The Act of Killing is a fascinating piece of cinema that illuminates not only a tragic and disturbing slice of history but also the humanity behind it all. The term is usually used in a positive light, but one of the film’s points is that these aren’t monsters committing such acts of barbarity. They’re people.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film is one of the year’s best, and while he received a helping hand from two big names in the documentary field both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris give him full credit for the accomplishment. Drafthouse Films’ upcoming Blu-ray release includes the theatrical cut with some solid special features, but it also comes with a second Blu featuring the 166-minute director’s cut (an additional 44 minutes). Even better? The longer cut includes a commentary track with Oppenheimer and Herzog.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Act of Killing.
The Act of Killing (2012)
Commentators: Joshua Oppenheimer (director) and Werner Herzog (executive producer)
1. Herzog repeatedly comments early on how the opening images are so strange and misleading. He says he had to be involved in the production after seeing only the first eight minutes of footage.
2. Oppenheimer explains the triple meaning of the title as about the actual murders, the killing of ideas and freedom, and the film’s acting-out of the original deaths.
3. The scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he would kill with wire and a wooden stick was made possible by Anwar’s decision to bring the tool to the scene of the crime precisely so he could recreate it for the cameras.
4. Oppenheimer comments on Anwar’s motions in the mirror to perfect his outfit, sunglasses, etc. and says that we all do that. Herzog disagrees, saying “I personally go very quickly over my hair and then I’m out. I don’t like self reflection too much.”
5. Herzog seems to disagree with the idea that violent movies directly leads to violent action in real life. Specifically, he laughs off the idea that American gangster movies should be held accountable for the actions of Anwar and his cronies who idolized those movies.
6. Anwar apparently chose Herman Koto‘s outfits for him. This explains a lot.
7. Oppenheimer asked Ibrahim Sinik, the newspaper publisher who proudly interrogated people before sending them with a wink to Anwar for execution, if he ever killed anyone himself. The man replied that he couldn’t do that because “I believe in universal humanism. I’m a poet. I write plays.” Herzog gets a good chuckle out of that.
8. The method of filming involved shooting a recreation scene, showing it to Anwar for reaction, and then moving on to the next.
9. Herzog references John Carpenter’s Halloween when commenting on how this film often gives the illusion of safety before revealing something is terribly amiss.
10. The scene where the Chinese shopkeepers are shook down for “protection” money was a delicate one to shoot. Oppenheimer didn’t want the victims to think the oppressors had their own camera crew, so he would stay behind after each encounter to explain to the Chinese what was happening. He also paid each and every one of them back for what they lost that day.
11. Asked if he ever held a large fish in his hands, Herzog says yes. “I was two summers in Alaska. My older son had the end of his childhood, and we would go out in the wilderness and we had to live off the land.”
12. Oppenheimer was the cameraman for half of the scenes.
13. Herzog takes time to point out that many young filmmakers whine about needing big budgets and large crews to make a movie, but he says Oppenheimer’s accomplishment proves otherwise.
14. The bit where the man nervously shares the story of his stepfather’s murder, arguably one of the most affecting scenes of the year, was shot by Oppenheimer’s cinematographer who didn’t speak Indonesian. Oppenheimer didn’t actually see it until months later at which point he realized the man was a victim and not a perpetrator as had been suspected.
15. Herzog asks Oppenheimer how he sleeps at night having been so close to all of this, and he replies that it’s important and necessary while also admitting to having had nightmares.
16. After the scene referenced two spots up, Oppenheimer overheard Adi Zulkadry whisper to the others “Don’t you think Josh is a Communist?” He felt compelled to confront Adi after that, and that discussion/argument is the scene that unfolds in the car.
17. Herzog asks if Oppenheimer would be arrested if he was to return to Indonesia, and the director replies that while he could go back to the country he probably wouldn’t be allowed out again. He’s received death threats too, usually poorly written ones.
18. Oppenheimer attended Harvard initially to study theoretical physics and philosophy, but “it was a boring time in physics” and he moved on to film instead.
19. The big fish seen in the film and on the poster/DVD cover was a seafood restaurant until 1997 when it closed due to the Asian economic crisis.
20. Dutch tourists stumbled upon the film crew during the waterfall shoot, and they asked Oppenheimer if Anwar was Nelson Mandela.
21. Oppenheimer crafted the village assault scene as “an icon for a genocide.” That desire in part informed his insistence that the women and children used in the scene be the actual wives and kids of the paramilitary members.
22. Herzog refers to the end credits as “scary” due to the high number of crew members having to be listed as “Anonymous.” Oppenheimer hopes that by making the film they’ll actually be able to replace the end credits some day soon with a more complete and accurate version.
Best in Commentary
- Oppenheimer: “Film is so bad at words and so good at those little emotions.”
- Oppenheimer: “Even war criminals have to get brutalized by the dentist.”
- Herzog: “Looks almost like Hamlet… Hamlet played by Divine in drag.”
- Herzog: “I don’t like the notion you should be a fly on the wall and not be involved. You are involved, you’re a filmmaker.”
It should come as no surprise that a film like The Act of Killing would lead to a fascinating commentary track, and Oppenheimer has a lot to say on his experience over the years that it took to make the film. Unfortunately though, Herzog talks over the director more than once, interrupting him as he’s sharing insights and anecdotes some of which are left dangling and unfinished. Herzog even tells Oppenheimer not to talk at one point and to instead let the scene speak for itself…. which kind of goes against the whole point of commentary tracks. To be fair, his interruptions are almost always wonderfully grand, Herzogian observations, but still, maybe let the director talk about his movie? It is interesting though hearing the two converse and fascinating when they disagree in their interpretations of the film and the characters’ motivations. Warts and all, it’s a great listen.