“I’m quite normal.”
“Are you normal?” I reply.
“Yes, I am!”
The filmmaker Adam Curtis, dressed in a large vinyl coat, is sitting in a low-lit canteen over weak tea in a paper cup. One of the lights is out and another is flickering. We’re among academics, students, and other denizens of the British intelligentsia as they hunch over badly cooked baked potatoes and tuna sandwiches in the cloisters of the confidently modernist 1970s British Library. Outside, it’s raining, and, bit by bit, the country is falling apart.
We’re here, ostensibly, to talk about Curtis’s new BBC series on the fall of communism and democracy in Russia:TraumaZone 1985-1999. But the conservation, which became rather wide-ranging, returns inescapably to the parallels between the crisis in Russia and the contemporary liberal individualist “West”—a comparison Curtis is only somewhat comfortable making.
Curtis is a prolific journalist and filmmaker popularly known for his grand synthetic combinations of archival footage, cultural analysis, storytelling, and use of soundtracks composed of artists like Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails and Burial to illustrate images of dancing couples and news clips of 20th-century wars. His work, immediately recognizable and shareable, spawns countless parodies and memes across social media. While his documentaries capture the strange reality of the world, increasingly, we also notice how the world comes to look more and more like an Adam Curtis movie. Take, for instance, the numerous fan edits of the Taliban riding bumper cars after the fall of Kabul in the summer of 2021.
Curtis aims to capture certain underlying feelings about the world—something which can frustrate those used to more traditional forms of reporting or academic history. Arguably, criticism of his narrative leaps and non-linear logic make a category error. Like the creative non-fiction of Dostoevsky, Emile Zola, Hunter S. Thompson or Joan Didion, Curtis’s work reveals how it feels to live through and within history. His films are not an attempt to analyze life from the outside. Instead, they’re novelistic creations that want to tell stories about how we collectively feel.
In part, this emotional resonance occurs because Curtis has struck a nerve with a generation oversaturated by, and suspicious of, manufactured political narratives, while also being locked out of the corridors power. Growing up in Northern Kent, Curtis would have been able to see the construction of the gleaming skyline of the financial district of Canary Wharf from Dartford Bridge. Noticeably, power, the throughline of Curtis’s work, is often represented by images of sparkling skyscrapers—ominous and untouchable structures set against the night sky to rumbling ambient scores.
Despite his patrician accent, Curtis is not from the elite world of the skyscrapers. He is, instead, both an insider and an outsider. The son of a cinematographer who produced films for the British government, Curtis grew up surrounded by a family of working-class socialists—although he now describes himself, somewhat obliquely, as “progressive” while others have claimed to perceive strains of Straussian neoconservative idealism in his work. Yet the process of political labeling may only obscure the point that Curtis’s work is both about and of our time—including its chaotic contradictions.
After attending Oxford and dropping out of graduate studies, Curtis went into journalism: namely, the BBC’s light entertainment and consumer affairs program That’s Life!, where he made films about talking dogs. He moved into mainstream current affairs programming as a producer of documentaries like The Mayor of Montemilone (1984), a report on an embattled Italian communist politician in small-town mezzogiorno. While not explicitly Curtisean, documentaries like The Mayor of Montemilon already show signs of the style that he would develop: marginal characters, overlooked developments, the unexpected and the uncanny.
Years later, Curtis made his name among a younger generation with Hypernormalisation (2016) a 166-minute film, released in the year of Brexit and Trump, that argued that no one believed in the systems they were living under anymore; instead, everyone, politicians and citizens alike, had busied themselves keeping up a pretense of belief. The thesis of the film came from Sovietologist Alexei Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006), which coined the term “hypernormalisation” to describe the paradoxes of the late Soviet system.
Hypernormalisation marked Curtis’s abiding fascination with the late Soviet Union and Russia. The country features in many of his films: he explores eccentric and fringe figures like Putin’s former political advisor and secret novelist Vladislav Surkov in Oh Dearism (2009) and poet, novelist, and National Bolshevik Eduard Limonov in Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2020). For Curtis, historical and material trends always contend with power: the odd, compelling, repulsive, and parasitic ideas of these outsider-insiders. In this sense, Curtis is as much a historian of ideas, in the tradition of Hegel and Weber, as he is an analyst of the material shifts we see all around us.
While Curtis’s former work has included the Soviet Union and Russia as aspects of a larger whole, TraumaZone 1985-1999, conceived and written before Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, takes on the history and personal stories of dozens of Soviet citizens as communism, and then democracy, fell apart during the 1980s and 1990s. It is a series that presents a society in crisis—a society that Curtis insists is fundamentally different from ours. And yet, at times, the footage feels uncannily familiar. Perhaps this is because TraumaZone offers us a window onto the other side of the End of History. Instead of relief, or, at worst, the unmooring of all hope for an alternative, we witness a process of privatization and looting, diminished trust, apathy, vast inequality, and the spectacle of televised political theater, which skims across the surface of our lives while changing nothing. At its heart, TraumaZone is an unheeded warning from the past about the future.
TraumaZone, 1985-1999 is now available on BBC iPlayer and other streaming services.
[Ed. note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Samuel McIlhagga: Your father was a cinematographer and photographer, and you studied human sciences, the study of social rather than natural systems, at Oxford. And I was just wondering how those things fit into your work, if they do. Do you have strong visual and intellectual influences?
Adam Curtis: I’ve always been influenced by journalism. I just think journalism is a really interesting, and at the present moment, underrated thing that has far more of a capacity to change things in the world. Especially more than the things that are somewhat overpraised at the moment, like art and culture.
I grew up in quite a political family. We ranged around, but overall, all of us were progressive. My granddad was a very powerful influence on me. He wasn’t a journalist, he was a builder. He thought the point of journalism was that the journalist would go and find out stuff that wasn’t good, or wasn’t working, or was cruel, or was exploitative, then would come back and use a mass newspaper or television or radio to tell people about that. Consequently, the people would then get angry, putting pressure on politicians to change things—that was a virtuous circle in which journalists played a compelling and noble role.
I think that’s broken at the moment. I still think it can be repaired. I think that people have retreated from that into this belief that, somehow, culture can be radical and can thus change the world. Looking at it from a journalistic point of view, I’ve never seen culture play that role, ever—in any society. Culture is absolutely brilliant at describing what’s going on in our society, in a very powerful and dramatic way. But it doesn’t really change the world. I’m more interested in being part of a system, to use your word, that actually functions in changing things for the better. I’m progressive.
SM: But that’s why your work is so distinct—because you’re telling stories that are unexpected or that are counter to narratives we’re fed. That’s where the abiding fascination with your work comes from for a lot of people.
AC: That’s also just basic journalism. Journalism is as much about being an “impresario” as it is being a good investigator. You find stories that surprise people. I don’t know about you, but most of the time, when I watch television or read a newspaper, I know pretty much what the film is going to be like within about two or three seconds because it’s so cliché. Whereas, I always thought, you want to surprise people. So, for instance, when I found out that Freud’s nephew claimed that he invented public relations, claiming that he used his uncle’s ideas, I did a series called the Century of the Self. I just thought, “Well, that’s really interesting. I didn’t know that!” And if I didn’t know that, because I’m quite normal, I’m sure lots of other people would be interested.
SM: Are you normal? You’re the only well-known TV journalist I know, currently in Britain, who would reference, say, Isaiah Berlin in a piece.
AC: I don’t know if that’s true.
AC: Well, I don’t know! The other thing, I think about journalism, is that you can explain anything, to anybody, clearly and simply, including Isaiah Berlin.
SM: I think that’s something particularly attractive about your films, the almost—and don’t take this the wrong way—storybook tone of the narration.
AC: It’s not patronizing. It’s simplified. You’re retaining the essence of it, but being absolutely clear, so anyone can understand it. I was the first generation in my family to go to university. I’m very conscious of the fact that there are a lot of people, especially those who are younger than me, who’ve been down that same route. As a result, they are intellectually confident and they’re socially unconfident. They’re quite often intimidated, as I was when I was growing up, by complex language, by pretentious ways of doing things. I try my hardest to actually be simple and clear. I got into a lot of trouble when I pointed out, at some talk that I gave, that if you actually look at Michel Foucault, all he said was one very straightforward and almost quite banal thing: that power doesn’t just work through what you think of as power; it works through all kinds of things. That’s all he said.
SM: You gave up a Ph.D to do journalism, which I think is interesting.
AC: I sensed that, what’s called the academy, was beginning to decay. And that there was no point in being there.
SM: You got there 20 years earlier than a lot of people. Why did you think that?
