Like all great documentaries, The Act of Killing demands another way of looking at reality. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film. (Errol Morris)
Here Errol Morris, unknowingly, provides us with a succinct description of both the greatness and the concluding failure of the psycho-ideological level-jumping in The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012). The return into “bitter reality” alluded to by Morris is not the powerful note this film could have ended on. The makers of The Act of Killing made one – unfortunately nullifying – mistake; in the final moments they succumb to the temptation of solving the deadlock of the Real by concluding the narrative with a redemptive closure endowed with therapeutical meaning (where no meaning – outside of ideological fantasizing – is to be found).
The documentary presents us with the former members of an Indonesian death squad who are confronted and encouraged to reenact their past killings using the cinematic genres of their choice; from Hollywood noirs and westerns to musicals. They brag, they laugh, and most importantly, they seem to be altogether remorseless. It is against this backdrop Oppenheimer presents a most perplexing and unpleasant filmic experience.
Voices have been raised regarding the fact that the victims of the death squad members are unrepresented and absent throughout the film. This, however, is not where Oppenheimer’s narrative fails or regresses into ideological fantasy, on the contrary. While it is true that the larger part of the film is devoted to the surface of utter indifference reflected in Anwar Congo and his friends, these men function in a very distinct way as horrifying gatekeepers of the Real. Somewhere in the middle of the film the main antagonist says something quite profound: “I’m always gazed at by those eyes that I didn’t close.” (Referring to those corpses whose eyes he left open.) Is it not precisely here the victims reside, not only in the gaps of Congo’s symbolic reality but also in a kind of spectral diegetic space, forcing us – through the fundamental unrepresentability of their horrors – to assume the problematic counterpart of spectator and addressee of this historic-turned-filmic event? In this case, the absence of the victims highlights the abyssal void of suffering.
As the morbid reconstructions goes on, one has to accept that the entirely inhumane dimension of Anwar Congo’s persona is what endows the film with its subversive potential. As the story progresses one has to face that there are no explanations to be found behind the faces of the smiling ex-torturers. Instead what we are forced to face is the inhumanity of humanity, the Real of human cruelty.
However, I am thoroughly disappointed by the end scenes in which Congo finally breaks down, cries and asks if he have sinned. This is followed by a long final scene where he is depicted as sick to his stomach by the realization of what he has done, where we see him overwhelmed, trying to throw up in a kind of guilt-stricken convulsion. To me it is this last part of the film which ends up totally contrived, unreal and scripted, not the foregoing series of macabre reenactments. Why is Oppenheimer so sorely trying to provide the spectator with this fake closure? As if we are supposed to go “Oh, so in the end he really IS sorry, well I knew it, no man could be that evil, he actually feels guilt and pain…”. To me this move towards the end of the film – trying to gloss over the impossible evil – is the most disrespectful act towards the victims in the entire film, none of the abject reenactments of the past crimes comes close to the disrespectful message this film closes on (“Let’s focus on the goodness in all of us!”). This, I believe, is a striking example of how ideologico-symbolical thinking works to try and cover up the gaps in what we call reality. Here, the director falls into the trap of trying to solve the deadlock of the unspeakable cruelty – the traumatizing effect on the spectator in the encounter with the Real – via the help of a fantasmatic depiction of closure; a closure that should not be pursued if we want to honor the victims of past and spare the victims of tomorrow.
The radical nature of Oppenheimer’s narrative ends up a mere shadow of its potential. Weakened by the need to screen out that which is too unsettling the film forecloses on the potential which drives the progressive; that most fundamental force – the unbearable tension of being.
Mats Carlsson is an undergraduate at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, his special interests include psychoanalysis, phenomenology and critical theory applied within the framework of cinema in particular and the broader media landscape in general.