The Act of Killing Is a Masterpiece of Murder and the Movies

More terrifying than any horror film, and more intellectually adventurous than just about any 2013 release so far, The Act of Killing is a major achievement, a work about genocide that rightly earns its place alongside Shoah as a supreme testament to the cinema's capacity for inquiry, confrontation, and remembrance.

To dub Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary a masterpiece is at once warranted and yet somehow limiting, the term too narrow for what the first-time American filmmaker achieves with his debut. A sprawling study of the aftermath of the 1960s mass killings in Indonesia by Suharto's coup-installed military regime and death squads, the film morphs, in ways both ghastly and glorious, into an examination of institutionalized violence, guilt on individual and national scales, and the role of cinema to both shape and reflect our darkest impulses.

The Act of Killing shares the keen eye for investigation that defines the nonfiction work of its illustrious producers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. And like their docs, it spirals into horrifying surrealism from a seemingly simple starting point: in this case, interviewing some of the paramilitary leaders and self-described "gangsters" employed to eradicate anyone deemed a "communist"—in practice, almost anyone not loyal to the new regime.

Location Info


Landmark Sunshine Cinema

143 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10002

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Lower East Side


The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Drafthouse Films
Opens July 19, Landmark Sunshine

The surprise is that these men are eager to tell their tales, often indulging in graphic detail to describe, for example, the best means of murdering captives without spilling much blood (with a wire around the neck). They even enjoy re-enacting their state-sanctioned murders on camera, at Oppenheimer's invitation, adopting the lurid styles of the violent Hollywood crime films that influenced their actual violence back in the day.

Oppenheimer opens with the killers making their movie. We see the rotund, disheveled Herman Koto and the slender, debonair Anwar Congo—the latter responsible for more than 1,000 murders, many carried out with that wire-strangling technique—searching neighborhoods they once attacked for locals to play parts in a re-enactment. What follows is ugly, even mad: Surrounded by a throng of onlookers, a proud and enthusiastic Herman shows the crowd how to panic. He flails his arms and screams hysterically as he pretends to be a woman begging that her house not be burned down. At first confused, a few women comply with Herman's demands to mimic this performance; later, the kids forced to participate in this upsetting pantomime are quickly brought to tears. It's impossible to forget that some of these people might have suffered real crimes at Herman's and Anwar's hands.

That's just one example of how the documentary twists reality and fiction. That knottiness culminates with Anwar's neighbor recalling to these killers his own tale of woe, when his stepfather answered a nighttime knock at the door in 1965 and was never seen again. Speaking with nervous laughter, the neighbor professes to Anwar and Herman that he of course means no criticism with his story—and then, to prove it, he agrees to play the role of a strangled victim in a scene set in a nightclub, pretending to be choked to death by the men responsible for the deaths of members of his family.

These monsters proudly proclaim that their work in the '60s was influenced by the movies, although they anachronistically cite Scarface and The Godfather as direct influences on both their tactics and their sleek, swanky fashion sense. It's also clear that their madness stems from something deeper in the country's fabric. The Act of Killing examines these killers' relationship to the 3 million–strong paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, which continues to operate outside Indonesian law even as it works in tandem with the government. In a stunning scene, the country's vice president speaks to the group, jokingly condoning their blackmail-and-beatings thuggery. What emerges is a portrait of systemic fanaticism and brutality celebrated by both the political powers that be and TV personalities who merrily praise the men's noble "extermination" work.

Damning only through incisive observation, Oppenheimer presents Indonesia as a country where the reigning historical narrative validates mass murder as necessary and good. That means glorified horror abounds in the men's re-creations of their atrocities, such as the massacre of a village full of women and children—a sequence that culminates with one paramilitary strongman's boastful recollections about raping 14-year-old girls. This vileness goes hand in hand with surrealism, none more surprising than a musical number in which the men (including a cross-dressing Herman) and dancers emerge from a giant seaside fish statue. As they sway in front of a waterfall, some of their "victims" appear to thank them for murdering them. Then the killers ascend to heaven.