AC: Because they were so bitchy to each other. I’d been an undergraduate, and it was fun, because you were all in it together. Journalists are pretty ruthless bastards, but it’s all over within five minutes. Academics are the worst. You can have that on the record: they’re just so mean to each other. When people are mean to each other like that, it’s so obvious that they’re completely insecure. That meant they knew that their whole thing was declining.
SM: I see that dynamic a lot in what you might call legacy media now.
AC: It has the same feeling—it’s always when there’s a ship sinking. Whereas I decided to go the other way, which was to say, you can take quite complicated ideas and do them in very simple but also very entertaining ways. You can make jokes, you can put music in, and you can be very silly. Because I had just thrown up an academic career, I went in at the bottom end of trash television—which I loved. It taught me one thing: all you have to do is take everything you’ve learned in trash television and bolt it together with quite complicated, serious arguments.
SM: TraumaZone is a departure, in some ways, from the earlier stuff. For instance, there’s no narration, apart from textual prompts, and almost no soundtrack.
AC: There’s practically none. My rule was that the only music you could have had to be on the track of the original archive. There’s a couple of points, among the seven hours, where I cheated.
SM: It seems to be a formal departure, but at the same time, there’s this continuity. You use the word “trauma” in the title. There seems to be a concern about different psychological maladies or illnesses running throughout your work, from loneliness, to individualism, to lack of trust. Trauma is a very in-vogue word—it’s an interesting pick.
AC: I was trying to reclaim it. If you look at TikTok, it’s obsessed with trauma. But it’s all about the trauma of the individual. The title came about because a number of the Russians I talked to said the period was like a trauma for millions of people. I just wanted to reclaim [the word] by saying, “‘This is real trauma.” That’s why I called it TraumaZone. Because I was interested in what it was like to actually experience it. I wanted to find a way of showing people that experience, rather than doing an on-top thing. All the traditional documentaries about Russia go and interview Yeltsin and then have a finger-wagging narration. This is what the Russians call “Westsplaining.”
I think the title reflects truthfully what I was trying to show you: that for millions of people, it was an incredible trauma—not just to have communism collapse, but to have complete trust in democracy collapse eight years later.
SM: There’s this Western (one might say “neoliberal”) notion of trauma being a personal thing.
AC: We live in the age of individualism. You and I are, I’m sure, products of that process. We think of ourselves as free-thinking individuals—what we think and what we feel is the most important thing. When things are good, that’s wonderful. What we’ve seen over the years, ever since the crash of 2008, is that when things go wrong, if you think of yourself as a compact individual, not as a part of a collective, things can get very frightening.
You are suddenly seeing a glorious idea, individualism as confidence, as empowerment, beginning to decay and turn into individualism as personal trauma. Because there isn’t a language to recollectivize yourself. What individualism tends to do is allow people to find themselves feeling lost and isolated. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just it’s the language that’s available in the age of the individual.
You can’t blame the individuals for that. Who you can blame is people who started off things like the Occupy movement for failing to actually make a collective movement work. They will not face it.
SM: Different people place the rise of individualism in different historical periods. Some people point towards the hippies and the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s. Others go back to the 18th century and Romanticism.
AC: For the mass of people, I think it really came in the 1950s, and then the hippies gave it a language. Then from the mid-1980s onwards, up until 2008, the governments in the West, and elsewhere, allowed the financial system to lend everyone money, which they hadn’t up to this point. Everyone was allowed lots of money, and that allowed them to express their individualism and feel that they were free to express it. When that failed, it got very frightening, because they had lost any sense of wanting to be part of a collective.
To an extent it’s our fault because I’m sure you and I don’t really want to give ourselves up to a trade union, a church, all those collective organizations. What’s waiting to be done—and no one has done it yet—is to somehow create a new kind of collectivism. A collectivism which allows you and I to still feel that we are in charge of our own destiny. Which in the past, old collectivisms, hadn’t managed to achieve.
SM: Can you see any examples of new collectivism in action?
AC: I still think that the Internet has that capacity somewhere within it. But somewhere around 2000, it was taken by venture capital and turned into this very narrow version of the Internet, which is about advertising. What we may be seeing, at the moment, is it collapsing. At which point, maybe you can go back to what they call a new iteration. I’m still quite optimistic. Do you remember there was this utopian belief about the internet in the late 1990s?
SM: I was about 4 years old, so no, not personally. But I’ve read about it. Do you mean the whole Wired Magazine “digital nomad” ethos?
