Greetings again from the darkness. To some: a national hero. To others: a monster or war criminal. Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer’s concept was either to re-examine history or study the dark side of human nature. Either way, this is one of the most disturbing, difficult to watch documentaries I’ve ever seen.
The film begins with this quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”. We then read text that provides the only historical background provided by the film … the Indonesian coup in 1965 that led to a year long slaughter of anyone deemed to be a communist. In reality, the definition was quite broad and basically included anyone who wasn’t totally onboard with the new power structure.
To carry out the massacre, a death squad of gangsters was employed and Oppenheimer recruits one of the most brutal of these gangsters to an “art” project: recreate your most heinous kills in whatever film genre you prefer. Anwar Congo agrees and even arranges for his accomplices to join in. The result is the most bizarre mixture of classic-type Hollywood crime thrillers and even a surreal musical number with bold colors and a giant metal fish.
That’s the best description I can provide. While I found myself unable to look away, this is not one that can really be recommended as a form of entertainment. There are some stunning moments here, but it’s nauseating to recall. An Indonesian TV talk show host is giddy to have these “heroic” gangsters on her show. Congo gathers his grandchildren to watch a brutal re-enactment of one of his missions. Their discussions of how important movies were to their murderous activities could lead to further analysis of the role of art in violence, but instead it points out why Congo agreed to this project in the first place – his ego is such that he seems himself as a Bogart type hero.
Renowned documentary filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are both listed as producers, but some of the crew is listed as “anonymous” and who can blame them? While there seems to be no regret and no guilt for previous actions, there is an odd, extended scene where Congo’s guttural bellows and dry-heaving leave us wondering if maybe there is a crack in his facade … or is he just caught up in his performance. I’m not sure and I hope to never watch this again.
watch the trailer: