Set in an Orwellian dystopia, Brazil (1985) tells the story of Sam Lowry, a clerk in the Ministry of Information who, on account of his disobedience, finds himself a fugitive of the law. He is part of a bureaucratic totalitarian regime where paperwork is more important than people, where blind conformity is expected and civil liberty is suppressed, and where technology is weaponised for mass surveillance and torture. The film is a cautionary tale about the excesses of bureaucracy. As a work of political satire, it asks searching questions about the effects of a hyper-bureaucratised society on those who have to live within it and why they should be complicit in its reproduction.
Like any bureaucracy, the Ministry of Information rests on a clear hierarchy, an extensive division of labour, and a rigid adherence to rules and regulations. Operations are routinised through forms, receipts, stamps, standard procedures, and micromanagement, allowing the office to run like clockwork.
This emphasis on instrumental-rational action affords a level of efficiency modern society cannot do without, but the costs imposed are morally problematic. First, when workers are trained to respond mechanically to the dictates of a job, they often fail to recognise that some official policies are wrong or may be causing harm—for example, the arrest, incarceration, and torture of innocent civilians. Second, when workers see themselves as obeying rules or an impersonal order, as is the case under rational-legal authority, they are able to deny responsibility for their actions—for example, the buck-passing over the wrongful death of Archibald Buttle. This is one danger of bureaucracy as depicted in Brazil: there is no accountability and no incentive to restructure a deeply flawed system.
There are also costs to individual psychology and freedom. Indeed, the characters of Brazil seem to be undergoing various stages of insanity. Sam fantasises about himself as a winged warrior saving a damsel in distress, Kurtzmann is a jittery bundle of nerves, and Spoor and Dowser tremble at the very mention of “27B/C”.
Even the physical environment is stifling.
With its industrial pollution and menacing grey buildings, the city reeks of death, decay, and claustrophobia. At the same time, ugly air ducts snake through every room, disfiguring intimate personal spaces and precluding any possibility of privacy, a striking metaphor for the omnipresence of the bureaucratic state.
Weber would call this an iron cage—individuals are reduced to lifeless cogs, deprived of their creativity, autonomy and agency. Foucault would call this a panopticon—under its gaze, individuals become docile as they learn to self-police and self-regulate. In both these cases, bureaucratisation leads to dehumanisation, ironically generating the very irrationalities it was designed to eliminate.
In the world of Brazil, therefore, bureaucracy is not so much a means to an end as an end in itself: a ruling class in its own right. What is the source of its power? It is knowledge: knowledge about a given population, knowledge in the form of surveillance and discourse, knowledge as “regimes of truth”.
These are not mere abstractions; they are everyday instruments of oppression and violence.
They enable the Ministry of Information to hunt down its targets with ease and efficiency. In this regard, Weber is correct in saying that power is a dependent variable with multiple bases and manifestations. Particularly in the context of professionalisation and technological advancement, power should be conceptualised in non-economic terms as well.
By the same taken, the rational-legal authority underpinning bureaucracy cannot be equated with democracy. On the contrary, it tends towards technocracy, as decision-making processes come to be controlled by a narrow circle of experts. This is because the more a bureaucracy increases in size and complexity, the more its specialised parts become unknowable to the vast majority of citizens, and the more ordinary voices are ignored or marginalised. Not only does this breed intellectual arrogance and elitism, but it also institutionalises groupthink. Moreover, when power interests solidify, technocratic management becomes an excuse for paternalistic—even totalitarian—government. This is the essence of the bureaucratic state. Participatory decision-making is restricted in the name of rationality and public consultation is rejected in the name of efficiency. In this context, a politics of alienation and disillusionment may take root, triggering a legitimacy deficit.
Brazil is a satire on bureaucracy—its dehumanising effects, its totalitarian tendencies, its irrational excesses. With automation, technocratisation, mass surveillance, and corporate power growing around the world, the film is all too timely. And perhaps this why the movie hits so close to home: it is the future of our own society, the logical outcome of our worst and most absurd impulses.
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York, Routledge, 2005 ).
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
Header Image: Screengrab from Brazil
Feature Image: Product Image by Vintage Movie Posters
About the Author
Jonathan is a third-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Sociology. He is interested in literature, politics, language, time and memory. He longer lives in Tembusu, but he continues to contribute to Treehouse from time to time.