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The Act of Killing


 “The Act of Killing,” which took eight years to make, is an important exploration of the complex psychology of mass murderers. The film has the profundity of Gitta Sereny’s book “Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience,” for which she carried out extensive interviews with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, one of the Nazi extermination camps. Oppenheimer, too, presents candid confessions, interviewing some of the most ruthless murderers in Indonesia. One of these is responsible for perhaps 1,000 killings, a man named Anwar Congo, who was a death squad leader in Medan, the capital of the Indonesian province North Sumatra. The documentary also shows the killers performing bizarre re-enactments of murders.

 yearlong campaign to ostensibly exterminate communist leaders, functionaries, party members and sympathizers in that country. By its end, the bloodbath—much of it carried out by rogue death squads and paramilitary gangs—had decimated the labor union movement along with the intellectual and artistic class, opposition parties, university student leaders, journalists, ethnic Chinese and many who just happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. By some estimates, more than a million people were slaughtered. Many of the bodies were dumped into rivers, hastily buried or left on roadsides.

 

This campaign of mass murder is still mythologized in Indonesia as an epic battle against the forces of evil and barbarity, much as U.S. popular culture for many decades mythologized our genocide of Native Americans and held up our own killers, gunmen, outlaws and murderous cavalry units of the Old West as heroes. The onetime killers in the Indonesian war against communism are cheered at rallies today as having saved the country. They are interviewed on television about the “heroic” battles they fought five decades ago. The 3-million-strong Pancasila Youth—Indonesia’s equivalent of the Brown Shirts or the Hitler Youth—in 1965 joined in the genocidal mayhem, and now its members, like the death squad leaders, are lionized as pillars of the nation. It is as if the Nazis had won World War II. It is as if Stangl, instead of dying in the Duesseldorf remand prison as a convicted war criminal, came to be a venerated elder statesman as has Henry Kissinger.

There is a scene in the Oppenheimer film where Congo—who parades across the screen like a prima donna, his outsized vanity and love of fine clothing on display—is interviewed on “Special Dialogue,” a program of a state-owned television station with national coverage. I have substituted the word “Jew” for “communist” to put the moral bankruptcy of the Indonesian regime into a cultural context better understood by Americans.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“And was your method of killing inspired by gangster films?” she asks.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“Amazing!” she says. “He was inspired by films!”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“Each genre had its own method,” Congo says. “Like in Mafia movies, they strangle the guy in the car, and dump the body. So we did that too.”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“Young people must remember their history,” Ali Usman, a Pancasila Youth leader, interjects. “The future musn’t forget the past! What’s more, God must be against Jews.”

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"Times New Roman";color:black”>There is more applause.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black”>These same human bonds, along with the same schizophrenic self-delusion, can be glimpsed in photographs of off-duty Nazis in the book “Nein, Onkel: Snapshots From Another Front 1938-1945,” or in the photographs of off-duty SS camp guards at Auschwitz. One of the pictures in the Auschwitz album shows the SS leadership, including the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, and Dr. Joseph Mengele, who carried out inhuman medical experiments on children, in a raucous “sing-along” on a wooden bridge with an accordion player at Solahutte, an SS resort about 20 miles south of Auschwitz on the Sola River. Mothers and children not far away were being gassed to death, some of the 1 million people murdered at Auschwitz. And it is this disquieting moral fragmentation, this ability to commit mass murder and yet to see oneself as a normal, caring human being, that Oppenheimer astutely captures. The bifurcation between work and life—a bifurcation that many in the U.S. military, today’s fossil fuel or health insurance industry or Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs also must make—allows human beings who exploit, destroy and kill other human beings to blot out much of their daily existence. 

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"Times New Roman";color:black”>Congo crouches and puts his hands over his white, curly hair to imitate the last moment of his victims.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>He holds a piece of wood, about two feet long, and long wire.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>He secures the wire by wrapping one of it around a mounted pole. A friend, whose hands are behind his back, sits on the floor near the pole. Congo loops the wire around his friend’s throat. Standing several feet away, Congo pulls lightly on the wood that is attached to the other end of the wire to show how the victim was killed.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>He begins to dance on the rooftop in his white pants and white shoes.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“We shoved wood in their anus until they died,” Adi Zulkadry, a death squad leader, says later in the film as he is shown shopping in a mall in the capital Jakarta with his wife and daughter. “We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed, there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>” … If you want a true story, I have one,” the crew member volunteers. “Tell us,” Congo responds, “because everything in this film should be true.”

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"Times New Roman";color:black”>Congo and the other killers dismiss his story as inappropriate for the film because, as Herman Koto tells the crew member, “everything’s already been planned.”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“And your story is too complicated,” Congo adds. “It would take days to shoot.”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>When they carry out murder re-enactments, however, it triggers memories of a time when they were more than petty criminals, when they had license to do anything they wanted to anyone they chose in the name of the war against communism. 

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“Especially if you get one who’s only 14 years old,” he adds after he and some other death squad veterans pantomime molesting a girl and holding a knife to her throat. “Delicious! I’d say, it’s gonna be hell for you but heaven on earth for me.”

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";color:black”>“I remember I said, ‘Get out of the car,’ ” Congo says of one killing. “He asked, ‘Where are you taking me?’ Soon, he refused to keep walking, so I kicked him as hard as I could in the stomach. I saw Roshiman bringing me a machete. Spontaneously, I walked over to him and cut his head off. My friends didn’t want to look. They ran back to the car. And I heard this sound. His body had fallen down. And the eyes in his head were still. …”

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"Times New Roman";color:black”>“On the way home,” he finishes, “I kept wondering, why didn’t I close his eyes? And that is the source of all my nightmares. I’m always gazed at by those eyes that didn’t close.”
 

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