The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

A genial, good-humored grandpa named Anwar Congo sits in front of a television with a child in his lap, pointing himself out on the screen. The images show Congo performing as a victim, tortured in a reenactment of the golden age of a death squad he notoriously led in the mid-’60s. This was during a period of government upheaval in Indonesia, when military extermists took control of the country and exercised ethnic cleansing and extermination of communists and “undesireables” en masse. The squads remain celebrated as the beginning of the far-right regime still in place there now; Congo and his cohorts are heroes, whose actions have never been openly questioned or displaced as a revolution to be celebrated. For the first time now, he sits watching himself act in what he believes is to be a film enlivening these moments of jingoistic glory — with no evident irony, he wants his children to see him endure this. But there’s something else in his eyes, something that may be new to him.

A lot of what we see is new to us in the two hours we spend with director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling documentary The Act of Killing — a surreal, bizarre, utterly singular experience that cinematically dissects and recontextualizes its subject matter, its audience’s outlook, and the nature of movies themselves like no film I’m aware of since Orson Welles’ F for Fake. Fakery and memory are central here too, with the old gang brought back together to explain their methods of murder for the camera crew and even, improbably enough, to reenact their processes for what is made to seem like a hip film noir-like fictionalization of the brutality, in which the perpetrators themselves will act. To say the result is throttlingly surreal and provocative is to undersell them and their complicated, deeply unsettling impact. It’s also fearless, confronting us with genocide and acts of genuine evil in which the western world, America especially, was entirely complicit, while also forcing us to recognize that the instruments of the most horrible moral crimes we can imagine are all too frail and human — as irredeemable and seemingly absent of conscience, humility and self-awareness as they may be, they are also haunted in a respect that’s a challenge to our very idea of where such evil spawns.

Intending initially to make a film about the victims of the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, Oppenheimer happened upon Congo and several other death squad members almost accidentally, with many citizens and descendants of victims (still living in fear, many credited anonymously) urging him to use his cachet as an outsider to get the tone-deaf near-insanity of the likes of Anwar Congo on film. Because these men are so uniformly viewed as national treasures, Oppenheimer is able to play on their egos and bring their wildly awry moral compass out into the open for the first time ever, as though (as he has pointed out) he was entering Germany to find Nazis still in power, and he ends up not just revealing the awful state of affairs in one part of the world but castigating the militarist mindset altogether — and doing so with a sense of sober respect toward the nature of violence, cinematic and otherwise, and an almost guiltily wicked sense of humor.

The Act of Killing is one of the one of the most disturbing, lively documentaries ever made. It’s not enough that its ruthlessly weird, sickening bent is a barbed exercise in moral irony, or that even the monster at the center of it — Congo, who inescapably at times feels not much like a monster at all — finds cracks forming in his (egomaniacal) psychological makeup. No, what’s really disturbing here is that his evolution, his celebration and his well-practiced apathy mirror our own merrily passive participation in war crimes, in every other kind of injustice carried on as a crux to our oblivious existence. It’s because Congo and his associates are so human that the film resonates and terrifies. It’s because even the most unfeeling and coldly logical among them shudder at the bare fact of what they have done that the film becomes a kind of remarkable document of the moral bearing at the core of humanity itself: when their actions are trotted out, even when they themselves trot them out, their dismal obscenity is undeniable merely by virtue of being read out and shown. If there’s some optimism to glean from this, maybe it’s that.

But if that were all we had, this would just be a stirring and troubling documentary. It’s a masterpiece because it doesn’t stop challenging Congo, itself or us. Instead it forces his bizarre visions of the world upon us, it requires us to bear witness to his own reactions to the film and therefore weigh our own emotions, and it toys in numerous ways with the idea of documentary as a tool of propaganda, of lying, of justifying, of coping, and ultimately of revealing mortifying, ugly truths. Oppenheimer faces up to what he probably rightly felt was his moral duty, but he also crafts something playful — it arrives at its uncomfortable truths with considerable imagination, allowing a worldwide audience to wrestle with their feelings about Congo and his actions.

Adi Zulkadry, reunited with his old friend after many years, is in some ways a colder presence than Congo but he also arrives at a deeper truth and seems to sense the weighty nature of Oppenheimer’s film before anyone else, yet he carries on seemingly at peace with his transgressions. Congo makes explicit his discomfort as the film progresses, yet how many of his grand statements (and on-camera vomits) later on about feeling remorse, about rationalizing what his conscience once told him, are merely a play for the cameras? That too seems a relevant fact of the narrative as these men commodify their history into these ludicrous, sometimes chilling filmed reenactments, reforming their own old lives as gangsters into the simplistic narrative formulas of the American movies they used to love to go and see. Oppenheimer doesn’t indict us for loving to see violence projected — part of the film’s point is a recognition of this basic facet of human nature — but he also isn’t blind to the implications of such commercialized bloodshed. The truth is that Congo and his ilk already thought they were making movies even as they tortured and killed in reality. The movie they finally made by accident spits on their idea of glory, heroism, justice.

On top of all that, The Act of Killing is mordantly, often horrifyingly funny. At least in part, this is thanks to the comically grotesque presence of one Herman Koto, a complete oaf of a man who celebrates the gangster lifestyle and serves as a corpulent, cheerleading politician — and, somewhat inexplicably, a sort of glam-rock cultural figure. But there’s more, like our introduction to Anwar Congo, remembering the good old days of graduating from bootlegging movie tickets to full-on, cock-flaunting massacre in the streets and dancing with a light step as though he’s reminiscing about his first date. There is Congo, marveling at the amusingly hideous model of his own severed head. There is the sequence in which, after Congo talks tentatively about his nightmares of facing up to his crimes with the faces and voices of his victims, a bizarre musical setpiece finds him rewarded directly by them for setting their souls afloat, the ultimate fantasy of the belatedly remorseful killer. The humor is blacker than black — absurd and understated — because its context is so horrifically somber. But that feeling of squirming discomfort, uncertainty, a stomach-twisting mixture of moods and reactions, is as potent and stirring a reaction as one is ever likely to have at the movies. This is the rare film that could alter the way you think of the world and your place in it, the rare film that shows us something genuinely new and doesn’t flinch before the most troubling aspects of human life, but just as importantly, it’s the rare film that can truly and justifiably be called great.


[2016 Note: Some years after posting this essay I screened the considerably longer Director’s Cut of The Act of Killing. I posted my thoughts about this alternate version at Letterboxd. In summary, if it’s your first time seeing the film, stick to the shorter theatrical print, then move on to the longer edition when you’re ready for a revisit, however the hell long that might take.]

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