AC: No, I think Wired was part of the problem. Wired basically had an engineering view of the world—the engineering view of the world is all about feedback. Their idea was that true feedback would achieve a new kind of stability and that would be a new kind of democracy. Their vision was of a static world, where everyone would be given what they wanted through this mechanism. It’s a model of the market, without leaders. Personally, I think [the Internet] could be a dynamic force, which is not really the Wired way of thinking. But to do that, you would have to have an idea of what kind of society you want. And quite frankly, there isn’t an idea.
SM: Returning to TraumaZone—you started making the series before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What was your motivation?
AC: I was given this big archive. I had used bits in other films. I started TraumaZone as a side project. We have got thousands of hours of raw footage, shot primarily in the 1990s. Because the BBC is a public service organization, I thought I should find a way of putting it up online. I’m sort of like the BBC’s pet. What I was going to do is curate that archive as a public service. That started in September of last year. Then Putin invaded, and then suddenly the BBC radar came around to me.
They wanted me to bring it forward. I thought no, there’s a hysteria around the reporting on Ukraine. So I waited until autumn. By that time, what had happened was that the people’s interest came around as well, to what the hell was creating this, what was Putin about?
SM: Russia has become a symbol in the West, even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, used to explain, or excuse, the rise of populism. Both liberals and conservatives do it. Someone on the left might accuse both sides of having an inability to materially understand what’s going on…
AC: I would also accuse them of using the conspiracy theories as a smokescreen to disguise the fact that neither of them has any real idea of how to change things or how to get the people who voted for Donald Trump to vote for someone else. Which you probably could do, given that many of them voted for Barack Obama.
However, I think there is genuine sympathy for what the Ukrainian people are going through. I know there are some people on the left who see [the reaction to the invasion] as a way of resurrecting neoconservative visions, but I don’t think that’s very strong. I see that voice raising itself—but it’s not very strong.
I think there is a kind of war fever around, which is inevitable. But I think that the neoconservative attitude to the world took such a beating over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that it’s never going to come back in a big way. Also, their tone is so pompous that it’s inappropriate in relation to the Ukrainian people’s experiences.
SM: This question keeps coming up, and I didn’t want to ask it, because it seems clichéd, but it gnaws at you. You’re telling, simultaneously, the story of the fall of communism and then democracy in Russia. But also, there’s this weird looming parallel to now in the West. How strong is that analogy?
AC: Our society is completely different from Russian society, say, in the late 1980s. When I was making these films, I didn’t want to draw any parallels, because I thought the most important thing was to try and show people what Putin emerged from. To go back to what you were saying about the reactions to the war, at the moment, Putin is portrayed as this evil genius, ordering missiles to be shot. Yet he was born out of this strange experience of the 1990s. I want to show that. At the end of the 1980s, in Russia and the Soviet Union, everyone knew everyone else had this feeling that things weren’t working any longer. But they all knew that those in charge also had no idea. They also knew that a lot of those people in charge were looting the system. They said that no one had any idea of an alternative, so they just accepted it.
That is the strongest parallel with today. We also all feel that the system isn’t working. We also know that many of those in charge are, not illegally, looting the system. But if you look at things like quantitative easing, which happened over the last decade, you’ve seen a massive transfer of state money to assets owned by a very rich minority. Which you could construe—and it’s not illegal—as a kind of looting. A journalist I know in the U.K., a Russian journalist, did say to me, “Oh, it’s Moscow, 1988. You do realize that, don’t you?” It can happen very quickly.
SM: Out of the reams of archive footage, characters emerge, from the oligarchs, to the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, to a small girl begging on the roadside with a toy gun, proclaiming, “Everything’s for sale.” Why did you pick these characters?
AC: To go back to me being normal: when I look at them, those are the characters that jumped out to me. Their experience is very powerful, and it touches you. It goes back to what you said at the beginning. My aim is always to tell stories that make you look again at something. Because so many stories are so formalized, you don’t really look at them any longer: it’s like looking at the Mona Lisa. It becomes a shorthand. I chose those people because they jump out at you. You’ve noticed them, haven’t you?
SM: I think it’s like a very large Russian novel.
