Imagine if WWII had ended in 1942 or 1943, before unconditional surrender became a thing, and the war had been resolved by pushing everyone back to their pre-war boundaries, but leaving the Nazis in charge of Germany.
Then imagine 50 years later, a documentarian went around and interviewed the surviving Nazis to talk about what they had done, in terms of killing Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and what-not. And then they recounted and even re-enacted for the sake of a movie the atrocities.
That’s about what you have with The Act of Killing.
The country in question is Indonesia. The “revolution” was in 1965. (About the time a certain American President was hanging out there, eating dog! Thanks, Obama!) The purpose was the purge of the Communists.
Now, from what I can tell, “the Communists” basically meant “Chinese people”. Everyone in Indonesia is staunchly anti-Communist, but they all agitate for “Worker’s Rights” at the same time. There’s no real ideology; it’s all tribal, and philosophical hash.
It seemed like a cartoonish version of us, in a lot of ways. The media cheerleads in a way reminiscent of the “It’s a Good Life” episode of “The Twilight Zone”. (“It’s good that you slaughtered all those Communists. Real good!”) And all the murderous organizations remind me of nothing so much as unions on steroids.
Of course, unlike unhappy families, every unhappy society is unhappy in the same way: Rights are contingent on being part of the protected class, because being too protective of rights in general really cuts back on the opportunities for graft and extortion.
What makes this movie special, however, is the central part the heads of these gangs that actually did the killings play in it. There are three or four of them, talking freely and without really any concept that what they did was evil.
There’s one clownish fat guy who shakes down the local Chinese vendors and plots to run for higher office because he can shake down so many more people for so much more money at once. (As a building inspector, he can say a building isn’t up to code unless they give him big bucks! Like I said, sounded just like us.)
Then there’s a grumpy guy who objects to making a movie about this stuff because it reveals that they were cruel, that they were lying about the Communists, and it basically makes them look bad. He’s an interesting fellow because he firmly expresses that he has no regrets (unlike the fat guy who never talks about, e.g.) and basically has many mechanisms for justifying what he did.
But the lead character is a kind of charismatic guy, the wise-and-kind-looking Anwar Congo. He was probably the biggest killer of them all, racking up (they say) over a thousand kills. Personally. He demonstrates some of the best techniques he had for killing throughout the movie, in much the same manner a car mechanic might explain what’s wrong with you car, or a plumber talking about the pipes.
But you can see it doesn’t add up for him. And between the ludicrously stagey pseudo-noir detective pieces and the bizarre musical renditions (culminating in a choir performance of “Born Free”, no joke), you can see him coming to learn (through acting out the victim role) that maybe, just maybe, he did something unpleasant to the hundreds of people he murdered.
This isn’t quite Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”. There’s no soul-less bureaucracy in evidence. It was all ad hoc genocide, really. It’s almost “the innocence of evil”. These guys are largely family men. Congo is a grandfather who clearly loves his grandchildren.
And then there’s a scene where a man describes his step-father, a Chinese man, being hauled off in the middle of the night and killed during the purge, to these killers, but trying to keep his anger and grief bottled up, and offering the experience as one might offer “notes” to a moviemaker.
It’s surreal. As a moviegoing experience, it’s astonishing. Gorgeously shot in that beautiful country, the movie shocks without ever showing any real violence.
If anything works against it, it’s precisely surreal-ness. You could easily feel like you’re being put on, because the violence they blandly testify to is so horrific, and at the same time so celebrated, and in such an essentially juvenile way, it can be hard to relate to in any meaningful fashion.
The Boy was deeply moved. Disturbed, but also touched at the possibility of redemption (at least on a personal level) for someone who was (by our standards) monstrous, in the service of his country.
Apparently this and The Hunt are fighting for Oscar space, both being from Denmark. I’m not sure why this film is from Denmark, since the director Josh Oppenheimer is a Texan, but I guess it’s where the money and the film crew/editors came from.
I wouldn’t want to have to choose between them myself.