This film came out in 1985. At that time I watched a review of it in one of our German TV culture programs, but I did not pay much attention and did not watch it in the cinema.
I did not see the film until sometime in the 1990s, I think it was on German TV, in a dubbed version. And I was immediately fascinated by this movie’s emotional approach to the very important topic of life in a totalitarian society. Since then I had the opportunity to see the film a few times on the big screen, and everytime I see it I discover new details. The most recent viewing was on Saturday, 26.March, here in Leeds at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, and it compelled me to write a review about it which I want to share with you.
You may find info about this film at the IMDB site of BRAZIL, where there is an outline of the plot and many other reviews (I also submitted a short version of this review). So I will not go into details but rather give my own impression and my interpretation of some of its content.
The movie is absolutely hilarious, pointing out with the means of irony, satire, and parody the flaws of totalitarian societies. But these flaws are actually also the flaws of our own society, and this movie reveals this brilliantly. Besides the overall theme of a fictional retro-future all-encompassing dictatorship, the movie has several layers of topics that are very relevant to our current society. I would like to list these topics here:
The satire with regards to the aspects of working life is so heartwarming because we all have most likely encountered in our own work life some of the pathetic specimens that are depicted in this movie.
There is the incompetent and cowardly boss Mr Kurtzman, who is unable to take responsibility for anything and delegates everything to his smart subordinate Sam Lowry. He even makes him falsify his own signature, which is one of the items for which Sam will later be held responsible.
There is the false sense of actionism and energetic work ethics in the Ministry of Information Retrieval, when the supervisor runs through the halls, followed by a crowd of subservient subordinates who are requesting decisions which are swiftly given by the superior.
Hilarious are the dire working conditions (dark narrow office) in the Ministry of Information Retrieval which are in much contrast to this energetic positive work attitude.
Very funny is the petty competition of fellow coworkers. For example when the neighbour of Sam Lowry pulls the shared desk towards his own side. Or when he tries to show off with his (non-existent) computer skills.
Then there is the way how office workers find a way around the rules and regulations to make their work life more bearable, in this case by watching a classic movie channel. In our own world this is replaced by web browsing.
"We in the West" live in democracies, but much of the double speak that is shown in the film has slowly penetrated our own political life, by our own corrupted political classes, and we are often not anymore aware of it.
The cruel and impartial attitude of the security forces who make prisoners and put them into these sacks - which evoke the images of hooded prisoners in Abu Ghraib. These security forces are "normal" people, chat about the misery of work such as headache from helmets, but then treat their subjects that they took into custody with uncompassionate harshness, and all is done strictly according to procedures and regulations.
The government’s pursuit of suspected terrorists and the efforts in uncovering the hidden connections between them, which lead to paranoia and to suspicion of connections where there are none. The example is the pursuit of the freelancer Archibald Tuttle, who just wants to work as a heating engineer, because he enjoys it, but who does not want to comply with the tight rules and regulations of that trade. We see currently the same by linking every terrorist act to the omnipresent "Al Quaida" network, even if the links are unproven (the war in Iraq comes to mind ...). Also the phrase "9/11 changed everything" shows how much of this movie has already become reality.
The emptiness of the slogans, expressed in public announcements and also in the posters that are hanging everywhere, shows the paranoia, feeds the public fear of terrorists and justifies the state actions. (I wish there would be somewhere a collection of these posters that are in the movie in the background in so many scenes ...)
The refusal of state authority to admit that an error has been made, is so true also in our current "system". The heartlessness and lack of compassion by the same authority when they realise that an error has been made. The overall long winded process of appeal when such a mistake it tried to be rectified by a citizen. And the labelling of such a citizen then as a potential terrorist.
The obsession with youth and cosmetic surgery, represented by Sam Lowry’s mother’s plastic surgery and her desire to look young. The parody of cosmetic surgery peaks twice: in once instance the person with whom the cosmetic surgery went terribly wrong, dies. In the other instance, in the end Sam’s mother looks like the love interest of the protagonist in an Oedipean twist, although only in the mind of Sam.
