Sunday, February 9, 2014
The Act of Killing (Director's Cut)
Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," as released on DVD, comes equipped with various special features. There is a short clip showing Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, each separately praising the film. (Age has not been kind to either man: Herzog now looks like my Grandma Zeilinger with dour pinched lips and Errol Morris has a wall-eye and the appearance of a goblin or orc in "The Hobbit.") Morris wrote a 40 page pamphlet that comes with the DVD indciting and, then, convicting the US State Department for complicity in the 1965 Indonesia mass killings -- it is fascinating, lawyerly, and brilliantly forensic writing but a bit beside the point. Most importantly, the DVD set includes Oppenheimer's 159 minute Director's Cut; the film as released theatrically is 122 minutes long. The Director's Cut has a commentary track in which Werner Herzog struggles to find words to express his awe at the film and, sometimes, bickers with Oppenheimer about what we are seeing on screen. The Director's Cut confirms my first impression that this film is a masterpiece and one of the greatest documentaries ever made. The longer version is more Shakespearian in the sense that it develops in more depth secondary characters in the film; there is a parallel comedy plot mostly omitted in the 122 minute version that features Anwar Congo's sidekick, the fat and sloppy-looking Herman, running for a seat in the Indonesian parliament. We see more of Herman and his endearing daughter -- she looks to be about eight years old. There is a terrifying scene in which Congo pretends to torture Herman by mutilating his daughter, ripping a teddy bear to pieces with a stiletto. Herman shrieks and screams and acts even more effectively than Congo in this reenactment and the imagery is made more powerful by the fact that we have previously scene Herman playing with his little girl. The current political situation is developed more thoroughly and is even more spectacularly loathsome than as revealed in the 122 minute cut. Some shots are longer -- for instance, the shocking first scene atop the paramilitary headquarters in which Congo demonstrates his garrotting technique; on the commentary track, Oppenheimer notes that his intentions in that scene were evidentiary -- he wanted to create a pictorial record as to the exact details of these killings, aiming for a continuous, unbroken filmed confession. We see more details of Congo's nightmare and some of the imagery is even more Grand Guignol than the stuff shown in the shorter sequence. The commentary clarifies the film's structure, pointing out that a still shot of Congo in his rumpled bed at night signifies the beginning of the fever dream, the nightmare that comprises the last half of the picture. On the commentary, we are told that "free men" is, in fact, a translation of the Dutch word for gangster that the criminals and thugs continuously use throughout the film. We learn that Oppenheimer spent eight years making this movie, that when it is shown in Indonesia there are threats of violence but that the movie has changed the entire political discourse in that unfortunate country -- now, for the first time, it is permissible to speak publicly about the massacres committed in the mid-sixties. Oppenheimer notes that Mr. Congo was the 41st perpetrator that he interviewed on film. The famous scene with the dancing girls and the huge fish -- it looks like the monster-fish vomiting out little fish in Brueghel's woodcut ("Big Fish eat little fish") -- is staged on the rim of a volcanic lake. When this Sumatran volcano erupted fifty thousand years ago, the world's climate changed and hominids were reduced to one or two African bands -- the source of all of our DNA today. (Herzog and Oppenheimer, who both have egos as big as Texas, get into a quarrel over the details of this episode in human history on the commentary track.) The huge ramshackle fish is, as you might expect, the ruins of an upscale seafood restaurant. On second and third viewing,innumerable tiny details emerge -- you can see Congo's foot tapping frantically when the rest of his body is still; the faces of the Chinese shop owners paying protection to the mobsters display rueful and humiliating grins frozen in place as they are intimidated. In the musical number scored to "Born Free," two tattered Communist ghosts with garrotting wire still tangled around their bony necks rise from the dead and present Anwar Congo with a medal that the light catchs and make shine with a supernatural brilliance. The huge waterfall throbs behind them as the dead Communists praise Congo for "sending us to heaven." This is a huge movie in all respects and it dwarfs almost all other films that you will see this year.