Sunday, February 9, 2014
The Act of Killing
If I tell you that Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" is 'astounding', 'baffling' and 'incomprehensible', I am minimizing the film's actual impact. In fact, the thing beggars description. The 2013 documentary concerns the extermination of between one and 2.5 million Communists in Indonesia, murders committed by paramilitary death squads in 1965. At the very outset, three factors confound understanding. First, the film is about events occurring in Sumatra, an Indonesian island, and, to use Neville Chamberlain's phrase: "a country about which we know nothing." The historical context of the killing is never explained and remains indecipherable throughout the film. (Not merely Communists were killed but, ultimately, ethnic Chinese and any one who defied, or, otherwise, caught the eye of the death squads -- one guy boasts about his killing his own father-in-law who happened to be of Chinese origin.) Second, the murderers show no signs of remorse. Throughout most of the film, the killers, now wealthy suburbanites, discuss the torture and murder in which they were involved with positive merriment and glee -- they are like sports fans recalling particularly exciting football games. In one scene, a thuggish paramilitary commander plays golf with his much younger girlfriend acting as a caddy, all the while chatting about exterminating the Communists -- it's like playing golf with a cheerful Heinrich Himmler. Later another killer, perhaps the same man, goes shopping in an up-scale mall with his wife and daugher. While ambling through the Indonesian equivalent of Neiman-Marcus, he reminisces about killing people by sticking wooden stakes up their rectums. The third factor is the most disorienting: Oppenheimer depicts a topsy-turvy world in which the bad guys have not only won but flourished. The editor of the island's principal newspaper recounts how he "beat Communists to pulp" in his offices and, then, tried to turn the battered victims over to the military --"they wouldn't take them," he says, "and so we just threw them in the river." Everyone appears to approve of the massacre of the Communists -- at least, we don't hear a single word in dissent from anyone in the entire movie. The thugs are surrounded by armies of middle-aged storm troopers in bizarre uniforms, orange and brown camouflage patterned fatigues, who roar approval every time any one mentions killing Communists. In this world, there have been no bad consequences suffered by any of the murderers and, indeed, they are prosperous and admired by all. On several occasions, the killers remark with mingled amusement and surprise that not even the victims of their murders, the children of the people that they tortured and killed dare to complain. In an earlier scene in the film, two of most prominent murderers recruit extras for a movie about this holocaust from a slum that is reputed to be filled with Communists. With absolute impunity, they bully and insult people and manhandle them into re-enacting their panic at the burning of their houses, and no one in the crowd protests -- in fact, many of children of the victims register a feeble sort of amusement at the childish brutality of these aging storm troopers. It's against this perverse context, however, that the truly weird and bizarre events documented by the film occur. While interviewing an elderly, rail-thin, and white-haired Anwar Congo, a man reputed to have personally killed a thousand people, Oppenheimer persuades the old man to re-enact for the camera his trademark method of murder -- it's particularly horrific and involves a wire hooked to a supporting column of a building with a two-by-four tied to its other end. Congo, who is graceful and charismatic (he's a little like an Indonesian Fred Astaire) demonstrates his dancing technique and, when he yanks on the garrot, one of his toadies kneeling on the floor with the wire aound his throat, you're afraid that he will become too enthusiastic and accidentally rip off the man's head. "We killed them...cheerfully," Congo says, doing a soft-shoe routine and, then, we see him with his cronies singing blue-grass and country-and-western songs. (His favorite films were Elvis Presley musicals.) Since Congo seems to show a certain zest in acting out his crimes for the camera, Oppenheimer begins to stage other atrocity scenes, each of them larger and more expensively mounted. Curiously, as the film progresses, Congo shows more interest in acting the part of his victims than in playing the role of torturer. The exact logistics involving the re-enacted atrocities is unclear -- it seems as if the major paramilitary organiztion is somehow involved and, ultimately, representatives of the Indonesian government appear on location to rally the troops and encourage them to greater blood-thirsty zeal in their staged massacres. (In one scene, a government minister encourages the paramilitary to violence and, then, when the sequence is shot becomes concerned that things are getting a little out-of-hand; the man's brow is furrowed and, speaking through a loudspeaker, he says that he doesn't want the world to get the impression that the paramilitaries are barbaric and so "sadistic as to drink the blood of the Communists". But, as