A film like this…

Herzog-&-Oppenheimer-1-kontrastJoshua Oppenheimer & Werner Herzog

WH: The Act of Killing is not didactic at all, and I think that is one of the wondrous things about it, and one of its great strengths. The fact that everything we know about the situation comes from them is very powerful, and it is much more than that. We start to learn about the darkest recesses of the human soul, about the abysses inside of us, they are all revealed layer, by layer, by layer…

JO: Yes, the main character, one of the perpetrators, Anwar, has this need to show how the victims died, to play the victim, to re-enact the role of the victim, he also always wanted to tell us about his nightmares. He needed somebody to hear that, and in this whole political regime, which celebrated the killing and treated him as a kind of hero, no one would ever listen to him and hear about his nightmares…

WH: He wasn’t fooled or cheated into going wild? He would check out the footage that you did. And he would direct you sometimes, he would say: ‘Joshua, you got to cover this, are you rolling’?

We tell stories to escape from a very painful truth

JO: All the time.

WH: So, he took charge, not only directing himself, but he was also directing you in a way.

JO: Yes, He goes from feeling uncomfortable with certain scenes to proposing dyeing his hair black for the film… There is a scene where the perpetrators, our main characters, cross the street. It is one of those moments, where we totally love them, because they are so sweet, they are so open, they are so delightful and then it is going to make a terrible turn into one of those most awful moments in the film.

WH: And you haven’t really prepared the audience for what is coming. We are calm. It is a little bit like, let’s say Halloween, the very scary movie by Carpenter. You see a young lady, the protagonist, looking around, nobody here, nobody under the stairs, nobody in this room, we relax, there is nobody, and out of nowhere is the murder. And it’s the same in your film, out of nowhere, out of a very relaxed moment of costumes, all of a sudden it changes…

JO: Yeah, we love them in that moment of dress-up when they put on a pink hat. We love them in that moment, and this is one of the main uses of humour in The Act of Killing – there is a kind of humour where they are lovely, and we open up to them, and then they do something terrible. The warmth transforms unexpectedly into horror, and we enter the violence with them, not at a distance from them. That is my hope anyways…

WH: But this is how you organized your editing. It is a way of storytelling, it is not so much editing, it is storytelling, a sense of story that you understand and you let it evolve when it really evolves.

JO: It’s working a kind of tightrope from empathy to repulsion, empathy to repulsion and empathy to repulsion.

WH: There are moments in the film where they are very charming, and if you had such moments separately, you would think ‘what nice people and they are having a very good time.’

JO: Yes, even war criminals have to get brutalized by the dentists. Anwar’s teeth are an almost physical manifestation of his emotional pain. And Anwar is clinging to the anti-communist propaganda, and you understand that propaganda doesn’t just serve to justify your actions to the public, but also reassures the killers that what they did was right, it makes you realize that they are also human, because they also have to reassure themselves. They wouldn’t need to do that, if they didn’t know that what they did was wrong somehow.

WH: It is also very interesting how they discuss truth in cinema, and how they discuss the role of acting and directing a film into bringing a message across to an audience. Your film is very much about the art of filmmaking…

JO: … and how we tell ourselves stories in order to create our world, how we lie to ourselves to justify our actions. We tell stories to escape from a very painful truth.

WH: When we met for the first time, I saw eight minutes, and I knew ‘this is big’. There is a major, major artist filmmaker emerging: you. There, suddenly coming out of nowhere, coming out of the blue, coming at us with an absolutely great film. I am proud and glad that I supported the editing, and that I could encourage you to do what you did.

JO: You did.

WH: And that was my main role…

JO: Yes – Now getting back to the stories, we tell ourselves… At some point, one of the perpetrators, Adi, decides to tell the protagonist, Anwar, that everything is wrong, ‘we were wrong, we were the cruel ones, the propaganda is a lie, the communists have been horribly oppressed, there should be an apology’. And it is amazing that a perpetrator, who has killed so many people, is saying all these things. Anwar responds by saying he is afraid. Even here he says that they curse us secretly, because he knows it is wrong, and then he responds ultimately by talking about his nightmares. He says: ‘Look, it is not so simple if we accept, if we apologize, then what about my conscience?‘

WH: The theme of nightmare is solidly implanted into us, the audience, and it will play a larger role, I think, and imperceptibly some seeds that were in Anwar start to come to flourish. But Joshua, let’s face it, let’s talk about young filmmakers, aspiring, who always think: ‘Yeah film is so absolutely complicated, it costs so much money, and you have to convince a studio or a TV station or grant committees to finance your film’. You did most of your film all alone with just a digital camera, you even recorded the sound.

