The name of Werner Herzog should hold hefty weight to anyone accustomed with documentary cinema. The fearless Bavarian director is a man who walks a beautiful line between the realism of documentary filmmaking and the poetic existentialism involved in examining human nature and our grand cosmos. The Act of Killing is not his latest documentary feature but it very well could be. In what is a very powerful, affecting look at the human nature and an abyss of morality, you will look on in dread and revulsion as cinema’s most detestable characters appear as, not fictional creations, but real people that happen to be in this documentary film. Herzog liked the film so much to sign on as executive producer and put a quote on the home video cover: “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade”. For a man who has, by all accounts, stared death directly in the face when making his own films, and from someone seemingly unafraid of…anything really, you might want to give as much weight to that statement as you should his name. Not least because it is completely true.
Enough talk of Herzog. The fabulous, daring director who deserves the credit for what I am easily prepared to call a masterpiece, is Joshua Oppenheimer; a British-American filmmaker who travelled to Indonesia and asked killers to share their memories of murder and re-enact their acts of death for his camera. The result is a harrowing, astonishing and emotionally devastating piece of art in which every frame and every moment is an unbelievable insight into evil.
The people in question are not rogue serial killers who talk from behind deserving jail bars like an Indonesian version of Hannibal Lecter, or Werner Herzog’s own documentary Into the Abyss (2012); these were death squad gangsters politically assigned to exterminate “Communists” after a military coup in 1965 (an outrageous and violent part of history that I am ashamed to say I knew nothing of). They are only ever praised for ridding the country of foul liberals, as they swagger with overzealous vanity through the corrupt, everyday streets all too pleased to partake in the film and disturbingly re-enact their acts of violence with pride. The awfulness of each detailed murder is made worse by the mass circumstance in which it happened and the national cesspool environment in which it took place. Elected officials speak about how gangsters are forces for good because the word “gangster” comes from “free men”, fascist parades of para-military groups march the streets to the unsettling sounds of cheer and the high profile officials whom we briefly meet being the most abhorrent people you could ever come to dislike. The banal normality in which people respond to blatant corruption, murder, lies, fascist sentiment and crime is disturbing to the core. “We’d change their answers to make them look bad. As a newspaper man, it was my job to make the public hate them”, a newspaper owner who interrogated suspected Communist sympathisers openly says, as if there was no ethical repugnance to his actions. Everyone is open about their horrendous nature – “we were more cruel than the movies”, Anwar Congo, the former executioner whose life we primarily navigate, says. We wish they existed in the movies. The Indonesia we see is not likely to be part of the tourism boards recommended watch list for people interesting in visiting.
Yet, with all the bleakness there is hope. The more and more these callous people talk about, re-live and contemplate what they have done, they ever so gradually start to talk less about their actions with simple pride and more with a hint of grief and regret. The sight of a man’s tortured soul finally surfacing and physically manifesting itself through choking and scoffing at the location in which he had murdered many people years ago is one of the most artful and powerful images I have seen. This is the same place we were introduced to the executioner at the start of the film when he was gleefully demonstrating efficient ways to kill people without getting too much blood on the floor; where he literally danced in a place of massacre – a ghostly, awfully ordinary place where people died “unnatural deaths”. Some of the most interesting parts are when Oppenheimer (who is clearly making a different film to which his subjects believe) shows this executioner back the footage he shot, and in a still close up, the killer looks thoughtful. What is he thinking? You wonder. What does he feel about the massacre he partook in? You are eager to know. “I should not have worn white pants”, he says.
A true original Oppenheimer has created. Surreal in its absurdity, strangely humorous in parts and tear inducing in the re-enactments of death; you start to believe that these people cannot be real. You think a lot – not all logical, not all explainable – the film is heart-wrenching and mourn inducing. The Act of Killing is pure horror, a real life Apocalypse Now (1979) in which everyone is a real life Colonel Kurtz. The murderers speaking with philosophical insight and in a surprisingly articulate and thoughtful manner is evocative of Brando’s “horror” monologue.
Primarily, however, this is not a scholarly experience; it is an emotional one in which the sanctity of life is explored and any human being with a heart and soul can connect. There are some films in which you feel the weight of death and of what it must feel like to kill another human; there are others in which the loss of life is insignificant and appearing insignificant. The Act of Killing is beyond that; its realism being an emotive elevation of unforgettable cinema; a thorny, testing, vigorous voyaging into that which its title suggests: the worst of all acts. The horror indeed.