Anwar and Herman's cold-hearted compatriot Adi Zulkadry believes that his assassinations were justified because he committed them, got away with them, and continues to be praised for them. That ruthless winners-write-history morality is countered by the transformation of Anwar, who by placing himself in the role of those he killed—including one fictionalized re-creation designed like a '20s gangster movie—finds himself increasingly horrified, maybe even driven insane, by what he's done. Anwar's awakened self-awareness is a stunning example of the cinema's power to expose truth and alter perception. Healing, however, is a commodity in short supply in The Act of Killing, which affords neither hope for a brighter Indonesian future nor salvation for Anwar. In a final scene of literal gut-wrenching intensity, he visits his old rooftop-courtyard killing ground. Left alone with the memories of his sins, he's wracked with uncontrollable retching. Nothing, though, will come up—it's a lifetime's worth of evil finally rising to the surface, but still impossible to purge.

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(a poem review of the film The Act of Killing)

All laid bare by boundless sight.

More than anything else,

You’re a doctor.

Colleges sit what you’re sayin’ –

I don’t talk to you.

Shows it’s emergency.

When it’s difficult

Leave your foot in water.

Bodies in there bound.


Nobody’s gotten away.

Where is the terminão?

Just wait.

You can go that way,

That fill up:

Goddamn they pay.

How many places they got here?

What does owe about it tell?

What do you mean?

Start some good work,


I’m trapped;

I begin to feel it.


(What is his name,


Identity card



Your source of emergency,

The bringer of justice.

What do you mean nothin’?

They will fit the pair of shoes

They wear on punishment.

I might tell ‘er:

See you can’t

Escort a cop?

Punishment’s all intoxicating.

It loses reality at the front door.

One more time:

Pain it,

No it doesn’t,

Put empathy in your heart,


The bad man don’t matter,

That’s the attitude.

It was such a hidden mistake

Now we’re seein’

The killer in touch with his empathy.

Listen teachers this is what they’re talkin’ about so much.

Just showed it to ‘im



Wait a minute,

My orders were up front:


There’s this bad guy…

Relatively new

Letting him speak.

Girl for surgery arrived.

You, didn’t let ‘er on the sofa.

If they’re sorry I wanna know.

How long I’ve waited to hear that.

It grew.


They live inside me

At peace.


Put forth:

I’m gonna pay for this,

Without a law arrangin’.

I’m not scoldin’ you.

I’m not playin’ with you.


That good are dangerous.

Did you see my poetry site?

Watch it A,B,C,D,E

On the net.

Use a parachute.

I’m an actor.

You sure got a big nose.

You ain’t seen nothin’;

See my heart.

May I see yours?


I saw this documentary a couple of days ago, it's astonishing, absolutely incredible.  One of the most disturbing films ever made, but nevertheless a seminal documentary that should be viewed by all.   

An excellent book that contains vast passages documenting the genocide committed by Suharto and his Washington supported gangster thugs is a book called 'Year 501: the Conquest Continues' by Noam Chomsky. 


The old adage: "Southeast Asia: What a Shithole."


If you like this great film and would like to know about the 1965 mass killings, check out our documentary “40 Years of Silence,” which gives a complex historical perspective of the tragedy through the eyes of four Indonesian families. For the next two weeks, the film will be available for FREE streaming worldwide!


We are campaigning for the Indonesian government to acknowledge the truth about the 1965 crimes and apologize and provide reparations to the victims and their families. See


@womensrights Thank you, womensrights.  I will watch your film.  I'm profoundly conflicted about "The Act of Killing," and hope your film will provide a much-needed tonic.  The reviews in the NY Times, the Washington Post, the interview I heard with Oppenheimer on NPR , and the film itself (in his opening monologue he ascribes blame to nebulous "western powers"), all omit or downplay the central and terrible role played by the US - e.g., providing the military with a "kill list" of 5,000 putative communists and their sympathizers - in this vast and brutal state-sanctioned killing.  The contemporary US mainstream media greeted the slaughter enthusiastically as a prevention of the downslide of the country into communism.  

This film is either a monstrous crime, in that it opportunistically facilitates the efforts of a group of self-identified "gangsters" to retroactively image their murders as heroic political acts (I need to know: who paid for the sound stage, the cheesy but elaborate costumes and make-up, the village they burn down, etc.?), or a great piece of agit-prop, which sparks a much-needed and clear-eyed review of this important period of history, both on the part of the US, the other westerners Oppenheimer stipulates, and Indonesian society.   


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