If Werner Herzog publicly endorses a documentary, it's fair to draw some tentative conclusions about the nature of said work. Namely, that it's likely to be very different to the usual parade of talking heads and stock footage, and not so much an orthodox trawl through historical incident as a philosophically-inflected and unflinching expedition into the abyss of the human psyche.
In the case of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act Of Killing, such assumptions are proven entirely correct by a work that more than lives up to the reputation of its legendary champion. Over the course of its 2-hour run time, Killing emerges as one of the most disquieting and searing pictures in recent memory. In fact, it's surely not hyperbole to say that it is one of the most monumental, strange and unprecedented documentaries ever made.
Oppenheimer's film excavates the horrifying history of Indonesia in the second half of the twentieth century, interviewing key participants in the massacre of approximately 1 million alleged leftist sympathisers between 1965 and 1966 in North Sumatra, in the immediate aftermath of a military uprising against the Communist government.
Such audio-visual records of human atrocities have been made before, the most notable example being Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour testament to the Holocaust, Shoah. But what sets apart Killing is its self-reflexive approach: Oppenheimer gives some of the most prominent perpetrators of these crimes the opportunity to re-enact their deeds in the style of their favourite film genres. The gangsters who were promoted by the newly-formed government to carry out these state-sanctioned murders are great enthusiasts for American cinema, modelling themselves on figures like Brando and De Niro, and even asserting that one of the reasons they hated the Communists was for their attempts to ban the import of Western movies. They jump at the chance to direct their own autobiographical film, although whether they are motivated by the desire for self-aggrandisement or a latent, irrepressible guilt becomes a pivotal question at the heart of the documentary.
What follows is quite often simply startling: Members of the ruling political class openly voice their admiration for the lawless killing carried out by the criminals in their employ. Elsewhere, ageing gangsters blithely and unrepentantly discuss the methods they used to exterminate their perceived enemies, and coerce terrified members of the public into acting as their past victims. Slowly, Killing becomes a meditation on the power of the movie camera itself, and the strange spell it seems to cast over us, functioning as both a means of confession and a tool of entrapment, enabling the participants to condemn themselves through their own words.
In one extraordinary scene, the step-son of a victim of the purges, now middle-aged and working in a production role on the gangsters' filmic mea culpa, opens up to his employers about the night his step-father was taken and killed. They listen on, their faces inscrutable. Immediately after, the step-son impersonates one of the communist victims and suddenly breaks down, his emotions, kept in check since childhood, liberated by the permissiveness and candour of the film set.
But it's revered right-wing gangster and paramilitary heavyweight Anwar Congo who's the dubious 'star' of this story. At the beginning of the film he is a charismatic figure, but Oppenheimer's camera gradually exposes him as a man being eaten away from the inside by guilt and fear of karmic retribution, caught between a desire to escape his personal history, and the uncontrollable urge to bury himself under it.
What makes Killing unusually profound, however, is that it also points to how the advent of moving images and the modern mass media might have changed our humanity irreparably. 'Our souls have become soap-opera actors' one character observes, and it's a point of view borne out by the rest of the documentary. Everybody is willing to get involved in the movie, but whether such a communal endeavour represents an exorcism of Indonesia's ghosts and a positive step forward in acceptance of the past, or a means of disassociation from the horrors of reality, is a question Oppenheimer leaves troublingly unanswered.