9) The Act of Killing
In Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark plots to get the King to betray his own treachery, saying, “The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. Murder has no tongue, but miraculously it still finds a way to speak.” Director Joshua Oppenheimer seemed to take those words to heart when he made The Act of Killing, which invited Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, leaders of an Indonesian death squad under Suharto, to film re-enactments of their killing campaigns. The scenes captured by Oppenheimer are stunning for their lack of humanity, and leave the viewer speechless as Congo and Zulkadry talk about genocide in such maddeningly pedestrian terms. But was he able to “catch the conscience” of the men?
It’s hard tell what’s more disturbing about The Act of Killing – the growing meticulousness and artistry through which Congo and company relive their methodical mass murders, or when they comment on how their domain was an “office of blood” for the number of people they killed, or that they were always examining how to “wipe out the communists in a more humane way.”
Vexingly, as one finds oneself ready to indict these men as complete monsters, painstakingly reliving their own monstrosity, Congo shows tenderness to one of the actors overwhelmed by his role as one of his countless victims. Of course, such tenderness was lacking as Congo went about killing 1,000 people with a garrotte. But as you begin to wonder how Oppenheimer’s clinical detachment is able to hold, it becomes Congo’s turn to play the victim and soon enough he begins to buckle under the pressure of reliving his crimes from the receiving end of his brutality.
Suddenly one begins to feel for this brutal man, even as one’s imagination lingers on the real horrors he just helped re-imagine as if they were some kind of Hollywood slasher film. “My conscience told me they had to be killed,” Congo says through tears, but as a justification after the fact one simply cannot forgive him. How can someone who killed so many people, so clinically, not on any level think for a minute that what they were doing might have been wrong? It is hard to decide where the power of The Act of Killing lies. Is it in the way Oppenheimer takes judgment out of the equation? Is it in the way the soldiers elaborately re-live their crimes? Is it the greater question of the human condition, how we draw the lines between black and white, good and evil? Either way, there has probably been no more complex or complete criminal confession ever caught on video.