The Act of Killing: A tragic demonstration of the banality of evil

The Act of KillingHistorically, the human race has always depended on a reductionist approach to morality – one that helps us to clearly delineate the difference between good and evil. From the Cold War to the Crusades, societies have elected to believe that their enemies represent an absolute evil – an idea often strategically encouraged by the powers that be. However, the reality is that even the most abhorrent of evil acts, from rape to genocide, are committed by everyday human beings like you and I (a phenomenon for which Hannah Arendt coined the term, the “banality of evil”). This unsatisfying truth is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, one of the finest documentaries I have ever come across.

A brief history lesson to begin. In 1965, the Indonesian government was subject to a failed coup that saw the military respond violently by executing more than 500,000 people with alleged ties to the nation’s Communist party. These murders were carried out not only by members of the military, but also by legitimised vigilante death squads (most commonly local gangsters). This was a period of horrific torture, rape and murder, and it is for this reason that the premise of The Act of Killing is odd at first glance, if not offensive.

Joshua Oppenheimer approaches a pair of gangsters who were members of these death squads, and asks them to create a film that tells the story of their part in the killings. Anwar Congo, the leader of the pair, is a charming and seemingly unflappable old man with a love of dance. His friend, Adi Zulkadry, is a rotund and simple man, equal parts grotesque monster and caring friend. Anwar and Adi are low level gangsters whose criminal activities have largely revolved around ticket scalping and low-level racketeering. But to many, because of their involvement in the mass-murders of 1965, they are not considered criminals – they are heroes. Oppenheimer gives the pair the chance to create their film in a mishmash of genres with as much creative freedom as they wish, and they are quick to involve a varied range of fellow executioners in the production. The resulting creative decisions are confronting, ethically disturbing and quite surreal as these men filter their acts through a lens of Hollywood imagery and self-congratulatory mythology.

However, more affecting and revealing than the gangster’s movie extravaganza is what they reveal about themselves in the course of its production. These are human beings with a range of human foibles. Some of them remember their murderous acts with patriotic fondness, while others are deeply haunted (many, we are told, were driven insane by their crimes long ago). But even for those who seem to have recovered from their crimes unscathed, the human processes of denial, repression and absolution of responsibility are clearly in play. These are real people – and that is the historical lesson that Oppenheimer asks the human race to remember. If we do not understand how real human beings can commit acts of evil – if we insist on disassociating ourselves from the very real potential for human corruptibility – then history will inevitably repeat itself.

Oppenheimer’s skill in fusing the bizarre imagery of the gangster’s production with its opposite – the story that these men do NOT wish to tell – is masterful. It’s worth noting that the film was co-directed with an Indonesian who has elected to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are credited as Executive Producers.

This is near perfect cinema. A masterpiece.

Another CURNBLOG review from the Melbourne International Film Festival.

 

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

38 thoughts on “The Act of Killing: A tragic demonstration of the banality of evil

  1. Pingback: History, Memory, and THE ACT OF KILLING | s-usih.org

  2. I saw Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed on the Daily Show and put this on my ‘to watch’ list, as something that sounded unusual and thought-provoking. However, I must admit I have put off watching it as it isn’t exactly an easy film to wind-down watching after work. After reading your review I think I really need to see this.

  3. Hi James; as others have pointed out, having Herzog and errol Morris put themselves behind this challenging project showed a lot. After I recently finished my book “Documentary 101” (which you’ve probably seen me promoting) I swore I was going to take a break from these difficult but necessary films, even though “Act of Killing” had just opened here in Boston as well. But after reading your thoughtful review, I think I’ve changed my mind. Great work as always. Rick

  4. I watched this film a couple months ago in den haag, netherlands during the screening of local film festival. This movie didn’t just demonstrate a wicked evilness through black humour, but brought out as well a “special ties” between me with the horror being narrated in the film since i’m a native indonesian myself. What shocked me really is the fact that this part of our nation’s history have never been taught in schools! I believe most of people in my country have no clue at all about what our former dictator had done in our name. They brutally slaughtered over 1 million people -all of them were accused of being communist- within less than 2 years and then whitewashed the history – while it remained one of the worst atrocities had ever been committed during cold war until today-. Beside the evildoers in our nation’s militaristic dictatorship at that time, another party should also be held accountable : US government and it’s western cronies who supported the brutal action as they expanded the policy of containment (anti-communism) in the southeast-asia.

    Anyway, i haven’t yet born then but thanks for joshua and the crew who have spent years of making this eye-opening documentary. I hope it would help to bring “fresh outlook” and shape different perspective on the imposition of autocratic brute power and the massive consequence of US foreign policy. May this world begin to learn it’s lesson..

