My neighbors were children when Hitler ruled Germany, gifted innocence by virtue of being born late enough but damned to the fallout of a divided country by being born too early. Every time we talk about the war, Oma signals that she’s done reliving the past by saying, “There are bad men in every country, there are good men in every country.”
When she first said it, I thought it was a defense mechanism. A reminder for herself and for us as outsiders that they recognize a pitch dark evil that now goes greatly unspoken. When she repeated the mantra in subsequent conversations, I realized that it’s the required coda that recognizes the real lesson of the Holocaust: it isn’t only Germany that has the capacity for large-scale terror, it’s every society in the world.
There’s a woman in Anonymous and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence that looks remarkably like my Oma – tan, bright eyes, short grandma hair and a face drawn downward by almost a century of living. An Indonesian twin for my German friend.
Her son was killed during the mid-60s mass murder of “communists” in Indonesia, and the people who dumped his body in the river are still running the country. This was the reality that Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous explored in The Act of Killing, and the follow-up finds the other side of the story by focusing on the murdered man’s younger brother as he interviews the men responsible for the crimes.
As difficult as it may be to believe, The Look of Silence is also a better film than The Act of Killing. That’s due partially to never losing its way for even a second, but mainly to Adi Rukun’s contemplative and calm demeanor while sitting a few feet away from his brother’s killers. The documentary opens with Rukun stoically watching footage of two former death squad members blithely discussing how they systematically beheaded or bled out prisoners before letting the Snake River take them. It feels like a history class relic, but shortly afterward we see inside Rukun’s son’s actual history class where his teacher spews propaganda about the cruelty of communists and the necessity of exterminating them. It is still 1965 in 2014.
The film then flows perfectly between segments where Rukun spends time with his family and where he speaks with former death squad members and commanders who now hold positions of power and respect. Rukun is an optometrist – a poetic coincidence – who uses that job (and Oppenheimer’s relationships) to interview the killers as he checks their vision. While all offer different emotional and intellectual insights to trouble over, each conversation follows a similar structure wherein Rukun gets them men rolling before revealing that his brother was one of their victims – causing a subtle, yet recognizable shift in each man’s face and sometimes immediate, frustrated outbursts.
They rationalize, deflect and threaten. They simultaneously praise their heroic acts while denying they performed them. They want acclaim but not responsibility. While some are now legitimately senile, most display a chilling recognition, barely holding back the mirage of their self-delusion. They work with such gritty determinism to block a self-awareness that could tear down their psyches that you only ever see a single (but enormous) bead of sweat on pained faces.
This is the paranoia of men who fear – if only subconsciously – that their violence will be returned to them.
Rukun is an impossible human being, showing unfathomable restraint while placing test lenses over the eyes of these men when anyone else would be wrapping his hands around their throats. The film ramps up in intensity, but no single conversation stands above any other; they all offer something profoundly troubling and achingly sympathetic. It’s more a matter of carrying the heft of each encounter into the next one that creates a narrative momentum. Even the lighter moments where Rukun reads to his giggling daughter only intensify the evil he’s traveling to meet face to face.
Those moments with his daughter are mirrored both by heartfelt moments with his parents and by cringing conversations with the children and wives of killers. These interactions yield new information for everyone that pushes beyond the fog of the propaganda and self-inflicted silence. In one instance, a girl who knew what her father had done all those years ago (and expresses something akin to pride) finds clarity when she discovers that he drank the blood of his victims. It was a common practice that killers believed would ward off traumatic insanity, but it’s this grotesque detail that finally opens her eyes, and her response to Rukun is incredibly potent.
If Act of Killing was a Bizarro Land journey through the minds of aging monsters, Look of Silence is a grounded walk with a brave victim coming to terms with what they did to his family.
It’s impossible to overstate how amazing and vital this movie is. After I saw it, someone asked if it ruined my day, and while it certainly has a crushing impact, Rukun’s tenderness and patience also offer a great deal of hope. A counterbalance to atrocity. There are bad men in every country, but there are good men in every country, too.
The Upside: A remarkable story; Rukun is amazing and brave in every sense of the words; beautifully shot; challenging and important work told capably
The Downside: None
On the Side: Oppenheimer returned to Indonesia to film this after shooting The Act of Killing but before releasing it, fearing that once it was out, he wouldn’t be able to set foot in the country again. The Look of Silence will keep playing festivals through the year before being released Summer 2015.