JO: Well, we had a sizeable documentary crew, but in the early part of the process, we had to borrow and beg to pay for the shoots. But the fact that there were no deadlines or funders waiting for what we were shooting in the beginning, gave us real freedom to develop the method. But then after the method was established, our producer, Signe Byrge Sørensen, came across the material and got extremely excited, and she took enormous risks to actually be able to fund the whole production, including money to pay for the first shoots, which had not been financed. In fact, she brought the film to Copenhagen. Going into Copenhagen with the film was sort of like walking into a home I didn’t know I had…

WH: One of the things I always wondered about the films inside the film is: ‘Why is the character Herman in drag? Does he represent the goddess of revenge?’

JO: Yeah, I think he does represent the goddess of revenge. Anwar has dreams of victims taking revenge, so he has decided that Herman should be…

WH: In theatre productions all the roles are acted by men, like in Shakespearean times.

JO: Yeah that is right. The paramilitary had a theatre troupe, and all of the parts, all of the actors in the theatre troupe were played by men.

WH: Including the female roles.

JO: Yeah, it was only men in the theatre troupe, because it was a paramilitary theatre troupe. So Herman would play this matronly storyteller and Anwar thought that was wonderful and funny, and wanted it for his film. Herman is always the drag in the nightmare scenes and some of the musical scenes, so Anwar imagines that Herman is the daughter of a communist who takes revenge.

WH: So I wasn’t really that far off trying to figure out what the hell is going on with the man in drag?

JO: Not at all, he stole the story from Samson and Delilah for his nightmares, because it is a simple revenge story, where Samson kills Delilah’s father and then Delilah, whom he loves, takes revenge.

So Herman is essentially dressed up in drag by Anwar to play Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah

WH: How much did you film during the making?

JO: When I went home I had 560 hours of footage.

WH: It is normally a bad sign when you shoot too much. I try to warn young filmmakers, don’t shoot too much…

JO: Yeah, don’t try this at home…

WH: When you do it, somebody like you, you have to have a certain intellectual calibre in the entire venture, otherwise you do filming and you have no idea, no clue what you are doing, and you collect and collect, and everything is mediocre. You have to have real intellectual and visionary calibre to do that. And you have to get to know Indonesia, and you have to know how to operate your own camera, and you have to study, and you have to speak languages, and you have to know how to tell a story. Then I would allow you to shoot as much as necessary, because you don’t know exactly where it takes you.

JO: When I make films, I don’t want to know where I am going. It is very important to me to not know where I am going…

WH: But you have strong conceptual thinking, right?

JO: I knew what every scene we were shooting was.

WH: Sometimes things fall into your lap, but once things have rained down from the clouds, you have to recognize them, you have to see them. I keep insisting you have to be conceptual; you have to see the power of something that might have felt obtrusive during filming… May I ask a question? How do you sleep at the end of all this?

JO: You know when you get this close, this intimate with people who are telling you and showing you such awful things, you are vulnerable to them. I don’t know how to make a film, honestly, with somebody, about a whole person with all their complexity and majesty and strangeness, without being close and intimate. And when you are close and intimate you are vulnerable, so I had nightmares throughout the shooting.

WH: Are any of them afraid of the court in The Hague?

JO: No, right after one of characters says ‘they are going to take me to The Hague’, he says: ‘Josh, of course they are not going to take me to The Hague. You know that The Hague has no interest in prosecuting this, you know…’

WH: Technically, legally, they cannot prosecute him, even if you send him to the Netherlands, the court of The Hague couldn’t because of the constitution.

JO: The Hague is not allowed to prosecute crimes that were committed before it was constituted as a court.

WH: This court was formed in the seventies or eighties.

JO: Yeah, it was formed after 1965. One of the characters, Adi, says, in a moment of total vanity: ‘Bring me to The Hague’. That sentence only makes sense because we live in a time where vanity and being famous has transformed from a deadly sin to a virtue. But he then says: ‘You know I will never be brought to The Hague, because the West has no interest in having me be brought to The Hague.’ He says: ‘This is the West’s vision for Indonesia, the military dictatorship, the genocide, the ongoing corruption, this is what America wants for Indonesia.’

WH: Speaking about Indonesia, what happens when you return to Indonesia now with the film? Will they arrest you? What will happen?

