Historical fiction is a popular literary genre, and such books sometimes ponder what might have happened if Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party had won World War Two. Without intending to, Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing might present the answer.
In two, relatively short scenes, no less.
The first: Herman Koto, a paramilitary leader, is campaigning for parliament and finds citizens repeatedly reproaching him for not bringing them gifts. Through voice-over Koto explains that modern Indonesian political parties buy votes from the populace, and also pay citizens to attend political rallies. The citizens, he argues, think of it as ‘going to work.’ The final visual: two performers at one such rally looking dejected and bored.
The second scene: through voice-over Adi Zulkadry, a former Indonesian death squad leader, explains why he has never felt guilt for the crimes he committed decades earlier. The visual? Zulkadry walking through a glitzy shopping mall, his family alongside him, his daily life uninterrupted.
What would have happened if the Nazis had won World War Two? Our lives might be basically the same, except we’d be paid to pretend we love those who suffocate freedom.
The end credits hammer home this theme, when they show at least half the crew refusing identification.
Yet, it is only one of many themes propelling The Act of Killing, which is the film’s greatest strength.
Though far from the only one. Oppenheimer, the director, delivers a grippingly human story, one that repulses and horrifies us, not just because it documents genocide, often through re-enactments, but also because it highlights our similarity to the murderers in front of us. Like everyone else, they tell stories to explain their reality, to distance themselves from brutality.
The director’s ability to bring forth several powerful themes simultaneously is only one example of his brilliance. His artistic choices are another. He uses an Anwar Congo (the film’s principle subject and another former death squad leader) conceived musical number as a recycled framing device. It becomes a transition between events and a thematic reminder.
During re-enactments, Oppenheimer lingers on victims’ faces, ensuring we feel fear and disgust, even though we know on-screen events are simulations.
Some of Oppenheimer’s camera angles and frames are inventive and interesting. Even better, they’re never arbitrary. When the director shoots behind a flame, for instance, he communicates horror and panic.
Oppenheimer’s emotional passivity is even more praise-worthy. With one lone (and effective) exception, he refuses to become part of the story, refuses to tell us his purpose or to lead his subjects into telling us for him. Instead, he trusts his artistry and post-production skill to show us.
For these reasons and more, Joshua Oppenheimer deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Director, not just Best Documentary. This is especially in his Director’s Cut, where he skillfully uses additional minutes to help us further understand his subjects and the society in which they live.
If only because he has crafted a perfect film. Sure, he doesn’t explain how his subjects’ re-enactments link together. And yes he sometimes fails to introduce on-screen personalities. But such things do not matter. This movie is flawless.