Brazil — arguably the most brilliant dystopian film ever made — landed in U.S. theaters twenty years ago, after its “underdog director,” Terry Gilliam, fought the president of Universal pictures to have the film “released as he intended it.”
This week Gilliam returns with The Brothers Grimm, his first film in seven years. It’s a fairy tale centered on the German brothers who realized their country’s oral folklore tradition was disappearing, and had the foresight to preserve the ancient stories on paper. But the movie is not merely an homage; it’s also Gilliam’s
revenge on the Brothers Grimm, who gave me all those tales when I was child which’ve infected me, have never left my brain. It’s the way I see the world, through those tales, and this is my chance to get back at those guys….
It’s kind of like a rational man being hoisted on the petard of his rationalism…. Napoleon’s armies [swept] across Europe, bringing the Enlightenment, bringing rational, reasonable thought, bringing secularism there, and yet somewhere in Germany, in these peasant villages, the old myths and the old legends existed. And they were magical, they were enchanting, they were unbelievable. And the idea of this film was that you take people and you bring them into that world, people who have been making a living off of the superstitions of the peasantry suddenly are thrown into a world of real enchantment….
All of Gilliam’s films partake of the macabre and fantastic. Time Bandits borrows slightly from C.S. Lewis but goes in its own direction entirely when a cast of fantastical characters barges out of a young boy’s wardrobe and drags him through Robin Hood’s time, into Napoleon’s, and then, literally, into hell. Gilliam believes his stories, like the Grimm brothers’, serve as exercises for children, teach them to see “how dark the world is.”
In a Studio 360 interview, he tells Kurt Anderson that he turns to books and painting, rather than film, for inspiration. And of the way the Grimm brothers’ stories inspired him, he says:
I can’t explain a lot of them — but I know they resonate inside of me. Maybe it just gives me hope that there is magic and wonderful enchantment out in the real world because most of me doesn’t see it. But it is there occasionally, when you look at a tree, look at a leaf, look at a bug.