JO: I am not aware of any particular ban on me, I am quite sure I can get into Indonesia, but I don’t think I will get out again. I receive threats all the time. One of them, the mildest, was along the lines of: ‘If the director of The Act of Killing returns to Indonesia the title will be changed to The Act of Being Killed’. But that is a mild threat, some are worse. It is just obvious that the paramilitary movement in Indonesia and the Pancasila Youth and the military hate me. And the people screening this film in Indonesia, it is the survival…

WH: It has changed perspectives there, it is very important in clandestine screenings, it is everywhere now.

JO: Yeah, as of April 2013, which is six months after the film came out, it had been screened 500 times in 95 cities, with audiences clandestine, ranging in size from 30 people to 700 people. You see the screenings at university campuses don’t have to be clandestine. And it has totally changed the media. There is a time before The Act of Killing and a time after the media has seen the film, we can’t pretend this doesn’t exist; we have to talk about the genocide. At some point, the main character, Anwar, said that the strangeness of the method, re-enacting what they did, is a selling point for the film. It makes it more interesting than films about the Nazis, which we watch as a power of sadism. And sort of perversely he is right about the film capturing people’s imaginations, because it is so unusual, and because of exactly what he says.

WH: But you also know when to attack?

JO: Yes… My advice for nonfiction filmmakers is that you have to be really present in the situation. What is the most important question to ask?

WH: You have to have the wisdom of the snake, and that is advice to all the filmmakers who ask me: ‘Coil up like a snake and then all of a sudden strike’, but you have to know the moment.

JO: You are more present in your documentaries these days than I. You are very precise with that.

WH: It is not that it is only politicians who are corrupt; the people who run for office are also corrupt.

JO: The people are corrupt, the whole moral…

WH: So it is easy to say the politicians and the system, but the system is everyone.

JO: The film really witnesses the moral and political and cultural bankruptcy, the vacuum that is inevitable when you build your whole society on mass killing and fear. And to some extent my country, the US, there is some of that too.

WH: Your country you said, but you do also hold a British passport.

JO: I do.

WH: But you do feel more like an American?

JO: I am an American; I grew up here, it’s home. I was born in Texas, grew up in New Mexico and Washington D.C, then went to university here, and then went to Europe.

WH: You studied at Harvard and got a Ph.D. there?

JO: That is right, but I got my Ph.D. in London, and then I stayed there for many years, and began this project there, and ultimately moved to Denmark, which is actually now my home.

WH: Now, back to your academic background, you studied which field? I am just curious.

JO: At Harvard?

WH: Yes.

JO: I went to Harvard initially interested in theoretical physics and philosophy, and it was a very boring time for physics, because it was before string theory, and before this particle accelerator could make black holes by colliding particles together, and we were all being sort of pushed into engineering. And I then went into film looking for ways to sort of explore how our surface reality, which looks so factual and dull, what is really making it up is this sort of maelstrom of stories and fantasies, and that is what I try to reveal through this film.

WH: It somehow translates your kind of relentless curiosity, and how you hang on in in that… you are trained in conceptual thinking, you are trained in observing nature, and trying to figure out the innermost loss of nature. I always prefer filmmakers who are not coming from film studies, and very often of course today from film schools, I personally prefer someone who comes from theoretical physics, although it is not related to cinema, but it is good to have a solid background, somewhere else, even working as a farmer milking cows.

Coil up like a snake and then all of
a sudden strike

JO: You were welding?

WH: To make money, I worked as a welder in a steel factory for a while during high school. But it is good to know what it means to work with your hands, it’s good to know how to work conceptually, and think conceptually like you have done.

JO: The construction of the film opens a space for a subtext. The protagonist Anwar is trying to lie to himself, he is saying: ‘I want to make a beautiful family movie about mass killing’. Thinking that if he can succeed at that, he can make it okay for himself. And I say: ‘Well look at what you have shot, the communist’s children, will the victims will be able to enjoy this?’ There is this doubt all over his face, he is lying to himself, and this whole film is so much about people who don’t believe the words they are saying. It opens a space, particularly with screening back the rushes and letting people respond, opens a space for subtext, which is what film is really good at for emotions that are not spoken, for silences. And then there we keep this little theme about him being caring, keep the conscience alive, and keep returning to him feeding the ducks, as a way to go back into the nightmares. When they’re shooting the scene with Anwar’s nightmare and the ghost that comes back to avenge himself, he can’t say this simple line: ‘I thought I killed you’. ‘What is wrong?’ Herman says. ‘Why are you alive?’

WH: That is wonderful stuff, and the ghost, I mean I have never seen anything like that.

JO: There must have been 30 takes; they could never get it right. When we needed to go deep into their emotions we had to get rid of the crew and create these spaces where Anwar could improvise…

WH: It is not about filmmaking again, it is about subtext.

