by Allan Fish
(Denmark 2012 115m) DVD1/2
There’s many ghosts here
p Signe Byrge Sorensen, Joshua Oppenheimer d Joshua Oppenheimer ph Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree ed Nils Pagh Andersen, Mariko Pontpetit, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Erik Andersson, Ariadan Fatjo-Vilas m Karsten Fundal
Watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s alarming documentary I was consistently reminded of that wonderful speech spoken by Anton Walbrook in front of the repatriation committee in Colonel Blimp. He talks of the state of affairs in Germany, and describes how it was a place where “the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail.” There at least, some form of justice took place at Nuremberg, if not towards as many as it should have done. But what do you do if you live in a country where the gangsters that committed such atrocities were not only never brought to justice, but still have privileged lives? And not only that, but they’re more than happy to discuss the atrocities they committed and mourn the death of the good old days.
That’s the premise of Oppenheimer’s film, for this is what happened in 1965 in Indonesia. A caption tells us about what happened. Of how anyone opposed to the military regime was branded a communist and, to quote Shakespeare, bid this world goodnight. More disturbing, but depressingly familiar, was that they did it with the aid of western governments who merely saw the word communist, asked no questions and marked over a million deaths down to political expedient. Oppenheimer sets out to interview the living perpetrators of these crimes, and unlike those tracked down by Marcel Ophuls and Walter Lanzmann for their epic documentaries of the 1970s and 80s, these subjects are happy to be interviewed, view those abhorrent crimes with fondness. They then agree to participate in re-enactments of the crimes in which they play both the aggressors and the victims, while taking time out to ruminate on the filmmaking process and, in some cases, discuss how the events haunt them in different ways.
The haunting dreams don’t get in the way of them having a good time, though, as one might expect. So we see one on the golf course answering questions before teeing off, another at a bowling alley, another with his family, another showing off his ostentatious cut glass and crystal collection (and laughing at a Billy Bass in a way to make one recall David Brent). Never has the banality of evil been better demonstrated.
In 2013, the audience would be forgiven for a certain distanced apathy towards another tale of systematic injustice and mass murder. We know it well from Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia and Yugoslavia, not to mention the Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Russia. Yet it’s the very implausibility of the set up and the quite astonishing lack of remorse, callous obliviousness to their own culpability and lack of both sense and sensibility of its subjects that powers the film. Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière at their most acidic and satirical could not have made it up.
The overall impact is like a nightmare, in the most profound bad taste. The hypocrisy on every level, of praying to God for guidance for an organisation that has committed such heinous atrocities, and one of the most astonishingly surreal moments of all, as the perpetrators dance around with girls in a Bollywoodesque musical number based around ‘Born Free’, used not to celebrate the freedom of thought, but the freedom of gangsters to be above the law and kill whosoever they like. The most sickening scene, however, comes not in a re-enactment or a cynical musical number, but in one criminal’s having the gall to say that, as he played the role of one of the tortured in one of the re-enactments, he understood what the tortured felt like. It’s left to Oppenheimer to speak for us all and point out the difference between undergoing the role of a victim for a film and actually being tortured, knowing each moment could be your last. I mean, imagine that Meryl Streep, receiving her Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, talked of how she felt just as Sophie must have felt. It’s delusion of absolutely flabbergasting proportions.