AC: I suppose it was like a novel. I just started building it. I didn’t really have any grand ideas about what it could be. What people have said to me is that you get lost in TraumaZone. I suppose that’s what I wanted. It’s like you’re traveling through this world. And that’s why I put in the kilometers, to show you how big Russia is. I wanted to show you all the minerals and places they have. I want you to feel like you’re going through this place, and on the way, you meet these people. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. Also, people are used to captions now. Especially my audience, who are younger than traditional documentary audiences.
SM: Being a 20-something online, I run into dozens of memes about your work made by other relatively young people. They’re normally complimentary. Why do you think your work resonates with people in their 20s and 30s?
AC: I’ve no idea, but I’ve noticed it. Why do you think so?
SM: You capture a mood of lost hope, stagnation, and funny absurdity.
AC: Yes, you try to capture a mood. What I’m keen on doing is having an idea in my head of what the mood is for the thing I’m making. I think I’m quite good at getting “the mood.” I think a lot of the traditional think-tank people are very suspicious of anything that has “a mood” to it—they feel they’re being manipulated.
Whereas in fact, if you look at their stuff, it has got a mood—it’s just incredibly boring. It’s a technocratic mood. What I do is make things emotionally moody. I think that younger generations are quite happy with that. They don’t feel threatened by it. It’s how they experience the world themselves.
SM: Some people say Russia collapsed because of American economists and the IMF coming in and pursuing shock therapy. Do you want to push back on that?
AC: They were taking Western economic ideas from certain economists like Friedrich Hayek, but they were interpreting those ideas in their own way. If you look at Yegor Gaidar, as a number of Russian journalists said to me, he was the child of elite Soviet parents. His mindset was deeply involved in the idea that you could plan things. He took those Western ideas and turned them into a plan. It was so mad it went out of control. If you talk to Russians, they say, “No, we did it.”
But I don’t buy a certain left-wing discourse that says, “It was us that did it.” Because there’s a certain narcissism there. It’s like the reverse coin of moral imperialism. Rather than saying, “No, our ideas are better than yours,” it’s saying, “No, our ideas are really bad, and we’ve fucked you up.” However, what I did notice was that the Westerners who were really bad were the accounting firms. They did go around undervaluing assets, which allowed the oligarchs to grab them.
I went and talked to a very well-respected Russian journalist in the BBC World Service. He said, “Look, the fundamental factor about what happened in the 1990s in Russia is that no one really knows what went on. Because it was all so complex, anyone can say anything about that time.”
SM: There does seem to be this oblique, and near-constant, sense of being underground, of going into tunnels and vaults. There’s this feeling in TraumaZone of a time capsule coming up out of the ground, 70 years in the future.
AC: I was trying to get a sense that what was being built in Russia was a hollowed-out society, from which Putin was going to emerge. Because what Russian journalists whom I respect say is that the thing about Putin, which you in the West really don’t get, is that he did not seek power.
He didn’t believe in anything. He was an unknown bureaucrat who was seized upon by an alliance between the oligarchy and some of the remaining democratizers as a way of surviving. He came out of that hollowed-out world.
And yes, if I was trying to visually show something, it was that hollowed-out world. They went and lived underground in Moscow, in Siberia. It was that bad.
SM: You use a lot of footage from Pawel Pawlikowski’s Tripping With Zhirinovsky (1995). The far-right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky is another character that appears throughout TraumaZone. The annoying and boring question I could ask you would be: is he a proto-Trump? Is this a warning about populism?
AC: I think that’s boring, yes.
SM: But what I would actually say is that he’s uniquely Russian, and also a politician that didn’t win. Putin, the technocrat, won.
AC: I put Zhirinovsky in as a failure, yes. This is the thing about Trump: the liberals see Trump as somehow this threat to democracy. He’s not. He was a comic character who seized a moment because the liberals had just completely failed. He inserted himself in that vacuum. Trump did absolutely nothing. If anything, I was trying to defang populism with Zhirinovsky. It was a joke. Putin is far more serious.
What I didn’t show was that later on, after 2000, Zhirinovsky gets bought up by Putin and used as controlled opposition. He becomes one of them. They’re all in a pantomime together. I’ve always wanted to do a film about how everything is cosplaying.
SM: Where’s Russia going?
AC: I don’t know. I stopped in 1999 because I don’t know. We still don’t know how Putin’s thing is going to play out, because he’s turned into something else.♦
Samuel McIlhagga is a freelance journalist, book reviewer, and writer based in the U.K.
Cover image: A frame from TraumaZone, 1985-1999.