Holy fucking shit. That was my reaction coming out of a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s shattering documentary “The Act of Killing,” at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year , that we’re reprinting now as it heads to theatres. And this is really all you need to know: “The Act of Killing” is truly one of the most intensely unsettling, frightening, riveting films I’ve seen, maybe ever.
In Indonesia in 1965 a military coup occurred, after which a widespread purge of “Communists” (a catch-all term for opponents of the regime, real or imagined) was put into action. The men who carried out the slaughter, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes by burning entire villages, have not only never been brought to justice for their crimes, they number today among the more powerful elite, closely allied with Indonesia’s Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organization with 3 million members, that controls everything from racketeering to smuggling to gambling (they are also hired as security guards in supermarkets: these guys are everywhere). Oppenheimer’s film focuses on a group of older men, death squad leaders back during the exterminations of 1965-1966, but soon one of them, Anwar Congo, emerges as the film’s main character. Anwar, you see, estimated at one point by an observer to have killed maybe 1,000 people, wants to make a movie. This movie will tell the “truth” of the communist purge, but will also have fanciful elements of humor and romance (leading to downright surreal imagery like that below), because otherwise, they all know, people won’t see it. And they want people to see it, not because of the job it will do in excusing them of their crimes, or justifying their actions. No, they want people to see just how sadistic they were; that their cruelty was far, far greater than that of the “Communists” they summarily executed, and that indeed, most of the detainments were based on deliberately manufactured misinformation and propaganda — lies. Like a thunderbolt comes the revelation that they are proud of what they did, proud of their corruption, which appears so pervasive in that culture that to be morally unrecognizable as a human being is pretty much a virtue. It was at this early point in the film that my jaw dropped, and it remained on the floor throughout the entire rest of the 2-hour runtime.
Central to our protagonists’ completely warped world view is the concept of “the gangster,” the word for which in Bahasa Indonesia, as we’re repeatedly told, derives from the English phrase “free man.” To be a gangster is no bad thing: politicians clad in the distinctive orange camo of the Pancasilas proudly announce to the massed crowds that they are “the biggest gangster of them all,” or insist that “we need the gangsters to get things done” to rousing applause. Anwar and his particular crew of gangsters, including the rotund Herman (whose role in the film-within-the-film for some reason requires him to dress up in a series of increasingly grotesque Carmen Miranda-style outfits) used to scalp tickets outside the local movie theater, in between butchering people. They list off their influences — Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, mafia movies — and Anwar insists he learned about garotting from Hollywood films.
There is so much to unpack here. The glee with which the participants play out re-enactments of killings that really did occur, sometimes reprising their roles as killers, sometimes playing the victim, is to-the-core sickening, and at times the conflation of mythologizing and reminiscing becomes practically psychologically unwatchable. Paramilitaries sit around recounting tales of raping “delicious” 14 year olds, to the laughter and nostalgic nodding of their peers. The pretty interviewer on a Indonesian talk show, practiced and telegenic, interviews Anwar and co., and concludes to the camera with a bright smile “Yes, God really does hate Communists,” to light daytime-TV style applause. To recast Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, what we get here is banal, of course, but it’s the joviality of evil that really kicks you in the gut. Time and again the film seemingly defies the physics of true-life storytelling by happening on yet another anecdote or image that takes your breath away with incredulity.
And the meta-narrative is compelling in its own right. It’s about the power of moviemaking and storytelling, sometimes cathartic, sometimes destructive, always illuminating: from the children who are told to cry for a certain scene, and can’t stop afterward, to the woman rendered almost catatonic by her involvement in the reenactment of the burning of a village, and finally, to Anwar himself. Because a small seed is planted early on that eventually blooms into the main narrative thread: Anwar has bad dreams. Whereas others of his ilk make a virtue of their lack of conscience, or seem simply not to have that gene (like the almost completely un-self-aware Herman), through the process of reliving his story, Anwar starts to feel.
On this evidence, we’re quite happy to go out there and call Oppenheimer a genius. He inserts himself rarely into the film, maybe speaking only three or four times, though his subjects often talk to him directly, Josh-this, Joshua-that. But when Oppenheimer does talk, it’s with great effect (and in Indonesian — at least we think that’s his own voice). In one of the most “meta” segments, we watch Anwar rewatch a scene in which he plays the victim of an interrogation room torture and garotting. We already saw the scene being shot and know that Anwar found it emotionally draining. And now, seeing it again he goes from simple show-offy pride (“watch Granddad get tortured and beaten!” he says to the kids), to deeply troubled. He wonders aloud to the off-camera Oppenheimer if his victims perhaps felt as he did shooting that scene. Oppenheimer replies simply that they would have felt much worse, because they were not in a film, they were really facing death. “But I really feel it” insists Anwar faintly, before a terrible light dawns. “Or have I sinned?”
The film ends with Anwar back on the concrete rooftop/execution site where earlier he cha-cha-cha’ed after demonstrating why garotting was his favored method of dispatch. Again he walks the tiny space, telling us what happened and where as he toys with a piece of wire and a burlap sack, but this time he has to stop twice over to dry-retch obscenely, heaving up nothing but bile in an extended scene that Oppenheimer’s camera records mercilessly.
Even after that initial screening, the profound impression this film has made remains. If only the word “mindblowing” wasn’t so regularly used to describe the effect of a Michael Bay scene of stupid CG robot destruction, I’d use it here — my mind was blown, into a thousand tiny pieces. To give a little bit of outside context for what to expect if, and hopefully, when you see this vital film: along with the many “anonymous” credits that roll at the end of the film (testament to the dangerous nature of the end product), you can spot Werner Herzog and Errol Morris’ names among the executive producers. We’re enormous fans of both men, but with all due respect, here Joshua Oppenheimer has turned in a film with as least as much, if not more, compelling, visceral power than anything either of them has ever achieved, which is no faint praise. Presenting a terrifying view of a hidden holocaust and a moral apocalypse in which the most basic humanities have become twisted beyond recognition, “The Act of Killing” is a towering achievement in filmmaking, documentary or otherwise. [A+]