Imagine, for one sobering moment, that the Nazis had triumphed in World War II. No suicides in bunkers, no Nuremberg Trials, no reparations, no apologies, no guilt-burdened children and grandchildren. Hold on, it's going to get even worse.
Conceive of a filmmaker in, say, 1965, approaching Klaus Barbie about making a documentary about his wartime tenure as the head of the Gestapo in a key French city. The Butcher of Lyon, still savoring the nickname bestowed by his grieving, terrorized victims, charmingly offers the director much more than a candid sit-down interview: He'll take him to the former Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Terminus and demonstrate how he tortured and killed countless enemies of the state in the basement.
The lack of remorse, the arrogance in the absence of law or justice, the sheer impunity of this paragon of evil -- just the suggestion may be enough to turn your stomach. Now you have some small sense of The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer's one-of-a-kind documentary about the cheerful perpetrators of Indonesia's mass murders of suspected Communists, intellectuals, leftists and Chinese nationals in the 1960s.
I recognize that a healthy response of most readers would be to avoid any dark room with unrepentant thugs who've gotten away with murder. So I'm well aware that I've already sabotaged my goal of encouraging you to see The Act of Killing. Plainly, it's not a film for everyone. But it is essential viewing for anyone concerned about the conditions that allow ordinary people to justify their participation in mass killing. And for moviegoers interested in the ethics of filmmaking, documentary and otherwise, The Act of Killing is a fascinating, disturbing Escher print.
Let me put it this way: There has never been a film like this, and there likely will never be another. Frankly, if that isn't enough to rouse you, you're not as serious about movies as you may think.
The Act of Killing is set in a bizarro world where military and paramilitary figures who supervised and carried out a campaign of interrogation, annihilation and terror beginning in 1965 are still in power, still seen as patriots and rock stars and seemingly incapable of introspection, let alone self-doubt. The camera doesn't lie, however, and we can see what they cannot -- notably in a harrowing sequence in which an obsequious acquaintance of aging gangster Anwar Congo, the film's main subject, breaks down recalling the callous, undignified slaughter of his stepfather decades earlier and his own cowardly response.
Surely we know right from wrong, and don't need this movie to spell out the evil deeds that took place (with the backing of the U.S. government, although Oppenheimer chooses not to pursue that connection). However, The Act of Killing does a great service by taking the time to indict the current government, which employs the same fascistic paramilitary group to intimidate the populace. And, as I alluded to previously, by providing the shocking experience of hanging out with people utterly clueless about their moral compass compared to the other six billion human beings on the planet.
Indeed, the way in which Anwar Congo and his pals represent themselves is the most confounding and challenging aspect of this remarkable documentary. If we accept the premise that nowadays everyone is performing for the camera -- never mind the illusion that most nonfiction filmmakers peddle, namely that they captured candid behavior -- is Anwar Congo more or less honest than the typical documentary subject? Are we seeing the real person, for once, as they see themselves, without the need to present a more likable or idealized self (for the simple reason that they regret nothing, are ashamed of nothing, and have no motivation to don a mask)?
The Act of Killing is the rare film that requires discussion and interpretation, not least because it messes with your usual ways of evaluating truth and behavior in movies. It's a horror show, all right, that puts the viewer through a Tilt-a-Whirl of emotions (including, on occasion, boredom, it must be said). It's one of a small handful of worthwhile films currently playing in theaters -- if you've got a strong stomach.
The Act of Killing opens Friday, August 9, 2013 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley, and Friday, August 16 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.