Clive's Lives

Assessing Terry Gilliam

What Brazil tells us about torture today.

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

“No no no no no no no no … “
—Terry Gilliam, Brazil

Terry Gilliam. Click image to expand.
Terry Gilliam Getty

Born in Minnesota in 1940, Terry Gilliam, after pioneering his personal graphic style as a resident artist for Harvey Kurtzman’s Help magazine, reached international fame by way of Britain, where his visual inventiveness, based mainly on the silent wit of animated collage, was an important part of the “Monty Python” television series. In his subsequent career as a film director, he earned an unjustified reputation for extravagance when his Adventures of Baron Munchausen left its budget behind and sailed off into the unknown, but on the level of cold fact, he has proved, with several Hollywood projects, including the extraordinary Twelve Monkeys, that he knows exactly how to bring in a movie on time and on budget. (These undeniable achievements availed him little, however, when his film version of Don Quixote had to be abandoned. A measure of his idiosyncratic creative energy is that even a documentary about that film’s abandonment— Lost in La Mancha—is required viewing.) Really, he doesn’t fit the Hollywood frame at all and needs his own country of which to be a representative writer; if he had been born in Montenegro instead of Minneapolis, today there would be an annual Gilliam Festival on the shore of Lake Scutari—although his tendency to giggle at a solemn moment might still queer his pitch. His best work depends on an audience that can see past his laughing facade to the troubled man within.

Gilliam came nearest to inventing his own country with Brazil (1985), one of the key political films of the late 20th century. Brazil is one of the great political films, an extraordinary mixture of Fellini and Kafka, with a complex force of synthesized images, which belongs to Gilliam alone. A meek, distinctly nonglamorous secretary is taking dictation through earphones. She types up everything she hears in the next room. In the course of time, the viewer of the film deduces that she is compiling an endless transcript of what a victim is saying in a torture chamber. Even if he screams it, she types it up as if he has merely said it. She herself says nothing, and her face betrays no emotion as the words quietly take form. Her boss, the torturer, is played by Michael Palin in the full, sweet spate of his bland niceness. This is the ne plus ultra of torture as an everyday activity. The torture surgery contributes one of the most brain-curdling of the film’s many disturbing themes (still revealing their subtleties on a third and fourth viewing). The suggestion seems to be that a torturer need be no more sinister than your doctor. That’s the picture we take away. But how true is the picture?

In modern history, there is plenty of evidence that torturers are people who actually enjoy hurting people. What was true in medieval Munich was true again in the cellars of the Gestapo HQ in the Prinz-Albrecht Strasse, and what was true under Ivan the Terrible was true again in the Lubyanka and the Lefortovo. The frightening thing is that any regime dedicated to ruling by terror so easily finds a sufficient supply of lethal myrmidons. Even Americans, on those occasions when they bizarrely conclude that the third degree might expedite their policies instead of hindering them, never suffer from a shortage of volunteers: At Abu Ghraib, the dingbats were lining up to display their previously neglected talents. On the whole, the man in charge is not a sadist himself, presumably because it would be a diversion from his organizational effectiveness if he were.

In his huge and definitive political biography of Juan Peron, the esteemed Argentine historian Felix Luna gives us a once-and-for-all illustration of how the author of a state that rules by terror can detach himself from the brute facts. Luna takes the view that the torturers were just doing their job. He calls them tecnicos and describes the subtleties of the technique, which on the torturers’ part did indeed require a certain lack of passion if the victim was to survive for long. If Luna gets you wondering how he knew so much about it, your questions are answered a few pages later, where he records a conversation he had with Peron in 1969. “But in your time,” said Luna, “people were tortured.” Peron said, “Who was tortured?” Luna said, “Plenty of people. Me, for example.” Peron said, “When?” With due allowance for Luna’s emphasis on their clinical indifference, the maniacs who do the work seem mainly to come from the unfortunately plentiful supply of those who do enjoy inflicting pain for its own sake. “In what pubs are they welcome?” Auden asked rhetorically. “What girls marry them?” It is a nice question how large the supply would be if circumstances did not create it. Alas, the circumstances seem often to be there. Many of the Nazi torturers enjoyed their omnipotence on the strict understanding that without their place in the regime they would have been nothing: hence the tendency to go on tormenting their prisoners even after Himmler called a halt. They faced going back to where they started, which was nowhere.

Similarly, in the Soviet Union, the security “organs,” under whatever set of initials they flaunted at the time, were always, at the brute force level, staffed by otherwise unemployable dimwits. The opportunity to inflict torment gives absolute power to the otherwise powerless, and must be a heady compensation for those with a history of being the family dolt. In the Italian transit camp of Fossoli during the Republic of Salo (the last stage of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, with the fanatics well in charge), there was a female officer who indulged herself in the Dantesque experiment of packing a cell with victims and keeping them without nourishment of any kind until they ate each other. Many of her victims were women. She seems to have had a social problem: She was cutting prettier, wealthier women down to size. In Latin America, the torturers were all men, but even the qualified medical practitioners among them seem to have been motivated by a similar urge to assure their victims that the boot was now on the other foot.

