Film Review: “The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a film that Werner Herzog called “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” It is remarkable because its subjects are men with the blood of thousands on their hands, invited to re-imagine their crimes onscreen. The three, Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry and Herman Koto, do so gleefully. Aping the styles of film noir thrillers, westerns, and musicals; the group recreates war crimes they committed in 1965-66, following Suharto’s coup in Indonesia. The unique nature of the film is partially visual: the setpieces they stage are often dreamlike, in stark contrast with the horrors being recreated. More shocking than the surreal imagery, though, is the way that the killers boast with impunity about their acts. They move about their milieu and speak about their crimes freely, and this is what makes The Act of Killing such a shocking film. A society’s embrace of war inverts the moral order: it makes criminals into heroes, it renders victims nonexistent, and it supplants reality with propaganda, lies and mythology. The decision to let war criminals to go unpunished makes this inversion permanent and systemic. The Act of Killing is unique because it illustrates these realities by rendering the abstract visceral.

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First as tragedy, then as elaborate Hollywood-style production.

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