Assessing Terry Gilliam.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 20 2007 2:52 PM

Terry Gilliam

What Braziltells us about torture today.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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