Books: Cultural Amnesia — Terry Gilliam |
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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. On the level of cold fact—always hard to regain once a myth has taken hold—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 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-director, like Pedro almodóvar or Lars von Trier. 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. Gilliam came nearest to inventing his own country with Brazil (1985), one of the key political films of the late twentieth century. There is an excellent interview book, Gilliam on Gilliam. It takes some effort to see past his laughing façade to the troubled man within. His best work depends on an audience that can do so, which will always be in short supply.

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No no no no no no no no...

THE TEXT MEANS exactly what it says, but it needs a lot of decoding. A meek, distinctly non-glamorous 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 the victim is saying in the 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. Still revealing its subtleties after a third viewing or a fourth, Brazil is one of the great political films, an extraordinary mixture of Fellini and Kafka, with a complex force of synthesized image which belongs to Gilliam alone. The torture surgery contributes one of the most brain-curdling of the film’s many disturbing themes. The suggestion seems to be that a torturer, except for what he does, need be no more sinister than your doctor. That’s the picture we take away. But how true is the picture?

In modern history, which is most of the history that has ever been properly written down at the time, there is plenty of evidence that the 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, and 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 of his organizational effectiveness if he were. Beria obviously enjoyed conducting the occasional interrogation personally, but Himmler would have fainted dead away, as he did on his sole visit to a massacre. Ceauşescu gave his dreadful son a torture chamber for his birthday. No doubt daddy knew what went on in it: but again, regular attendance at the frightfulness he encouraged is not known to have been among his pleasures. The same was true for General Pinochet. His critics, still trying to convince us that he was a homicidal mediocrity despite all the evidence that he was nothing else, write about him as if the dogs that were trained to rape women were trained by him. He probably never saw it happen. He didn’t need to. All he had to know was that the state commanded unspeakable powers of savagery.

In his huge and definitive political biography of Juan Peron, the esteemed Argentinian 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. First, Luna chillingly describes the actuality that festered at the base of the Peronist dictatorship. (The description starts on page 253, but a preliminary stiff drink is recommended.) Luna takes the view, which to us might seem quixotic, that the torturers were just doing their job. He calls them tecnicos, and certainly they were technicians of the picana, the electric torture which was invented in Argentina, and was therefore one of Peron’s gifts to the world, along with a good role for a soprano in Evita. Luna 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?” We are at liberty, I think, to marvel at the detachment of an historian who could confine to a few pages out of a thousand a personal experience that might have left him incapable of being detached about anything ever again.

Luna had been a victim of torture sanctioned by the state: a legitimization that adds outrage to injury. Weber actually defined the state as the entity holding a monopoly of legalized violence. But the terror state goes beyond that. The terror state aims to command a monopoly of legalized horror. As long as its hierarchs can safely assume to be in charge of that horror, they don’t have to see it to enjoy its fruits. Saddam Hussein was regarded as a madman even among other tyrants for his habit of specifying the details of punishment. Hitler seldom did. He just let the sadists get on with it, and he might even have been proud of being so powerful that he didn’t need to know the minutiae of what was going on in the Gestapo cellars in the major cities, and in the political block at Dachau. It is doubtful if, in his mind, he ever reached the point where he enjoyed the idea of inflicting pain for its own sake. Mad enough to think himself sane, he was under the impression that the sufferings he sanctioned had their justification as condign punishment. In 1937, when a child molester was convicted in the courts and given a long sentence, Hitler personally intervened to ensure that the prisoner would be tortured first, but that was a rare instance. It is known that he watched films of the July conspirators strangling in their wire nooses, but he seems to have taken his satisfaction from the spectacle of a just punishment being inflicted, rather than from the hideous pictures of a slow agony. To do his colleagues what little credit they have coming, Hitler watched the films pretty much on his own. It was Goebbels’s idea to have the conspirators hanged, but for once he didn’t turn up for a screening.

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. The Japanese army of the twentieth century was based on the Prussian model of strict discipline. Combined with the traditional violent streak of the samurai culture, in which an accredited warrior could decapitate any peasant who failed to bow at the correct angle, the bushido version of Prussian browbeating produced a fatal cocktail. Among the enlisted men, every rank could hit the rank below in the face until finally the wave of intimidation got as far as the lowest rank, whose members had nobody to hit except prisoners and civilians. The unsurprising result was a daily nightmare for POWs and for those Asian people that the Japanese imperial forces had supposedly come to liberate from European colonialism. The details are still hard to credit, and people of a squeamish temperament would prefer to believe that reports were exaggerated. Such a belief continues to be encouraged by the Japanese educational system. Japan’s post-war ministry of education was eager to soft-pedal the bad memories, mainly because it was a bolt hole for high-level perpetrators who had escaped being prosecuted. As a sinecure for the judiciously silent, the education ministry made sure that the next generation learned nothing from the school textbooks about what the army had done to disgrace itself. German school textbooks were already talking about the Nazi disaster by the mid-1950s. In the late 1980s, when I was spending a lot of time in Japan, the one and only author of a school history text who had attempted to mention the 1937 Nanking incident (in which something like a quarter of a million innocent people perished, many of them in hideous circumstances) was in peril of his life, and his book had still not left the warehouse. The situation is better today—mainly because NHK, the Japanese public-service television network, was brave enough to grasp the nettle—but the Japanese right wing still regards any mention of those old embarrassments as a provocation.

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 which 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 café 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 Cale a boca, jornalista! (Shut Your Mouth, Journalist!) (São Paulo, 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’s 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 Brasil: Nunca mais—Brazil: Never Again—published in São Paulo in 1985. By the time I bought my copy in 1988, it had gone through twenty 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, non-acting measure of bland benevolence: the same set of teeth, but they would be bared only to charitable effect. 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.

If, as seems likely, Pol Pot would never have come to power had not the U.S. Air Force first devastated Cambodia, then Henry Kissinger has a lot more than the disaster in Chile on his conscience. He has the disaster of the Khmer Rouge torture camps. 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. “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all,” said Security Regulation No. 6. The other regulations were no less terrifying, but there is something unique about Regulation 6, as if Swift and Kafka had both had their brains picked by a lethal child. There was a variation on the same instruction: “During the bastinado or the electrification you must not cry loudly.” But “not cry loudly” leaves room to cry softly, whereas “not cry at all” has the perfect lack of logic which reminds us, as we will always need reminding, that the Khmer Rouge torturers were not an example of a system of thought decayed into a perversion: they were pre-thought, and thus had a kind of childish purity.

Another Khmer Rouge regulation is almost charming: “Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.” The charm is in the waste of effort: the prisoner can give only one answer, so why didn’t the interrogator just write it down and sign it with a mark, especially since the prisoner’s eventual signature wouldn’t make much sense anyway? 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 afterwards, including photographs taken at every stage of the torment. Whether the Khmer Rouge torturers were psychopaths is a question for psychiatrists. The question for general students of human affairs is about the reputation of the Khmer Rouge in the West. Their own mad frenzy did not last long, but while it lasted there were sophisticated Western apologists who made some marvellous pretexts this and that. It was notable, however, that in this one case the apologetics had no staying power. One of the first Western publications to blow the whistle was The New York Review of Books, which could normally be depended on to suspend judgement as long as possible in such cases. Access made the difference. If we had known as little about what went on in the Killing Fields as we knew about, say, North Korea, the example of Pol Pot’s Cambodia (“Hands off democratic Kampuchea!”) might have rallied the West’s faithful dupes a lot longer. But the story got out straight away, mainly because a pack of adolescents were in charge. Adults are cannier.

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.