JO: And here the film makes a transition, I think, from a documentary where we have been following people making a film, into the first dip into a fever dream.

WH: Yes. And you worked a long, long time towards that moment, the soil has to be prepared. Now you have a very, very beautiful and strange image. And then you hear him in voiceover. You can’t make this shift randomly, it is not a question of editing really, it is a question of understanding, in this story there is a separate, parallel inner story that occurs to your actors, that occurs to us in the audience as well, and to understand what it means to address the separate story that is inside of us, the audience, and when to introduce certain things.

Like for example in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, there is a very strange moment, when one of the Spaniards is hit by a gigantic arrow, something like six feet long, and he grabs the arrow calmly that has pierced through his body, and he says: ‘The long arrows are becoming fashionable’ and then he drops dead. I waited very long to prepare for this moment, it is a sort of turning point – from then on everything is more or less like a fever dream. And you are here, doing a fever dream.

JO: Yes…

WH: What constitutes taste and what constitutes art for your protagonists is very, very interesting.

JO: Yes, and how they – or we – destroy everything we touch, hollowed, collecting for vanity. I sometimes think that the European nobility must have started this way when they were plundering warlords, but you know more about this…

WH: Maybe, but it reminds me more of Adolph Hitler, his understanding of art, his own paintings and sketches that we still have, a few of them. And was it art, was it quality, and what was official art and what had to be burned and eradicated? And here it is a bit like that. It is a hideous kind of taste. This singing fish on Herman’s wall is absolute kitsch and of course hilarious…

JO: It is singing ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. It is like they don’t know the difference between what is alive and what is dead, and what is glass and what is living, what is instinct…

WH: It is like absurd theatre…

JO: One of the rules I set for myself was that every scene that we make for Anwar should make his specifications as powerful, as beautiful, and as majestic as possible, so this, of course, could have been shot like a cheap Southeast Asian karaoke video, but then we would be smearing them, we would be mocking them. I wanted the audience to be transported by the same things that transport Anwar.

WH: Yeah, and this is most bizarre here.

JO: In this scene with the waterfall is the punch line of the entire regime, this is the unmasking of the whole regime. This is a country where the victims, million victims, thank us for killing them and sending them to heaven.

WH: And Anwar’s gaze over the horizon that was no instruction, he knew he had to look into a vague indefinite distance and his gaze over the horizon…

JO: Yeah, that is right. It is something that we probably all know. It is the terrible consequence of TV.

WH: I remember that I said: ‘If you cut this and the following, the end sequence, down, you have lived in vain.’ That answers the question of what my role was in all this.

JO: That is right, you kept this ending intact. That huge shot of the waterfall, contains somehow all the rot, not just of Anwar’s journey, but the dead animals doubly killed, wrapped in plastic, the extinct rhino, the stealing of land, the stealing in the market, Anwar, all of it, the death, the corruption, the moral emptiness, the cultural emptiness and it makes him so proud, the shallowness. Hannah Arendt said that Eichmann suffered from acute shallowness.

WH: That is very well said.

JO: That was all Eichmann suffered from, but Anwar doesn’t, because it is not enough for Anwar that waterfall scene, it is a quick fix but it offers no lasting solace.

WH: I have never seen a movie like this, and I will never see a movie like this again. You know it. I don’t have to watch another 5000 films to know, you just know it. _

Excerpts from a dialogue between Joshua Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog, recorded as a commentary to the director’s cut of THE ACT OF KILLING, to be released on DVD end of 2013.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Anonymous, Christine Cynn,
Denmark, Norway, UK, 2012, 115/159 mins. 

Directed by John Carpenter,
USA, 1979. 91 mins.

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille,
USA, 1949. 131 mins.

Directed by Werner Herzog,
West Germany, 1972. 93 mins.


Joshua Oppenheimer (b. USA 1974) was educated at Harvard and Central St. Martin’s, London. His award-winning films include The Globalization Tapes (2003, co-directed with Christine Cynn) and The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1998). Based in Copenhagen and London, Oppenheimer is Artistic Director of the Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film at the University of Westminster, and has published widely on the themes of political violence and the public imagination.

Werner Herzog (real name Werner H. Stipetic) was born in Munich on September 5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and had no exposure to films, television, or telephones as a child. He started travelling on foot from the age of 14. He made his first phone call at the age of 17. During high school he worked the nightshift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films, making his first film in 1961 at the age of 19. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than fifty films, published more than a dozen books of prose and directed as many operas.


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