The Living Dead

On 01/22/2011, in Politics & Law, Psychology, by wouter

The Livng Dead, Three Films About the Power of the Past

was the second major documentary series made by British film-maker Adam Curtis. This series investigated the way that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used by politicians and others. It was transmitted on BBC Two in the spring of 1995.


Summary of episodes:

1. On the Desperate Edge of Now (30 May 1995)

The title of this episode comes from a veteran’s description of the uncertainty of survival in combat. It examined how the various national memories of the Second World War were effectively rewritten and manipulated in the Cold War period.

For Germany, this began at the Nuremberg Trials, where attempts were made to prevent the Nazis in the dock, principally Hermann Göring, from offering any rational argument for what they had done. Subsequently, however, bringing lower-ranking Nazis to justice was effectively forgotten about in the interests of maintaining West Germany as an ally in the Cold War.

For the Allies, faced with a new enemy in the Soviet Union, there was a need to portray World War II as a crusade of pure good against pure evil, even if this meant denying the memories of the Allied soldiers who had actually done the fighting, and knew it to have been far more ambiguous. A number of American veterans related how years later they found themselves plagued with the previously-suppressed memories of the brutal things they had seen and done.

2. You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough (6 June 1995)

The title of this episode comes from a paranoid schizophrenic seen in archive film in the programme, who believed her neighbours were using her as a source of amusement by denying her any privacy, like a goldfish in a bowl.

In this episode, the history of brainwashing and mind control was examined. The angle pursued by Curtis was the way in which psychiatry historically pursued tabula rasa theories of the mind, initially in order to set people free from traumatic memories and then later as a potential instrument of social control. The work of Ewen Cameron was surveyed, with particular reference to the Cold War theories of communist brainwashing and the search for hypnoprogammed assassins.

This programme’s thesis was that a search for control over the past, via medical intervention, had to be abandoned and that, in modern times, control over the past is more effectively exercised by the manipulation of history. Some footage from this episode, an interview with one of Cameron’s victims, was later re-used by Curtis inThe Century of the Self series.

3. The Attic (13 June 1995)

In this episode, the Imperial aspirations of Margaret Thatcher were examined. The way in which Mrs Thatcher used public relations in an attempt to emulate Winston Churchill in harking back to Britain’s “glorious past” to fulfil a political or national end.

The title is a reference to the attic flat at the top of 10 Downing Street, which was created during Thatcher’s period refurbishment of the house, which did away with the Prime Minister’s previous living quarters on lower floors. Scenes from the psychological horror film The Innocents (1961) (a film adaptation of Henry James‘s novella The Turn of the Screw) are intercut with scenes from Thatcher’s reign.


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