On the disheartening subject of how sadism and sexuality might be connected, Argentina has the dubious privilege of having produced a key document. In a short story called “Simetrias”—a creative work that unfortunately has ample documentation in fact—Luisa Valenzuela tells us how some of the male torturers would take out their victims for an evening in a cafe or a nightclub. The wounds caused by the electrodes would be covered with makeup. (The story appears in Cuentos de Historia Argentina, a collection published in Buenos Aires in 1998.) In Brazil, after that country’s nightmare was over—it took place roughly at the same time as Argentina’s—a book came out called Shut Your Mouth, Journalist! (1987). The book enshrines the testimony of journalists who had the sad privilege of seeing the big story from close range: too close. Survivors recall being woken up in the middle of the night by the cold barrel of a .45 automatic applied to the nose, as a preliminary to a long encounter with the electrodes. There were journalists who never came back to say anything. Unsurprisingly, silence soon reigned.

In the years since the silence broke, documentation has piled up. Too many of the most terrifying pages reveal that the torments were an end in themselves. Torture, especially when the victim was a woman, went on far beyond any use it might have had as a means of extracting information, and even beyond what was needed to create a universal atmosphere of abject terror. Films like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Death and the Maiden have done their best to face what happened in Latin America, but finally, if we can bear to look at what is happening on-screen, we have been spared the worst. The general picture in Latin America squared up badly with the picture of torture evoked in an impeccably realistic film like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, in which the decent young paratroopers did not really want to be doing that kind of thing. (Alain Resnais’ Muriel, without showing the horrors, made the same point by implication.) In Latin America the torturers did want to be doing that kind of thing. Which brings us back to Brazil, and hence to Brazil. Were they ever the same place?

In the film called Brazil, Michael Palin is the torturer as the civil servant who might conceivably have been doing something else, such as selling life insurance. In the country called Brazil, the same role was usually played by a psychopath. (The key document proving this is Brazil: Never Again published in 1985. By the time I bought my copy in 1988, it had gone through 20 printings.) We know from the fascinating long interview published as Gilliam on Gilliam that the Palin character in the movie was slow to take shape. The first three drafts of the script were written by Tom Stoppard. Finally Stoppard and Gilliam parted company because of disagreements over some of the characters. One of the characters in question was the torturer. The way Stoppard wrote the part, Michael Palin would have had the opportunity to play against type: He would have embodied evil. Palin is a very accomplished actor and could undoubtedly have done it. But Gilliam insisted on Palin’s full, natural, nonacting measure of bland benevolence.

On the set, Gilliam gave Palin mechanical things to do while acting—eat, for example—so that Palin would be distracted from developing any nuances on top of his natural projection as Mr. Nice Guy. It is a moot point which of them was right, Stoppard or Gilliam. In the long run, the Banality of Evil interpretation of human frightfulness is not quite as useful as it looks. It helps us appreciate the desirability of not placing ourselves in a position where the rule of justice depends on natural human goodness, which might prove to be in short supply. But it tends to shield us from the intractable facts about human propensities.

White settlers of America were horrified to discover that the Apaches would torture their prisoners slowly to death on the assumption that the captor would gain spiritual stature as the captive lost it. The student would prefer not to think that a primitive people was thus showing us what was once universally true, and came from instinct. It would help if mankind were the only animal that tortured its prey: We could persuade ourselves that only a social history could produce such an aberration. Unfortunately, cats torment mice until the mouse turns cold, and killer whales play half an hour of water polo with a baby seal before they finally put it out of its misery by eating it. We can do better than the cats and the killer whales, but it might be a help to admit that the same propensity is widespread and could even be there within ourselves. In that respect, the film Three Kings was a rare feat for the American cinema. Educated in a hard school of bombed refugee camps, the Arab torturer was trying to show his clueless American victim what it felt like to be helpless. It is possible that all torturers are attempting to teach their own version of the same lesson. But in that case we are bound to consider the further possibility that anyone might be a torturer. The historical evidence suggests that on the rare occasions when a state begins again in what a fond humanitarian might think of as a condition of innocence, a supply of young torturers is the first thing it produces. Certainly this was true of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Of 17,000 people who were interrogated in the S-21 camp in Phnom Penh, 16,994 died in agony. The half dozen people who survived were questioned again, by journalists, but they had been too badly injured to say much. The writing on the wall probably says all that we need to hear. The Khmer Rouge torturers were not an example of a system of thought decayed into a perversion: They were prethought, and thus had a kind of childish purity.

Unfortunately for our hopes of innate human goodness, all the evidence suggests that the torturers were keen to get on with the job even if it was meaningless. All the evidence was still there afterward, including photographs taken at every stage of the torment. Back in the late 1950s, on the sleeve of the Beyond the Fringe record album, Jonathan Miller made a dark joke about his worst fear: being tortured for information he did not possess. The assumption behind the joke was that if he had something to reveal, the agony would stop. He was looking back to a world of polite British fiction, not to a world of brute European fact. In the Nazi and Soviet cellars and camps, people were regularly tortured for information they did not possess: i.e., they were tortured just for the hell of it. Kafka guessed it would happen, as he guessed everything that would happen. In his Strafkolonie, the tormented prisoner has to work out for himself what crime he has committed and is finally told that it is being written on his body by the instrument of torture into which he has been inescapably locked. Kafka was there first, but he wasn’t alone for long, and now we must all live in a modern world where the words “No no no no no no no no” can be recorded with perfect fidelity for their sound, yet go unheeded for what they mean.