The emphasis on cleanliness in the streets, where passers-by are upset when a few papers are dropped on the streets, but where nobody appears to protest against the dirty war against the presumed terrorist thread.
The celebration of Christmas which has lost all its inner spiritual meaning and is hollowed into simple formality of giving thoughtless interchangeable arbitrary thoughtless presents, all done in the same packaging.
The consumer society which has eaten up all that was once in spiritual meaning ("Consumers for Christ") and which encompasses all the life of people. Shopping, expensive goods, and even when a bombing occurs, the show must go on (in the restaurant). But the true essence of enjoyment is lost: food is just a pile of coloured mash and can only be identified by a picture that comes with it.
There are two types of overall attitude which make a totalitarian system function and keep the protagonists alive: one attitude is represented by the silence and under-the-radar-screen-operating main character, Sam Lowry, whose main concern is that he might accidentally get noticed, which he tries to avoid by all means. The other attitude is represented by the ambition and suppression of the conscience by Jack Lint, who is actively supporting the system and is one of its representatives, in executing torture.
This society appears to show a blind faith in technology and in its believe that it works and solves everything – demonstrated to be not the case, as a simple bug can cause a terrible deadly error, and as the technological gadgets appear to malfunction at any opportunity.
The complex technology of climate control for individual housing which is difficult to handle. Overall there are many hoses and wires, in the houses, in the restaurant, during the cleaning process of the administration building. Everything is wired, is connected, and hoses go everywhere.
The annoying dealing with the monopolised services of Central Services. Everybody in our own world and time has had to deal with such non-responsive entities (BT comes to my mind). Free and independent enterprise (as personified by Tuttle) is illegal.
The overabundance of bureaucracy as it stifles all functioning of a society. The overall formalisation of all transactions with receipts and receipts for receipts, the rules and regulations that govern everything. (Reminds me somehow of "health and safety", and of the quality assurance formalisms that have in recent years stifled much of the creativity in UK.) The strict adherence to these rules appear to give even the cruellest government action a coat of legitimacy, because it is all done exactly according to the rules.
The loss of natural environment, as a consequence of providing energy and power and of overpopulation in densely urban cities. There appears to be no park, no trees, no green area. People live in dense highriser blocks without any daylight. Roads outside of the city lead to power plants, through deserted polluted landscapes, which the driver cannot see, because big billboards show advertisement and government slogans, depicting among other things landscape and blue sky, which is no longer in existence in the real world.
The desensitation and cruelisation of children: they grow up in dire housing complexes, mirroring the worst of "council estates", and they play war games with weapons. For Christmas they get guns as presents, and they play out security force and prisoners, with realistically hooding their prisoners as the adult world is doing it. This desensitation is also a reality in our real world, by the proliferation of ego-shooter computer games.
This movie also pays homage to classic movies, as they appear to be the only thing that brings real joy to people, but also that they act as an escapism for the unbearable reality of the present life. Very funny the reference to Eisenstein’s "Battleship Potemkin" in the scene where the security forces walk down the stairs, and a lonely cleaning equipment cart rolls down these stairs (instead of a stroller like in the original). Also at one point there is a parallel in the action of the movie to the film that the office workers are watching ("Casablanca"), when Jonathan Price says to his boss "here is looking at you".
Overall this movie is addressing all the above topics not on a rational level, but on a deeply emotional one. The main protagonist has his dreams, and in a very illogical way these dreams meddle with the reality, as he suddenly sees and meets the woman of his dreams.
This film is an emotional appeal for humanity, to do everything to prevent such a society from becoming a reality. Because once it is established, there is nothing that can bring it down – as the very pessimistic ending of the film implies (evil always wins).
Some of my favorite quotes from this movie:
"My complication got a little complication."
"Do you have a form 27 6-B?"
"This phone call is not being recorded."