Whenever there are concerns voiced about excessive bureaucratization and the consequences of regulatory automation, references to the dystopian movie “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam quickly emerge. This classic & exemplary film, which got published in 1985, portrays the craziness & contradictions that accompany these developments in human systems of order.
Inspired by George Orwell’s “1984”, the film goes its own way in terms of depicting totalitarian visions of the future. Terry Gilliam himself summed it up quite well, explaining his motivation for creating Brazil as his way of showing the “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible”.1
The retro-futuristic visual elements of the film had and still have considerable influence on the development of urban dystopian media works. In many ways, Brazil joins a roster of significant SciFi creations, such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” from 1927 and “Blade Runner”, which also originated in the 1980s.
In the context of this article, besides the plot and settings, we consider the significant interactions between the architecture and society depicted in the film. The already mentioned significant influence of Brazil on later media works, with a dystopian reference, is also in the focus of this analysis.
Plot & visual settings in Brazil
The plot of Brazil covers the career of a low-ranking bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce). He gets caught between the fronts of an almost omnipresent centralist government, the struggle for freedom of an ominous rebel faction and his own, sometimes extremely bizarre, inner daydreams.
Lowry’s turbulent journey gets triggered by a, supposedly, impossible mistake in the system: An innocent and uninvolved family is plunged into misfortune, all due to a small but quite consequential system error. Sam’s job is to make up for this mistake. A task, which turns out to be an equally impossible endeavor. Through the powerful, omnipresent and at the same time surprisingly incompetent, bureaucratic regime he continues to run into more and more difficulties. His unstable character and the recurrent hallucinations and dreams prove to be just as unhelpful.
The depiction of Lowry’s balancing acts between totalitarian reality and liberating insanity is also underlined by the equally Janus-faced urban environments: Genre-typical dark urban landscapes, industrial settings and menacing monumental buildings of the regime contrast with even smaller living spaces like restaurants and intimate spaces of retreats like private apartments. These seem almost abstract, definitely overloaded and contradictory at the same time.
Equally contradictory is the all-encompassing, overarching and frighteningly error-prone bureaucracy in Brazil: The system kills its human elements without hesitation. Consciously as well as unconsciously and inwardly as well as outwardly. The only escape seems to be the mental road to insanity.
Interactions between architecture & society in Brazil
The urban environment in Brazil is, similar to the cityscape of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, determined by narrow and sometimes surreal high-rise canyons. However, in contrast to Fritz Lang’s work from 1927, the atmosphere is characterized by a distinctly bleak combination of levels of brightness – and levels of society.
In this fictional world, the upper and lower cities and their respective inhabitants are the same: The vertical separation of society is offset indirectly by the totalitarian approach of an all-encompassing bureaucracy and the dominance of the system over its human components.
One of the key locations of the bureaucratic regime, which gets portrayed in Brazil, is the State Surveillance Authority, which is the headquarter of one of the most socially influential and dreaded institutions. The building is a monumental structure with high walls, whose step- and cuboid-shaped levels are characterized by side-mounted towers reaching to the ground with deep horizontal indentations.
This appearance is reminiscent of both the Babylonian and the Kassite architecture and thus relates to the myth of the Tower of Babel. At the same time, due to the design and shape of the cubes, this also includes elements of rather sober administrative building styles of bureaucratic totalitarian regimes in the present and past of our own reality.
An almost obsessive connection between the movie and the drain/heating pipes is just as abstruse as the constant display of colorful decoration elements, lights, posters as contrast and all sorts of more or less functioning everyday technologies in between. This leads to a confusing mix of, for example, Art Deco style elements of the early 20th century with newer technologies – perceived as SciFi at the time of production of the film.
Everything seems to be in decline and patchwork seems to be part of the everyday life. Nevertheless, the masses ignore this and prefer to worry about irrelevant details rather than to question unnecessarily complex procedural processes or even the system itself.
