The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past is the second major BBC television documentary series by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. It was originally broadcast on BBC Two in 1995. In the series, Curtis examines the different ways that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used and manipulated by politicians and others.
On the Desperate Edge of Now
This episode, broadcast on 30 May 1995, examines how the various national ideals and memories of the Second World War were effectively buried, rewritten and manipulated in the Cold War era, only to violently resurface later with events such as the protests of 1968, the emergence of the Red Army Faction, and the turmoil of the Yugoslav Wars. For Germany, this process began at the Nuremberg Trials, where the use of the film The Nazi Plan was intended to reveal the criminality of the Nazi state, and attempts were made to prevent defendants—principally Hermann Göring—from providing any rational or contextualized argument for their actions during the war. Subsequently, however, bringing lower-ranking Nazis to justice was all but forgotten in the interests of maintaining West Germany as an important new 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 creating a mismatch by denying the memories of the individual soldiers who had actually done the fighting and knew it to have been far more ambiguous. The title of this episode comes from a veteran’s description of the uncertainty of survival in combat. A number of American veterans related how, years later, they found themselves plagued with previously-suppressed memories of the brutal things they had seen and done.
You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough
In this episode, broadcast on 6 June 1995, the early history of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) use of brainwashing and mind control is examined. Its thesis is 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. It concludes that despite successful attempts to remove memories of the past, doing so often left an emotional void that was hard to refill. The angle pursued by Curtis is the way in which psychiatry historically pursued tabula rasa theories of the mind, initially to set people free from traumatic memories and then later as a potential instrument of societal control. The work of Ewen Cameron is surveyed, with particular reference to the early medical use of electroconvulsive therapy, Cold War theories of communist brainwashing, and the search for hypnoprogammed sleeper agents and assassins. After the intelligence agency failures over the Kennedy assassination and the failed assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, this work was later abandoned in favour of computerised memory and intelligence research, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), created in 1958. The title of this episode comes from a paranoid schizophrenic seen in archive film in the programme, who believed that her neighbours were using her as a source of amusement by denying her any privacy—like a goldfish in a bowl. Some footage from this episode, an interview with one of Cameron’s victims, was later reused by Curtis in ‘The Century of the Self’.
In this episode, broadcast on 13 June 1995, the national aspirations of Margaret Thatcher are examined, particularly the way in which she used public sentiment in an attempt to capture the national spirit embodied in the famous speeches and writings of the wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. Curtis argues that by harking back, or summoning the spirit of Britain’s “glorious past”, to fulfil short-term political or national ends, the process backfired in the long-run, trapping the invoker in the societal maladies of the present day. The example provided is the wartime levels of patriotism invoked in the Falklands War crisis, in which Thatcher’s rugged determination matched national sentiment, only to dissipate a few years later with events such as the poll tax riots, which contributed to her resignation. The title is a reference to the attic flat at the top of 10 Downing Street created during Thatcher’s refurbishment of the house which did away with the prime minister’s old living quarters on the lower floors, replacing them with 18th-century boardrooms. Scenes from Thatcher’s premiership are intercut with scenes from the psychological horror film The Innocents (1961), a film adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw.