“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” These words are uttered by a priest sympathetic toward Alex’s plight in “A Clockwork Orange” and they serve as a neat summation of the basic theme of the movie. Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comic fairytale was initially misunderstood as a glorification of violence and criminality. However, as the years passed, it became widely known for its intelligent social satire, taking jabs at our institutions and the subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways they control our population.
“A Clockwork Orange” first makes us question whether we sympathize with Alex or not. It takes care to show, at the beginning, just how depraved Alex is. He’s a criminal, he’s violent, he beats homeless people, and he rapes women. However, weirdly enough, Kubrick doesn’t film these actions as particularly dark or horrific. Instead, he does something incredibly brave: he puts the audience into the mind of a madman. Now, these initially repugnant actions have an undercurrent of irony, practically oozing with anarchic glee. Kubrick incorporates bizarre camera angles, rapid-fire editing techniques, thrilling montages, and classical music to construct a unique energy that causes us to step into Alex’s shoes and see the world the way he sees it.
The film asks us if any form of dehumanization is OK, even if it’s happening to one of the most despicable people to walk this Earth. And it’s this question that gives the filmmaking techniques Kubrick uses a greater purpose. If we viewed this movie as if we were an outsider peering in, we might instinctively react in a way that would make the ultimate question of the film pointless. However, when we are seeing the world through Alex’s perspective, we begin to empathize with him in a weird way. As a result, we don’t view the government’s fascist policies from a reactionary perspective, but rather a humanist one.
There is something strange that I noticed upon my rewatch of this movie. Before Alex is chosen as a test subject for the Ludovico Treatment, the chief individuals behind the company providing the treatment visit some of the prisoners’ cells. In one shot, the Minister enters Alex’s cell and inspects a bust of Beethoven. This is important for later in the film when Beethoven’s 9th is played during the treatment, causing Alex to associate the music with the process’s debilitating effects. Alex protests the use of the music, but the scientists act like its incorporation was just a coincidence. But, looking back, we realize that they knew all along that Alex was obsessed with Beethoven.
So, what does this aspect ultimately say about authority? I think that Kubrick is saying that, despite institutions trying to maintain an air of cold objectivity, they’re still run by human beings and, as such, are prone to human behaviors. Alex is clearly a monster who is despised by many, including those in charge of the treatment. So, it makes sense that the Minister would take some sort of sadistic pleasure in turning something that Alex loves against him. This sadism is further accentuated in the post-treatment scene, where the company shows off the effects the treatment has had on Alex. Here, everyone takes pleasure in torturing Alex, putting him in positions where he’s injured or humiliated, yet is unable to react in any way.
Near the end of the film, the Minister visits Alex in the hospital. Here, he’s a very different man. His program has been shut down, declared “inhumane,” and he’s struggling to stay afloat. In fact, the only reason he even bothers visiting Alex is that his political opponents have tried, and failed, to use the psychopath as a pawn to gain further power. The reason why his opponents failed is because they tried to coerce Alex through violently aggressive methods. However, when the Minister speaks with Alex, he feeds him, takes care of him, and even brings in a massive speaker to play some Beethoven. Curiously, this time the music has zero adverse effects on Alex. In fact, it immediately causes him to fantasize having sex with a woman while a crowd applauds him. “I was cured, alright!” he narrates. But what exactly does that mean?
My interpretation is that here, the Minister has found a new form of psychological manipulation, one that is less violent, yet just as insidious. He realizes that a complete rewrite of Alex’s psyche is too obvious and too controversial. So, instead, he just gives Alex the thing he wants most: freedom, or at least, the appearance of it. He surrounds Alex with cameras and publicity, basically validating who he is as a person and, as such, using him as a tool for his own publicity. If the Minister is shown to have been forgiven by Alex, then he, as an authority figure, will again be seen as trustworthy. In this final scene, Kubrick makes his ultimate statement on government institutions and their ability to not only control us but make us want to be controlled.