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‘War Requiem’ (PG)

By Joseph McLellan
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 19, 1990

"War Requiem," which opens today at the Biograph, is not exactly a movie; it is the most sustained, elaborate and intensely emotional music video in the short history of that genre. It is the first music video that must be taken seriously as a classic work of art. The remarkable thing about it is that director Derek Jarman, with the help of some highly skilled English actors, has produced an hour and a half of visual images that match the power of Benjamin Britten's music.

The Requiem Mass was already powerful enough -- a religious experience shaped collectively by all of Christian Europe through centuries of repetition; a literary text that has inspired great music from many composers, including Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. In 1962, composing a work for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral (the old one had been destroyed by Nazi saturation bombing), Britten intensified the effect still further. Into the Latin text he inserted, at thematically appropriate points, a cycle of poems by Wilfred Owen, an English poet who fought in World War I, fixed the experience on paper in all its horror and pity, then died at age 25 -- a week before the war ended. Then Britten set it to music that ranks with the best ever inspired by the Requiem text, producing one of the musical monuments of the 20th century.

Now Jarman has added visuals so intense that this is likely to be the ultimate embodiment of the idea until someone develops a technique for recording and playing back physical sensations other than sight and sound: the impact of a shell exploding a few yards away; the feel of mud everywhere; the taste of blood coughed up from a lung wound.

The soundtrack of Jarman's film is the 1963 recording of the "War Requiem" conducted by Britten with the singers for whom he had written it: soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, tenor Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. No other sound is heard amid the violent, constantly shifting images, except a voice-over at the beginning: Sir Laurence Olivier reading Owen's poem "Strange Meeting" about a British and German soldier, dead, meeting in hell and finding it a relief from war: "I am the enemy you killed, my friend. . . . Let us sleep now. . . ." The same words recur at the end, sung to an other-worldly melody by the tenor and baritone; this Requiem is a work not only of horror and pity but ultimately of consolation and reconciliation.

Olivier's cameo appearance, his last work on film before his death, frames the visual element; he is an old soldier in a wheelchair fingering his medals, and the visions on the screen are his memory and reflections -- including newsreel footage of World War I, an atomic explosion and scenes from Afghanistan and Vietnam. There also are personal scenes: Owen (Nathaniel Parker) killing and reflecting on death; an Unknown Soldier (Owen Teale) embodying the horror of life (and death) on the battlefield; a nurse (Tilda Swinton) who represents the compassion and powerlessness of those who observe but do not fight. They perform brilliantly in this violent, horrifying, ultimately inspiring film -- an eloquent, complex and profoundly negative statement on war.

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