“Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see power and sadism! We can do that! We can make something even more sadistic.”
– Anwar Congo
The Act of Killing, one of the best films of 2013 – and certainly its most confronting – has been the target of significant criticism recently (A.J. Schnack’s article is an excellent summary and analysis of these complaints). The primary objections to Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary revolve around the involvement of its subjects: “gangsters” like Anwar Congo and Herman Koto who murdered hundreds of innocents as Indonesia’s military regime took power.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is obviously a very different film, but the prevailing reaction to QT’s flick suggests a misreading as egregious as the suggestion that Oppenheimer condones the actions of his subjects. Basterds is regularly held up as skilfully made Nazi revenge film – and based on extratextual marketing and interviews, that’s a reasonable interpretation.
The film itself is more complex than such a reductive descriptor would suggest. Admittedly, its vaudevillian representations of Hitler and Goebbels are custom-made to sabotage their iconicism. But otherwise the Nazi characters are depicted with remarkable sympathy. The noble soldier who gives up his life rather than betray his comrades’ position. The young man anxious and excited over his first son, enjoying a jovial night with his friends. Even Hans Landa, for all his villainy, is treated with dignity and respect and is granted a happy ending, of sorts.
People don’t expect mass murderers to be presented as anything other than monstrous in movies, whether factual or fictional. It’s confronting to recognise not just the banality of evil, but the humanity of evil; that evil is fundamentally embedded in institutions and social structures, and that it can sweep along ordinary people in its wake. Neither Inglourious Basterds nor The Act of Killing accept this. Neither fall into the convention of focusing on the trauma of the victims of such horror.
Of course, the victims’ stories are valid. They’re necessary. But by presenting those responsible for mass murder as both monsters and humans, Tarantino and Oppenheimer’s films are equally necessary to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of perceiving people as reductive concepts. In the case of The Act of Killing, it makes for difficult watching, by forcing us to recognise the guilt and remorse that overcomes Congo so powerfully. We aren’t expected to forgive, but we should try to understand.