Imagine you were Josh Oppenheimer, a Texas-born scholar and filmmaker drawn to the subject of genocide and political murder, spending year after year scrutinizing men who had butchered thousands of human beings or more without evident conscience: How could you possibly get inside their heads and see the world (themselves and their victims) through their eyes? Short of telepathy, how could any of us inhabit the mental space where, say, dismembering parents in front of their children is business as usual? In his nonfiction film The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer has managed to induce several admitted and unpunished executioners — men who played an active role in the deaths of at least half a million Indonesian Communists in the mid-sixties—to don costumes and makeup and reenact typical scenes from their glory days along with some movie-fueled fantasies. The resulting film is bizarre to the point of trippiness, yet it’s one of the most lucid portraits of evil I’ve ever seen.
These executioners can be open because their regime is still in place while the Communists are history—although now and then the film’s protagonist, a small-time thug turned paramilitary leader named Anwar Congo, wonders why surviving children haven’t gone hunting for vengeance. What a piece of work is Anwar. He can look grandfatherly, even Mandela-esque in one shot and chillingly hard in the next. He loves Hollywood pictures and especially gangster films, and he’s fond of intoning the mantra of his brethren: “The word gangster means ‘free man.’ ” This was a new definition to me, although it turns out gang actually can mean “loose” and “in motion,” in the sense of “gangling.” The Communists earned this Free Man’s wrath by, among other things, crusading against imperialist Hollywood movies and getting non-Indonesian films banned in many cities. And so Anwar and others like him could style themselves heroic rebels in a world that had trampled their liberties. On a signal from General Suharto (and with no interference from the U.S.), Hollywood film buffs all over Indonesia donned their metaphorical fedoras and spats and got busy massacring Communists, suspected Communists, and people who had once smiled at a Communist. For these self-styled Capones, every day was St. Valentine’s Day.
Anwar looks flashy in suits and hats and sunglasses and is happy boasting about killing people with thin wire to keep his death sites from turning into blood swamps. But his affect is a tad wobbly. He loves the idea of starring in a movie, but he has been having nightmares about his victims. The Act of Killing becomes even more gripping with the arrival of Adi Zulkadry, leading founder of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth and a member of its elite death unit, the Frog Squad. Adi has a big personality and no patience for people who don’t own up to their cruelty. He shows special contempt for a dried-up locust of a journalist who denies knowing that many Communists were hauled into the newspaper’s publisher’s office and killed. Adi is the ultimate relativist. War crimes, he says, are defined by the winners. Oppenheimer asks about The Hague, and Adi says, “Please! Get me to The Hague.” (Anyone want to go in with me on a ticket for him?) When Anwar confesses that he’s having difficulty finding a way “not to feel guilty,” Adi advises him to see a “nerve doctor” for “nerve vitamins.” No one can say Adi lacks nerve.
Here’s an example of how The Act of Killing hits home. Anwar, Adi, and the old gang reminisce about the “Chinese campaign” of ’66. Adi had a sophisticated military strategy vis-à-vis Chinese civilians: “If a met them, I stabbed them.” He was dating a Chinese girl, and there was a bit of an awkward moment when he encountered her father—but not awkward enough to keep him from stabbing the dad too. A former neighbor of Anwar’s appears and recalls the night when his Chinese stepfather was taken away. As the man talks about finding the body and burying it beside the road (he was only a boy), he begins to laugh—a crazy, hysterical laugh—while assuring Anwar and Adi, “I promise I’m not criticizing you!” Then he plays his stepfather in a dramatization of the torture and killing. His pleading and weeping don’t seem like acting but a ghastly invocation of the dead man’s spirit.
By allowing these men to write, direct, and perform in their own film, Oppenheimer puts the horror in the present tense. I assume the women and children who help reenact the massacre and burning of a village were well compensated, but I also assume they regretted it. What a moment it is when the scene ends and Adi tells a sobbing little girl, “Your acting was great, but stop crying!” Later, Anwar gets a turn playing victim and wonders aloud as he watches himself on a monitor if the people he tortured felt what he’d felt. Oppenheimer says, off camera, “The people you tortured felt far worse.”
Errol Morris and Werner Herzog signed on as executive producers of The Act of Killing, and it’s easy to see what appealed to them about Oppenheimer’s self-described “documentary of the imagination.” All three are impatient with surfaces. Surfaces lie. In pursuit of his killers’ inner world, Oppenheimer goes hog wild. Framing sequences are big production numbers featuring a fat man named Herman in a dress (he looks like Divine) watching beautiful dancing girls emerge from the mouth of a giant fish. Everyone dances at the end to the song “Born Free.” But by then I think these men are starting to realize that they’re not the heroes of The Act of Killing. After the (lame) epiphany he has while watching himself being pretend-tortured, Anwar puts on a mustard-colored suit and wanders around the rooftop where he’d personally killed tens of people. He talks, then retches. Then he talks some more and retches some more. It’s a grindingly ugly sound, but he can’t bring anything up—no catharsis for Anwar. Or his country. The Indonesians who helped make the film all go in the credits by the name Anonymous. Unlike the venerated war criminals, they can’t afford to be seen playacting.
This review originally appeared in the July 22 issue of New York Magazine.