In The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer pulls off the impossible: He confronts great, incomprehensible evil and puts a human face on it. The horror is that it looks like a kindly grandfather. Anwar Congo is a fit, trim, sharply-dressed man who would go unnoticed, until he starts to speak about his past. Congo was one of street punks who became a death squad leader after the military overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965. Anyone deemed problematic by the new regime — intellectuals, artists, ethnic Chinese — were immediately branded communists and marked for execution. According to the film, one million people were killed in the span of one year.
In an early scene in the film, Congo revisits a rooftop that was one of his preferred killing floors. Initially, he and his men would bludgeon their captives to death. But that method proved too bloody. So Congo came up with a way of garrotting his victims with fishing wire, which he happily demonstrates for the camera. Then he performs a little dance, just for fun, in the exact spot where he presided over countless murders.
Congo also talks about going to the movies — Hollywood pictures were his favorites — then crossing the street to a place where prisoners were held and “killing them happily,” the echoes of Elvis Presley musicals playing in his head. That description sparked an idea in Oppenheimer’s mind: Inviting Congo and some of the other paramilitary officers who carried out mass executions to recreate the acts via short films set in various genres. In a lavish musical, female dancers emerge from a giant structure shaped like a fish, and Congo and fellow executioner Herman Koto lip-sync to Born Free — they’re liberating angels, sending the souls of their victims to an idyllic afterlife. In a horror movie, Congo’s abdomen is slashed open and Koto (dressed in bizarre drag) feeds him his own intestines. In a war movie, an entire village is decimated and its women raped, exactly the way the stern-faced soldier Azi Zuldakry remembers doing it. In a crime drama, Congo plays a suspected communist who is interrogated, confesses under duress and has his throat slit.
Via these films, The Act of Killing puts us inside the heads of men who are otherwise incomprehensible. They go on talk shows and brag about all the people they’ve killed. They hang out with governors and Indonesia’s vice-president. They say things like “All this talk about human rights pisses me off.” Zuldakry chuckles as he remembers going on a killing rampage, stabbing every Chinese he met to death, even though his girlfriend at the time was also Chinese (he killed her father, too). Sometimes they wonder if making the documentary is a bad idea, since it might reopen a chapter in Indonesian history the country has long pretended never happened.
In one astonishing sequence, a gangster works his way through a marketplace of Chinese vendors, extorting money from each of them in front of the camera, as if he were doing nothing wrong. The Act of Killing demonstrates how a society built on fear, violence and perpetual threat quickly learns to play by the rules. The three million members of the Pancalisa Youth paramilitary group, who dress in camouflage fatigues the color of flames, are the bullies that keep everyone in check, their eyes cast downward and their mouths shut. The only moment in the film where we see an honest reaction by a citizen to the reality they must endure is a brief shot of the control room of a TV station, where the crew briefly expresses their disbelief and disgust in the establishment.
But although the former squad leaders repeatedly claim they don’t feel guilty — if they had done something wrong, wouldn’t they have been punished? — Congo’s conscience starts to grow heavy over the course of the film. He admits he is troubled by nightmares. He starts flubbing his lines during the production of the short films, occasionally refusing to do another take. And in the film’s astonishing closing shot, we watch as Congo’s guilt and remorse seem to devour him whole. The Act of Killing is a bold reinvention of the documentary form, as well as an astounding illustration of man’s infinite capacity for evil. But by focusing on Congo, the movie also serves as a reminder of our inherent sense of empathy. You can’t possibly forgive the man for what he’s done, but you can’t just dismiss him as a monster, either.