The Act of Killing ★★★½

"The horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny," Hannah Arendt categorically/correctly states in Eichmann in Jerusalem, before detailing some specific ways Adolf Eichmann's blithe translation of his deeds into stock "lofty phrases" were darkly humorous as examples of unconvincing evasion and euphemism. That sentiment goes for much of The Act Of Killing, an unnervingly bracing work of documentary black comedy, whose closest precedent in my mind is the practically stand-alone segment in Shoah when Simon Srebnik returns to Chelmno, site of his concentration camp, standing in front of a church with villagers who in record time begin spewing unabashed anti-Semitism. You couldn't write polemical satire this effectively (it'd be too heavy-handed) and The Act Of Killing's catalogue of former death-squad men bragging about (and being applauded for!) their mass killing feats regularly exceeds belief in the same manner; it's like watching people turn into vampires in broad daylight. Only during the end credits, with uncountable "ANONYMOUS" placeholders, did the activist daring and very real attempt to effect social change hit home.

The cross-hatched noir lighting in one of the "interrogation re-creations" is worthy pastiche in its own right; Oppenheimer doesn't only maintain his cool while conducting nerve-wracking interviews but by allowing his subjects minutes at a time to luxuriate in aesthetic evasions of their own devising. That these tend to pure kitsch, including a heartfelt climactic rendition of "Born Free," undermines them automatically. Documentarians are supposed to be good humanists and protect their subjects from themselves, helping to highlight their less outrageous aspects, but certain extraordinary exceptions arise. Some cuts between flat descriptions of killings and said henchmen mugging in drag could be cheap shots, but here these decisions seem justifiable in the face of overwhelming awfulness. (That said, in the climactic massacre sequence, I'm skeptical of what I take as Oppenheimer filming the sequence in his "own" deglamorized style: out-of-focus screaming and terror that's upsetting in suggesting that the villagers are being forced to re-enact things they'd rather upset, but conventionally presentational in its shot choices in ways hewing perilously close to generic "powerful" Killing Fields terrain. But that's a minor quibble.)

Also, here I rounded up some Indonesian English-language pieces to hopefully provide more information on the domestic release reception etc.