It’s a sticky question to ask, especially when discussing something as intensely horrifying as genocide, what goes through a person’s mind when they are murdering another human being – its far easier, as most tend to do, to think of such people as anything but human. Filmmaker and Harvard alumni Joshua Oppenheimer the atrocities of genocide in his blood – a great deal of his grandfather’s family was wiped out during the Holocaust – so it immediately feels counterintuitive that he should be the kind of man who would travel to Indonesia to interview former thugs who slaughtered hundreds of people during the Communist purge back in the mid-1960’s. The premise of Killing is Oppenheimer offering to document the “glories” of these thugs, specifically Anwar Congo who is recognized as a national hero. What occurs thereafter is what Oppenheimer himself called “a fever dream,” grotesque not only because of the horrors that are laughingly recounted but because it forces the audience to ask uncomfortable questions: why did they do this? How do they see themselves? How do they think other people see them?
Confident that they could not be prosecuted for their crimes forty years after the fact, Congo leads the pack of former killers in unguarded confessions about all of the things they’ve done and in spectacular fashion – inspired by the Hollywood films they loved so much as young men, the film includes musical numbers, dance-fantasy scenes, and gangster-style vignettes complete with snazzy suits and fedoras. It’s an unrelenting movie though, despite these extravaganza with these middle-aged and elderly men prancing around and unwittingly making asses out of themselves. When the audience first meets Congo, dressed like Nelson Mandela’s doppelganger on summer vacation in the Hamptons, he happily and proudly takes the viewers on a fieldtrip to a rooftop where he carried out multiple executions – not only that but he demonstrates how he did it. There are lots of moments like this, moments of shock and delirium, and they only escalate in barbarism; though its never directly admitted, after watching these men intimidate Chinese (who were also targeted during the genocide) shop-owners for money, the unrest grows as you get the feeling that these people still remorselessly slaughter when it so suits them. In short the film manages to capture human chaos at its most spontaneous and most cruel – it’s no wonder why Werner Herzog produced it.
There isn’t a film I’ve seen in resent memory that feels so much like a window into hell on Earth. Killing is an epic and excruciating climb up a mountain of debauchery and terror, and if you have the constitution to hold out through the painful moral struggle that is watching what occurs on the screen in front of you there is something, though varying in forms, satisfying waiting at the top; telling you what that might be would take away from that victory suffice to say that finding it within yourself to grit your teeth through it is its own reward if not a means to an end.