathaniel Parker, Tilda Swinton, Laurence Olivier
Other Stars: Owen Teale, Sean Bean, Patricia Hayes, Nigel Terry
Director: Derek Jarman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, gore, thematic material)
Run Time: 01h:28m:58s
Release Date: September 02, 2008
UPC: 383290621255
Genre: classical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AA-B- C-

DVD Review

Benjamin Britten shattered convention with his War Requiem, when he took the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead and interwove it with the heart-rending poetry of Wilfred Owen. The poet was one of the best-known voices to come out of the trenches of World War I, but unfortunately was killed the last week of the war at the age of 27. Derek Jarman, in his film adaptation of the War Requiem, further pushes the boundaries by using evocative and often horrifying imagery to drive home the points of Britten and Owen. Contractually obligated to use the 1963 premiere recording of the piece, with no additional dialogue or sound effects, Jarman makes this necessity into an asset by heightening the artificiality and the ridiculousness of the war with its tragic consequences. Jarman cheats a little by having Olivier, as The Old Soldier, recite a portion of Owen's Strange Meeting before the requiem proper begins, however, in the one bit that is not sung.

Olivier made his final appearance here, in the prologue that features him as an aged veteran, wheeled about by a nurse (Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton, who was a staple of Jarman's work), agitated over his medals and haunted by his memories. The picture then shifts to the dead Owen (Nathaniel Parker), mourned by another nurse (Swinton again, apparently nurse incarnate) as Britten's composition begins; it's naked anguish as Swinton covers her eyes as if to put them out—strikingly, at the words "et lux perpetua", the notion of perpetual light being far too much for eyes that do not want to see at all. The balance of the first movement combines a number of effective techniques, including incorporation of actual WWI newsreel footage, as well as misty flashbacks of pre-war life and happiness, with Swinton seeming like she stepped out of a Vermeer portrait. The lengthy Dies Irae shifts to a time when Owen was alive and writing poetry, but with an exhausted desperation that clearly signifies that he is not meant to outlive the War. Jarman makes the misery of the trenches amply clear in seconds, as we see the exhausted troops in freezing rain trying chip ice out of their trench, while they are covered in muck and about to drop.

The Lacrimosa portion of the Dies Irae is one of the more moving portions of the piece, and Jarman takes advantage of it to set to it a little drama of misguided intentions. When an Unknown Soldier (Owen Teale) runs across a German Soldier (Sean Bean, best known now as Boromir from Lord of the Rings), some well-intentioned gestures at friendliness ironically end up resulting in the deaths of both of them. The tragedy of error is given a different light entirely in the Offertorium, which reenacts the story of Abraham (Nigel Terry) and Isaac (Parker, as Owen). But when the angel (a preposterously-clad and ineffectual child) bids Abraham stay his hand and sacrifice a ram instead, Abraham, urged on by the church and the mercantile classes, who applaud greedily, goes ahead with the sacrifice of Isaac anyway, "and half the seed of Europe, one by one." Owen's verse is chilling enough on the printed page, but when brought to life in this manner it's downright shocking in its accusatory nature.

Swinton is put to good use during the Sanctus, wherein the camera refuses to leave her expressive face for a moment as she is transported from agony to ecstasy and back again; this Sanctus has little of holiness or glory in it. Instead, it works as a condemnation of God and religion, dripping with disappointed hope and crushed dreams. In the Agnus Dei, Owen is explicitly made to bear a parallel to Christ, with crown of thorns symbolism present throughout. The final and longest section, the Libera Me, mixes footage from a variety of wars to give tribute to the Unknown Soldier, with a tableau evocative of religious art. It's a bit self-conscious but nevertheless a bold stroke.

Jarman doesn't make much of any concession to commerciality here, other than the inclusion of Olivier. The musical piece itself can be a difficult one and the imagery is frequently striking in its applicability to the text and at others a bit puzzling. But there's no mistaking Jarman's treatment of the theme; he's sympathetic with the soldiers and contemptuous of the societal forces that force them to kill each other and suffer for what was in essence a family feud amongst the crowned heads of Europe. The main problem, however, with accessibility here is the total absence of subtitles for either the English language or Latin texts; without familiarity with them, it's quite difficult indeed to process the text and the imagery at once, so that there's quite a sensory overload (though multiple viewings certainly help). Kino certainly could have made this important work more readily accessible; it's most effective with the libretto at hand and trying to coordinate that with the visuals is harder than it should be. But it's still a visually stunning work that offers trenchant political comment still highly relevant today as men and women fight in pointless wars designed to gratify the mighty and wealthy.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture generally looks excellent, with subtle coloration and nice black levels, without sacrificing shadow detail. Detail is often strikingly visible (most effectively on closeups of Swinton's face). No sign of edge enhancement or significant artifacting mar the visual experience.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The main shortcoming of the audio is that it's derived from the 1963 recording on Decca. There's some tape hiss present during the quieter moments. The vocalists generally sound acceptable, especially Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; tenor Peter Pears occasionally comes across a bit thin. The brass in the Dies Irae seems unsatisfyingly dull, lacking in brightness and edge. The highly important timpani sounds about right, though obviously there's no extremely low bass to be heard. Kino probably did about as well as they could with this limited source material.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
Extras Review: Extras are a bit thin, with a gallery of about 20 stills accompanied by a trailer. This was assuredly a tough sell even to arthouse audiences, and the trailer hardly even tries. One wonders why they even bothered to issue one. There are some striking images, but that's about it, making it a fascinating demonstration of a studio not knowing how to promote this work.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Jarman's brutally effective condemnation of war, through the music of Britten and the words of Owen, looks great here, but its effect is limited by the absence of subtitles and the 1963-era audio. More in the way of extra materials would have been nice, but at least this rarity is finally available on DVD.


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