The Century of the Self

Produced in 2002 ‘The Century of the Self’ is a documentary series made by Adam Curtis. Curtis is a British filmmaker who in his work explores the society, the instruments of power and how they affect one another through the sociology, philosophy and political history. He describes himself as a journalist who shows his work through the medium of film.

The first part of the series starts by introducing Freud’s theory that hidden inside the minds of all human beings are primitive, sexual and aggressive forces. Throughout the documentary we see ‘how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy’ (Curtis, 2002). We set of for our journey with Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays who was the first one to take Freuds ideas about human beings and used them to manipulate the masses. He contributed to the most significant shift in the modern world from the needs to desires.

Whole series are very well produced and extremely thought through. Being presented as documentary films they are supported with an extensive research, impressive amount of archive footage and an appealing narrative. The only aspect that does not fit to the definition of a documentary is an objectivity of Adam Curtis’ series. It does not take long for us to decide on which side he stands for as the title of the series is shown in the second minute of the first part accompanied by a scary sound.

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The music in the series is carefully chosen. Each part that we are supposed to depict as disturbing is supported with an appropriate sound, same goes to the joyful and terrifying parts. To serve this purpose Curtis decided to choose instrumental music. During the significant moments we can hear almost a complete orchestra. Between these moments that are easy to spot and clear about how they have been presented Curtis gently prepares us for them. One of the simple tricks he applies is the use of gentle sounds of a piano that plays in the background setting us unwillingly in a certain mood. Like many before him Adam Curtis has successfully guided our message perception through music.

The most important role in the series is the role of the narrator who introduces us to it and directs us through four episodes. Who else would be more fitted for the task than Adam Curtis himself? His voice fits perfectly into semi-documentary style of the series. Stating facts, introducing the ideas and gently interpreting them in a way we don’t see as imposing Curtis has successfully completed the task.

Another technique Curtis used in his series was a way he worked with a camera. The power of the zoom in is something we all know, we have seen it in cartoons from our childhood as well as in horror movies that haunts us till this day. It is that sour close up on a villain. Curtis uses it to expose the dark aspect of people not necessarily seen as such.

Using these techniques Curtis has created an extremely interesting series. The way he was able to combine all of the aspects of the subject and set it in an engaging narrative makes him a true expert in his profession. After watching the series for the third time in my life I still find them very appealing. However I would argue against classifying it as a documentary. The subjective narrative of the series categorises it more as an essay.

Written and produced by
Adam Curtis
Production Managers
Kerry McKinnell
Diana Focke
Executive producer
Stephen Lambert
Jody Davidson
Austin Wyers
David Barker
William Sowerby
Archive research
James Smith



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