The Act of Killing

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

(2012) Documentary (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sakhyan Asmara, Soaduon Siregar, Syamsul Arfin, Yapto Soerjosoemano. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment, a means of forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours. This isn’t one of those. THIS is a movie that isn’t meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, one that will leave you struggling with the powerful emotions and concepts it brings out in you when the movie’s over.

Starting in 1965, assassinations of Indonesian generals in an attempt to destabilize the government led to General Suharto taking control of the government. This in turn led to almost a year of unbridled mass murder ostensibly to rid the country of communists who were blamed for the assassinations. In reality, the job was given to a large extent to members of organized crime and the definition of “communists” was broadened a bit to include those who in general disagreed with the military junta and all ethnic Chinese. Later it was essentially expanded to “anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more revered of the death squad leaders is Anwars Congo. Now a white-haired grandfatherly sort, he is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth.  He, like the other death squad leaders, have never answered for their crimes of murdering civilians in cold blood. In fact, they are thought to be heroes and boast openly about being able to do whatever they wanted, including wanton rape and looting.

Congo tells us that the stink from the blood of the victims had grown so great that he chose to start using a wire garrote to kill his victims which required less cleaning up after. In an extraordinary move, director Oppenheimer gives Congo and a few of his cronies the opportunity to re-enact their atrocities on film in whatever style they liked.

Why would they want to, you may ask? Well, these were men heavily influenced by American b-movies (Congo had gotten his start scalping cinema tickets) and during those terrible months of late 1965 and early 1966, often used westerns and gangster movies as inspiration to carry out their heinous acts. So they do just that, filming in the style of noir, gangster movies and yes, even a musical number which concludes with the spirit of one of the victims thanking Congo for murdering him and sending him to heaven, after which he shakes the mass murderer’s hand and raises it in triumph like a prize fighter.

The cognitive dissonance depicted in this film is mind-blowing.  Gangsters are looked upon with admiration. They claim that the term gangster means “free men” (a misconception that is repeated often by the ex-criminals) and reveled in the complete freedom to do whatever they chose without regard to law or morality. The bullying and terrifying tactics are looked upon as national symbols of pride.

While most of the perpetrators have no outward remorse or guilt over their acts, cracks begin to show in Congo’s facade. He complains of nightmares that plague him nightly. Things begin to unravel when he portrays a victim being strangled in a police office. He wonders aloud if his victims felt what he did (the experience so unnerved him that he was unable to continue). Off-camera, Oppenheimer says gently but firmly that they felt much worse; they knew they were going to die while Congo knew that in his case, it was just a movie.

This leads to the denouement when Congo returns to the rooftop where he committed many of the savage acts. His growing realization over what he had done leads to one of the most compelling and literally gut-wrenching scenes in modern cinematic history.

In the viewer, there is an immediate instinct to go and comfort the grandfatherly Congo, but then we reach an epiphany of our own – does this man who committed so many monstrous acts (he claims to have killed about a thousand people personally) deserve comfort? Is there no forgiveness for him? That is a question I’m still wrestling with. How does one redeem oneself for mass murder? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think anybody does.

Leaving the Enzian afterwards, there was so much swirling around in my head and in my heart (as was occurring with my wife as well) that the normal discussion about the film was a bit muted. I can’t say that this movie is enjoyable – but I can say that it’s important. Given our own propensity for mass shootings these days and the genocidal events that occur to this day, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there is any goodness inside the human race at all and it makes one wonder if the universe wouldn’t be a better place if the entire planet were wiped out by a convenient meteor strike. However, watching he change that occurs in someone who was such a monster at one time gives me hope that there might actually be some humanity in the human race after all.

REASONS TO GO: Makes you think and feel. One of the most powerful and moving climaxes in recent cinematic history.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems stagnant and redundant in a few places although the film’s climax brings all the parts together.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language. The themes are extremely adult (dealing with mass murder) and there are some intimations of children endangered. Also, lots and lots of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, were so moved by this film that they came aboard as executive producers.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Year of Living Dangerously

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Family

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