Berlinale Blog – 1984: Future Imperfect, Present Tense?

     |    Monday, der 20. February 2017

By Andrew Horn

When I first looked at the program for this year’s Retro, entitled “Future Imperfect”, it looked to me like it had a real dystopian bent. Movies about alien invasion, nuclear war, mind control, and totalitarianism. Programming of course gets decided way in advance, but today the list of themes sound eerily like Donald Trump’s recent inauguration speech.

So for me, the most emblematic of their choices was Michael Anderson’s “1984″ (US/UK 1956), because by a prescient and ironic twist of fate, it seemed to anticipate the Trump presidency. Not necessarily for the Big Brother as ruler aspect, though who knows what might be in store, but rather for the secondary themes, most notably the concepts of Newspeak and Doublethink which we see now in “alternative facts” and the administration’s insistant denial of statements and events that can be easily called up on YouTube. We also have the extremes of class divide and of course the use of never-ending war and the general exploitation of the “us vs them” mentality to gin up loyalist fervor. But while we don’t yet have a Big Brother figure, “1984″ does, in it’s primitive way presage the manipulative power of TV and the media.

The movie, as movies do, has to deal with all the concepts and social criticism in the story within the time frame of an evening’s entertainment, and highlight the love story aspect for the sake of audience identification – and so of course a lot of the power of the book gets lost. If you read criticisms of the movie, they usually take this tone but I think for me viewing the movie in today’s political environment – and not having read the book in a very long time – I’m looking at it differently.

I’m looking at the crowds of people gathered together chanting “Hate, hate, hate!” which calls to mind campaign rallies of people chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump!”, as well as the calling out in unison of “Kill him, kill him” to “Lock her up, lock her up!” Outbursts of “I love you Big Brother” make me think of interviews with evangelical Trump supporters proclaiming that he was chosen by God. The constant pounding in the film of the “2+2=5″ just reminds me of our daily doses of fake news and the simultaneous instance that it’s the real news that’s the lie. I found it particularly effecting that in the course of the movie, the slogan “Ignorance Is Truth” ultimately becomes “Ignorance Is Strength”.

Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith and Jan Sterling as Julia

While critical audiences at the time of the film’s release may have found the love story a cheesy pandering, in my viewing it’s a welcome relief. Plus it comes off as human and relatable that the actors, Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling don’t have the typical movie star looks.

Interestingly, as a US/UK co-production, this film was made with two endings, one for each market. In the UK the protagonist, Winston Smith resists Big Brother and dies in the process. In the American version, which is the one that was shown in the festival, the two lovers are brainwashed and both love and hope are lost.

“1984″, like the book it was based on, was made as a warning, though for a very different concept of the future than how we are experiencing it. Unlike that story, we are continuing to resist. To quote James Baldwin from “I Am Not Your Negro”, “I am not a pessimist, because I am alive”. So far we are all still alive, so let’s hope our world will come out better than it did for poor Winston Smith – in either ending.

Addendum – in the movie, Big Brother himself never actually appears but is represented by various scary surrogates, looking straight at the camera – at YOU. For your amusement, here’s how it works in our world: