The Act of Killing

Sep 1, 2013

Don't see this doc if you demand to witness a just world in your movies.

The Act of Killing

Grade: A- Director: Joshua Oppenheimer (The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase) with Christine Cynn

Cast: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto as themseves

Rating: NR

Runtime: 115 min.

by John DeSando

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets” Voltaire

The above quote, appearing in The Act of Killing before the titles, permeates one of the strangest and most disturbing documentaries you will ever see. I’m not recommending it for faint-hearted liberals because its non-bloody violence is disturbing to the core of what we are as human beings.

After the slaughter of more than a million communists in the wake of the 1965 military coup in Indonesia, directors Josh Oppenheimer,  Christine Cynn, and Anonymous (Werner Herzog?) frame a compelling doc around two flamboyant thugs, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto. They gleefully re-enact their murder scenes sometimes imitating gangbanger brio from American noir cinema. Congo dresses like a 1970’s B-movie gangster while seeming to channel Nelson Mandela’s demeanor, and Koto cross-dresses in garish colors with chilling detachment.

Surreal it is: These two operatives glory in their achievement over 40 years ago, and the extras surrounding them verify their rock-star status. Try not to be disgusted. To the directors’  credit, they mostly refrain from intruding in the grim reality that these thugs have outrun Nemesis and have attained a perverted glory. The artful element is running a “film” motif throughout, i.e., the heroes re-enact scenes revealing the influence of gangster movies as they torture and murder. The directors let us see the sadistic pleasure the protagonists take imitating American crime movies.

A recurring abandoned fish-shaped restaurant with dancing girls spilling out of its mouth not only certifies the bizarre quality of this doc but also serves as a leitmotif that anything goes when murder is an unapologetic complement to a noxious time in history. The enraptured host of a talk show on Televisi Republik Indonesia interviewing the two “stars” serves as surrogate for the fawning public that allowed, indeed encouraged, the barbarisms against suspected “communists.”

The gangster theme handily allows us to see at least one influence on unrepentant murderers. Yet, the ending, probably not manipulated by the directors, shows the delayed disgust Congo feels for himself as he retches while visiting the killing field so long ago.

Don’t see The Act of Killing if you want your stories tied up neatly where the bad guys are duly punished. But if you want a hint of motivation for grand masters of genocide such as Hitler and Stalin, then see The Act of Killing as a help in understanding the complexity of horror sanctioned by the state and its meanest citizens.

“Exterminate all the brutes.” Colonel Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at