Criterion Corner: 1984 and the Importance of Staying Human in the Face of Oppression

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

George Orwell's novel 1984 is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous works of dystopian fiction and even people who haven't read it are at least familiar with the term "Big Brother" that was coined from it. The book takes place in 1984 which was far in the future from 1949 when the book was written. Great Britain has become part of a totalitarian superstate known as Oceania. All individualism has been stamped out and the omnipresent party leader "Big Brother" stares ominously from every television and is plastered over every surface. 

"Thoughtcrime is death. Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death. I have committed even before setting pen to paper the essential crime that contains all others unto itself."

The main protagonist, Winston Smith (John Hurt), works in the Ministry of Truth, and it is his job to rewrite old newspapers and press releases to fit whatever narrative the party is currently espousing. Smith is restless, however, and his mind wanders to places it shouldn't--he thinks of sex, food, the outdoors, and craves the most damned emotion of them all: love. 

The world of 1984 is drab and dank, it feels as if everything smells like mildew and dust. One could quip that this is just England on a normal day, and it doesn't hurt that the movie was mostly filmed in a derelict power station in London. Roger Deakins provided the cinematography and his scene composition and color grading add immensely to the cold and oppressive aesthetic of the film. Rarely are there shots that don't have imagery of Big Brother glowering in the background, though there is the occasional jaunt to rolling green hills and forests that feel like a breath of fresh air.

Smith eventually meets a young woman named Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and they begin a covert love affair. Julia is an interesting character herself, as she is depicted as a free woman who is not ashamed of her brazen sexuality. Though her attitude is especially looked down upon in the fictional world of the film, even in present day women who own their sexuality are frowned upon. Julia isn't only used as a way for Smith to find himself, which is refreshing, they both have equal agency and motivations for doing the things they do. 

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

In the third act of of 1984, Smith has been captured by the party, but instead of being immediately put to death it is decided that his mind will be broken first. The party doesn't want him just to die, they want him to believe in their ideology first, to destroy any vestige of independent thought before snuffing his existence. Earlier in the film, after a session of lovemaking, Smith looks out of a window and hears a old wash woman singing one of the party tunes. She has taken a song that is composed by machines, and with her lilting voice, has made it beautiful. What was inhuman has now become human. In these long torture sessions Smith tries to hold on to whatever small part of his humanity he can.

Eventually, after being confronted with his worst fear in Room 101, Smith renounces his love for Julia and professes his adoration for the party and Big Brother. He is returned to his sector supposedly reformed. On the surface this seems like an unhappy ending because in the face of adversity Smith seemed to fold, and his actions changed nothing. That is not so, because Smith kept the most important thing of all: his feelings. No matter how harsh the conditions, if enough people retain their self-worth eventually they will rise up to overthrow their oppressors.

1984 feels prescient today with words like "fake news" feeling eerily similar to "doublethink" and "newspeak" in which words are removed and changed at whim and falsities are presented as truths. With the invention of photoshop and the ability to create a false reality on the internet, perhaps 1984 isn't so much in the past, but in our future. 

--Michelle Kisner