‘The Act of Killing’

Some days it seems the world is chock-full of killing grounds, some known, always more to be discovered. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer digs one up for our edification in Indonesia, where gangsters and paramilitary types massacred a couple million Communists and ethnic Chinese in 1965. The “stars” of Oppenheimer’s problematic memory piece are Mandela-lookalike Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, a fat thug who served as Congo’s murderous right hand during the bloodbaths. Both are delighted to reminisce about and indeed elaborately reenact their heyday as homicidal gangstas. Playacting, dressing up, slapping on horror-movie makeup, movie-lovers Koto, Congo, and friends are like happy kids, reveling in once-upon-a-time atrocities.

A good part of the creeping horror of The Act of Killing is how cool Indonesians are with this suppurating history—“War crimes are defined by the winners,” remarks Congo. These aging men and their comrades-in-arms are far from present-day pariahs; they’re mostly treated as heroes, along with the members of the super-macho Pancasila Youth paramilitary troop, responsible for murdering commies as enthusiastically as did small-time gangsters like Congo and Koto. A prominent newspaper editor boasts that, back in the day, “a wink from me” was a virtual death sentence, often carried out in a corner of his newsroom. White-haired Congo stands on a roof where many died at his hands, explaining that there was too much blood to clean up so he turned to a more efficient, less messy method: a wire and a stick. Guess Zyklon-B wasn’t available—or maybe he preferred his hands-on approach. Did I mention that this dapper granddad does a mean little cha-cha on his old killing ground?

Congo and company wrap themselves in the mystique of movies, especially gangster flicks. “We were more cruel than the movies,” he brags, citing Brando, Wayne, Pacino as role models. The old man dyes his hair black, sports a pink cowboy hat and western gear to stand out on a TV talkshow, where the hostess chortles over and the audience cheers his exploits. “I wore jeans for killing,” he notes, critique-ing his costume and performance in one filmed reenactment. Sidekick Koto has a taste for cross-dressing; in one vignette, he’s a Carmen Miranda senorita, getting vigorously raped while caballero Congo looks on. Congo drags his two grandchildren in to watch him get tortured and garroted on TV; in a (therapeutic?) role reversal, he’s playing a Communist victim. The spectacle produces no reaction; the kids are utterly affectless, as though they were dead to visual shock tactics.

As this grueling horrorshow continues, full of geeks and giggles, it’s like watching pornography. At first, there’s titillation, seeing ugly actors exposed, doing what they should only do in the forgiving dark. But after a while, the illicit thrill wears off and boredom sets in. The Act of Killing is two long hours of pornography, of banality and evil “eroticized” by giving frame space and significance to moral nullities, who may or may not discover some shreds of human empathy and remorse as the narrative arcs toward its tacky musical climax. One can’t help but picture a balding, bespectacled Eichmann released from his glass box for a little song-and-dance about the good old days of gassing Jews.

Executive-produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s “documentary of the imagination” has been lauded as a new aesthetic form, edifying and enlightening in its radical framing of grotesque perpetrators of historical atrocity. But how much and in what ways did the director prompt and collaborate with Congo and company in their self-promoting cinematic fantasies? What revelations come about the nature of evil—or sociopathy—when it’s all colorfully wrapped up in the bad-guys’ movie-made fantasies? Or for that matter, what do we really learn about the power of movies to shape bad acts? The Act of Killing possesses a flashy allure—enjoy an hilariously homicidal Laurel and Hardy!—but what truth lies at its slippery heart?  That human beings are, as Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”? Is it enough that we simply gaze at Oppenheimer’s monster movie, appalled but none the wiser?

Towards the end of the documentary, Congo returns to that rooftop killing ground. There, in the dark of night, with Oppenheimer presumably directing or at least recording, the old gentleman walks about, stopping at intervals to bend over and dry heave. The sound is awful, as though the man was retching out his body and soul. A repellent moment, in that place, for we have no idea whether this is truth or fakery, acted or directed, remorse or another kind of heartless victimization. Oppenheimer’s POV can’t be described as objective or a brand new coign of aesthetic vantage, or even as acknowledgment of ambiguity. His position feels more like that of a collaborator.

Straight Shooting, July 27, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy