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Living the Nightmare of Mass Murder in Oscar-Nominated Doc The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s brutal film about the Indonesian genocide shows us what history looks like when blood-soaked sociopaths win

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A scene from the documentary The Act of Killing. (Courtesy of Drafthouse Films)
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Late in the movie, Anwar goes so far as to tell Oppenheimer that, having played a victim in the movies, he can now feel empathy for the fear and suffering of the people he killed. Like a stern shrink, Oppenheimer (off-screen) can be heard telling his patient that the comparison is ludicrous. Yet, something is beginning to sink in. Oppenheimer does get Anwar to return once more to the actual crime scene—to startling effect. The killer has a prolonged involuntary and wholly appropriate physical reaction to his misdeeds—and in a way to the whole, lurid show.

“Why do people watch a film about Nazis,” Anwar at one point asks, before answering his own question: “To see power and sadism.” The Act of Killing asks, in effect, why victorious old Nazis might boast about their role in a genocide described by prime implementer Heinrich Himmler as “a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written.” The answer is, because they can. No need for the winners to keep a secret.

To watch Anwar and Herman’s jolly antics is to imagine the sort of nostalgic amateur movies that elderly veterans of the Wehrmacht or Einsatzgruppen could have made to celebrate their glory days. Indeed, The Act of Killing’s sense of derangement is accentuated by its sickeningly festive color schemes. The aqua blues, hot pinks, and canary yellows are more appropriate to an old-school Las Vegas floor show or a Pedro Almodóvar sex farce than a movie about a murder of monstrous proportions.

This tropical madness would seem to go with the territory. The members of the paramilitary Pancasila group that Anwar helped found repeatedly turn up wearing camouflage uniforms so gaudy in their iridescence they must have been designed to attract attention rather than conceal it. Why not show off? Herman is without qualms, although he does have definite ideas about motion pictures. “I like eye candy,” he declares, later adding that “humor is a must.” Perhaps playing a “communist woman,” Herman often appears in drag. Indeed, The Act of Killing reaches the outer limits of comedy in its biggest musical number, replete with costumed dancing girls and a giant carp, shot in a bucolic landscape by a waterfall and scored to the theme from Born Free. Feigning tears, Herman screeches his thanks to Anwar “for executing me and sending me to heaven.”

Appalling but, for me, The Act of Killing’s most revolting scene was in some ways its most quotidian one. Anwar and Herman are guests on the equivalent of an American daytime TV show, enthusiastically describing their movie in progress. The studio audience, full of uniformed Pancasila members, applauds as the perky, professionally excited woman conducting the interview breathlessly asks Anwar if his method of killing was cribbed from the gangster movies he watched. “Amazing!” she cries when he delightedly allows that it was. “He was inspired by films!” Then, in direct address to the camera, she explains that “Anwar and his friends developed a new, more efficient system for exterminating communists. It was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence.”

Is her oh-wow enthusiasm real or feigned? (And which would be worse?) Smiling, gracious, resplendent in a Stetson hat and bolo tie, Anwar Congo basks in the glow of cathode-ray fame, a pop star come out of retirement to describe his greatest hits.

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Living the Nightmare of Mass Murder in Oscar-Nominated Doc The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s brutal film about the Indonesian genocide shows us what history looks like when blood-soaked sociopaths win

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