he speaks, he becomes aroused again -- it's the power of the loudspeaker and the cameras filming him -- and he goes "off message" ending by exhorting his men again to "exterminate" the enemy.) Mr. Congo was a "movie theater gangster," apparently a street criminal earning his living by scalping tickets to American pictures, and he seems to have become embroiled in the anti-Communist cause when the Leftists proposed banning Hollywood movies. Accordingly, Mr. Congo invokes a repertoire of classic Hollywood films in the murder re-enactments that he stages -- many of the scenes have garish, bloody make-up and a distinct film noir appearance and he directs other sequences as western, and musical films. As the project advances, Congo and his friends become more and more ambitious -- they stage peculiar dance sequences, including an already famous scene involving four or five dancers in bright satin costumes who emerge from the mouth of a giant, ruinous structure shaped like a fish. The fish ruin overlooks a huge bay where a thunderstorm is sweeping across the grey-blue background. By this point, Congo has dyed his white-hair so as to better impersonate his younger self. By this point, the filmed sequences have strayed from simple re-staging of torture and killing to elaborate song and dance numbers concluding with scene in a which the murderers cavort in front of an enormous waterfall, Congo's side-kick incongruously wearing a strapless velvet evening gown, gesturing balletically to the tune of "Born Free" -- every thug, at one point or another, repeats an etymology asserting that the word "gangster" means "free men," always pronouncing that phrase in English. By this point, the film has blurred the boundaries between re-enactment and reality so extensively that we can't tell whether we're watching the characters acting a part or behaving as they do in real life. Indeed, the film makes the distinction between real life and filmed extravaganza meaningless. In the episode involving a restaging of a massacre in a village -- the scene shot in an eerie forest of truncated, mutilated trees -- we can't tell whether the footage shows us men acting the part of killers or real brutality. Certainly, the children press-ganged into the violent action don't know the difference -- they shriek and writhe in terror as if actually threatened and, when the cameras are withdrawn, remain panicked and tearful. A thug slouched in a hut brags about raping and torturing a fourteen year-old girl: "For me this will be paradise," he says he told the little girl, "for you hell on earth." There's no way to know whether the man is acting the part of a vicious and sadistic brute or simply reminiscing about the good old days completely unaware that his words are a horrific indictment. One sequence showing a television show with Mr. Congo gleefully recounting how he killed Communists to questions posed by a suitably cute and perky girl-interviewer, at first blush, seems to be documentary -- that is, in this film's terms, a representation of the real. But as the scene progesses with elaborate intercutting between studio technicians wondering whether Congo is afflicted by nightmares, we get the sense that this sequence is also staged, also a fiction, a "movie within the movie," an impression that is verified by a final enigmatic shot that shows a group of orange and brown khaki-clad paramilitary men sitting in a bright yellow jeep that, somehow, seems parked in a corner of the studio. Oppenheimer's film suggests that the violence and death afflicting Indonesia, the "act of killing" has induced a mass delirium, a febrile structure of increasing hallucinatory fantasies -- Kongo isn't crazy; rather, the whole nation seems to have gone mad. At the epi-center of the elaborate and kitschy fantasies of torture and assassination is a little concrete shack in the city, a place where people now sell cheap plastic bags, children's luggage wrapped in plastic sacks like small body-bags. This unassuming structure is where Congo tortured and killed his victims on the flat concrete roof of the house. This is the squalid reality behind the elaboate and operatic re-enactment fantasies. Congo has become increasingly obsessed with showing himself the victim of mutilation and torture and insists on watching these scenes on his TV with his grandchildren. Suddenly, he grasps that he has inflicted hideous suffering on other human beings -- something that he seems not to have understood until his sees an image of himself as a Communist being beaten with a board and slashed with a knife. Something snaps in him and he becomes terribly agitated. (But is he merely acting the part? Is he really remorseful or is he just acting remorseful?) He goes to the shop in the slums where he killed his victims and there the film ends in a sequencs described by Werner Herzog (he co-produced the film with Errol Morris) in these words: "There has never been anything like this scene in film history. This film will outlive me. If you think about this film fifty years from today, you will have never watched anything like this last scene in those fifty years either." And this seems to me be a fair characterization of the film's ending. This is one of those rare films that seems completely necessary.