Influence of Brazil on Dystopian media works & subcultures
Since its release in the mid-1980s, Brazil has influenced numerous media works. This influence is mainly determined by the visual elements of dystopian aspects shown in the film. Both, the presented architecture as well as the retro-futuristic technological facets of an invariably bureaucratized form of society, inspired filmmakers and media professionals of all kinds. The core elements of the film were perceived as incentives and got used in many forms.
One of the earliest works inspired by Brazil’s style was Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989). This may also be due to the fact that the same cinematographer, Roger Pratt, collaborated on both films and played out his influence.2
Also “Dark City” (1998), made by Alex Proyas, used the cinematographic styles of Brazil: Angles and camera shots of the abstract and surreal-looking urban high-rise cityscapes are reminiscent of the corresponding aspects in Terry Gilliam’s classic.3 The sometimes anachronistic mixture and shifts of different architectural styles, the clothing styles of the people and antagonists, are also reminiscent of the wild mix of styles and technologies in Brazil.
The film’s motifs have also found their way into the 21st century in the form of the monumental buildings in “Equilibrium” (2002): they also exude the same authoritarian-bureaucratic charm of the government buildings in Brazil and line up with the colossal buildings in the Metropolis movie almost a hundred years earlier, as well as with the ancient sources of inspiration from Babylonian myths and legends. You can also see a tribute to Brazil in “Children of Men” (2006) – the explosive intro scene of the film by Alfonso Cuarón is almost identical to a movie sequences in Terry Gilliam’s work.
The influence of Brazil is still felt in the present. Scenes in Netflix’s “Altered Carbon” (2018) were influenced by other great genre classics such as “Blade Runner” but the strong use of asynchronous, improvised technologies and the visual appearance of some cityscapes are still reminiscent of Brazil.
There are also influences in alternative and newer forms of media: The videogame “We Happy Few”, whose storyline takes place in an alternative Great Britain of the 1960s, makes use of Gilliam’s totalitarian vision, both visually and with regard to the sarcastic, gloomy humor.4
The “steampunk” subculture5, which has been flourishing since the beginning of the new millennium, has also been inspired by some of the stylistic elements of Brazil: In particular the integration of new technologies in the frame(work)s & forms of old machinery demonstrates the cultural influence of Brazil, which extends to the present day.
More than 30 years have passed since the release of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and yet, the film seems to be more relevant than ever: The story is reminiscent of data scandals of the recent past and, for example, what kind of risks false database entries might bring for individuals – both theoretically and practically. The influence of Brazil on media works of all kinds underlines both, the timeliness and the relevance of the aspects presented in the film and underlines the timeless strength of its visual facets.
Almost all people alive today are also exposed to living conditions in which one must come to terms with an often momentous mix of more or less functioning and rapidly developing technologies, as well as the ever-present remnants of complacent and aged socio-political systems. At the same time, many believe that the almost uninterrupted communication storm via social and traditional media channels may equate to a continuous information bombardment of the individual. This may also carry the risk, that it will be even more difficult to prioritize important issues on a social level in the future.
The cinematic example of the withdrawal of the figure of Sam Lowry, deep into insane daydreams of a better world, seems particularly disturbing from this point of view – the parallels with contemporary developments of escapism seem too great to ignore. The attempt to live a more conscious life, away from pure “flight from the world” may be a possible goal, which could grow from such insights.
- Media Notes of Terry Gilliam, in Jack Matthew: “Dreaming Brazil”. Criterion Collection, 1996.
- Roger Pratt’s Profile on IMDB and Article on Wikipedia
- Adrienne Hicks: “Critical Review and Bibliography – Dark City (1998)”. Murdoch University, Murdoch, Australia, 2001. Backup on WebArchive.
- Ben Davis: “We Happy Few is a roller coaster of creepy vibes and eccentric humor”. Article on Destructoid, April 2016.
- The “Steampunk” subculture gets classified as a subcategory of the “cyberpunk” genre quite often.