    Warm Regard,
    DHANA

    • Dhana, thank you for the insight of your personal perspective. As an American, it breaks my heart to know that my country so often sows the seeds for such atrocities. Even now, we create evil through the stupidity of believing we can and should act as judge, jury, and executioner. Pray for us all, and I mean every single one of us on this earth.

  5. Reblogged this on Cary's Blog and commented:
    This looks fascinating and disturbing in equal measures.

    “In 1965, the Indonesian government was subject to a failed coup that saw the military respond violently by executing more than 500,000 people with alleged ties to the nation’s Communist party. These murders were carried out not only by members of the military, but also by legitimised vigilante death squads (most commonly local gangsters). This was a period of horrific torture, rape and murder, and it is for this reason that the premise of The Act of Killing is odd at first glance, if not offensive.

    “Joshua Oppenheimer approaches a pair of gangsters who were members of these death squads, and asks them to create a film that tells the story of their part in the killings.”

  6. Herzog’s documentaries are top notch, that’s for certain, and he has tackled tough topics before, so I’m glad and not surprised to see him involved in this. The premise is fascinating, I can’t think of another film, fictional or not, like it. I admit to being a bit apprehensive about watching it, but I also am really looking forward to it.

    Thanks for sharing. Re-blog coming up. 🙂

  7. This is not the first five star review I have read or seen about this film. Part of me sides with RigoHC above, and worries about exploitation of the victims. However, there have been numerous documentaries where Nazis have attempted to justify their mass-murders, as well as films about horrific events that took place in the former Yugoslavia, more recently. With a mind to lessons on History being valuable, I must agree that this film, which I am sure will show the murderers for what they really are, should be seen on merit.

    I also agree with nivaladiva that anything Herzog is involved in, is usually worth the effort.

    Good review as always James, and my usual regards from England. Pete.

    • Hey Pete,

      I’ve just posted a comment below to RigoHC that I hope responds to some of his concerns – but I understand them.

      It would be very difficult to walk away from this film without a sense of total disgust at the abhorrent acts of these people. The reality is that these people are protected from any direct action – Oppenheimer’s approach is probably the closest they will ever get to indictment.

      I think this is a powerful historical document. Please check it out.

  8. I don’t for a minute think this movie would be received the same way if it was about old nazis recreating the Holocaust but since the victims of this mass murder weren’t western then I guess to some people it’s not disgustingly disrespectful to the dead to have their butchers have good old time recreating genocide, of course we know these mass murderers are human so were the Nazis, I don’t need a movie to know so that’s just a lame justification for this exploitative movie, I don’t think this ”humanizes’ the mass murderer’s as much as it de-humanizes those they slaughtered

    • I can certainly understand the reaction, and I’m willing to suggest that some of the anger here (presuming you haven’t seen the film) might be the result of my inadequate description.

      The reality is that the Nazi regime was brought down and ascribed responsibility for its crimes. In Indonesia this did not occur and the mass-killing of the Communists is a largely taboo subject and producing a window or history into these events is very difficult. Oppenheimer has elected to use this mechanism (that might be considered manipulative) to open up a window into the ground level circumstances of this horrific act. Claude Lanzmann also pursued methodologies some might of questioned for the production of ‘Shoah’, the most insightful filmic document on the holocaust.

      • I don’t see how putting a human face on killers dehumanizes those who were killed. Clearly humans did this, and, for the most part, the humans who do these sorts of things (mass genocides) are little different than humans else where. Sure, some of them are genuinely evil, but most, the vast majority, are not. To claim otherwise, to deny that and demonize the killers in the same way they demonize those they killed is wrong and possibly dangerous.

      • it’s not your post I had already seen the director interviewed before and was pretty unconvinced. well if it has some positive effect in Indonesia that would be a good by product but my impression was this will be more for western audiences & the image of some ‘Art house’ crowd in Europe or the US watching Real mass murderers recreate a real Genocide just viscerally makes me sick & I don’t think they would feel the same if the victims of the genocide were not so ”other” but from their own cultural background/history that’s just me though I certainly may be wrong

        • I can totally see that. But the production of the ‘film’ truly is an artifice that allows an interrogation of murderers that would otherwise go entirely unseen.

          We have the opportunity to despise the Nazis because we have seen their crimes. If the alternative to using trickery to have a mass-murderer open up, admit their crimes and offer insight is silence enforced by their respective state – this seems to be the better option.

          • I have known something about this genocide thanks to noam Chomsky’s work for some years though who knows this may educate more or at least different people about it than all the literature that’s already out there on the subject, I’m not closed off completely to watching it just to challenge my own opinion I know it is showing at a theater close to me Im going to have to think about it

            • Agreed – this information has not yet been communicated to the general population.

              Anyway, hope you do decide to take a look. This is a morally hazy area best assessed on personal experience.

Leave a Reply