‘Driveways’ :: Review
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The modest story of a mother, her son and an elderly neighbor feels like a salve right now—and gives Brian Dennehy a deserving swan song. Understated yet powerful..
Spreading Propaganda Through Films and TV
Intelligence agencies in Iran are increasingly using state-funded entertainment productions to spread state propaganda and improve their image among the public..
'Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade' :: Clever and Chilling Anime
In an authoritarian Japan, Fuse, part of an anti-terrorist police brigade, faces an internal enquiry. On a recent operation he hesitated to kill a female terrorist because of her youth..
Golden Globe Winners 2021 ::
'Nomadland' director Chloé Zhao won Best Director, making history as the first woman of Asian descent to take home that award, while the film itself won Best Motion – Picture Drama; Soul, Borat, The Queen's Gambit..
'How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal' :: Eugène Green
For years Portugal was the only country in Europe where there was no Coca-Cola. The director discusses his new "mini-film," devoted to the great Portuguese poet, advertising..
Copenhagen 2021 :: Vinterberg's 'Druk' snatches Five Robert Statuettes
In the category, Vinterberg was, among other things, up against himself, as he was also nominated for his role in the film “Riders..
Zindagi Tamasha :: Circus of Life :: 2020
‘It went from love to wanting to kill me.’ Sarmad Khoosat was the darling of Pakistan’s entertainment industry until his new film fell foul of fundamentalists – who called for him..
'No Choice' :: Tokyo 2020
It’s a slippery path up the mountain of human rights. Three good women clash when a determined lawyer takes on the case of a homeless girl against an idealistic doctor in Reza Dormishian’s legal thriller..
'Wife of a Spy' :: An intriguing marital battle
Winner of the best director award at the Venice Film Festival. An absorbing, exotic, well-paced thriller with moments of disconcerting realism and horror. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s..
"Actress's Ears" Put Film Screening in Jeopardy
Panthea Bahram, a famous Iranian actress, whose presence last year with shaved head at the press conference to a movie made news; reacted to the removal of "Killer and..
'Hope Gap' :: A Bracingly Original Drama
There's an unusual calmness to this drama that feels bracingly original. William Nicholson's Hope Gap benefits from a starry cast in the stagey story. Nighy and Bening are as good..
'Killer and Wild' removed from the Fajr Film Festival
A movie with Iranian actress Leila Hatami in the leading role was excluded from a major Film Festival event in Iran due to her 'shaved head and exposed ears' ..
Maria is a Greek policewoman, struggling with her money problems, teenage daughter, old mother.. Yussof is a Syrian rebel, on his way out of a war-ridden Syria. Both have killed unwantedly, both feel guilty, but together..
51st Edition Of IFFI 2021
The 51st edition of India’s International Film Festival (IFFI) kick started on 16th January at Goa, which opened with the Indian premier of the movie ‘Another Round’ by Thomas Vinterberg..
'Alone' :: Movie Review
"Alone" is admirably straightforward, exploring tried-and-true archetypes with suspenseful execution. Director John Hyams demonstrates a minimalistic knack for showing and not telling,..
'The Female Voice of Iran' :: Feature documentary 2020
Independent documentary about female singers inside Iran and their deep wish: "I want my voice to be heard." Captivating...beautiful music and stunning..
'The Father' :: Movie Review
Sundance: Florian Zeller's film makes an inexplicably cruel element of the human condition recognizable in a way that only good art can. Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman Inside the Brutal Matrix of Dementia..
‘Money Heist’ :: As smart as it is relentless
Like a criminal who has trapped themselves within a situation in which there’s no simple escape, Money Heist is a riveting, inescapable show with a narrative jackpot at the end of it..
‘Vivos’ :: Ai Weiwei's Mournful Ode to the Disappeared
Vivos is a documentary feature film by artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei, portraying the human impact of Mexico’s ongoing crisis of enforced disappearances..
Family Romance, LLC (2020)
Love is a business at Family Romance, a company that rents human stand-ins for any occasion. Founder Yuichi Ishii helps make his clients’ dreams come true. But when the mother of 12-year-old Mahiro hires Ishii to..
'Let Him Go' (2020)
Kevin Costner excels in a gripping neo-western thriller. Let Him Go is a moving and gripping Western with particularly strong performances from Diane Lane as a grieving yet resolute mother and from Lesley Manville as her..
In Memoriam of Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk
In the small pool of filmmakers known for being provocative, Kim Ki-duk was the oddest of ducks. South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk has died in Latvia aged 59 after contracting..
'The Life Ahead' (2020)
Loren has made it again! She's an absolute Goddess. The characters are colorful and empathetic, and even if the plot is simple, the cast keeps it up. Specially, Sophia Loren.. Sempre adorabile!
'What We Did on Our Holiday'
An exceedingly funny comedy that definitely borders on Black Comedy but still tinkers in the realm of being light hearted. It has a very kind of Outnumbered feel to it in which the kids play their innocence, yet brilliantly..
'Radiograph of a Family'
Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani triumphed at IDFA 2020 with her fourth film Radiograph of a Family, winning the main award in the IDFA Competition for Feature Length Documentary and the IDFA Competition for Creative Use of..
'Falling' :: Viggo Mortensen's Directorial Debut
A beautifully controlled drama about age, memory and forgiveness. Often abrasive, occasionally sweet, and sometimes grasping for transcendence, "Falling" doesn't feel like..
'Careless Crime' (2020) :: Movie Review
Iranian director Shahram Mokri, known for his single-shot films and his decided penchant for time-loops, achieves formalistic excellence in his latest effort..
Secrets of the Surface (2020)
Filmed in Canada, Iran, and the United States, 'Secrets of the Surface' examines the life and mathematical work of Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian immigrant to the United States who became a superstar in her field..
'Another Round' :: Review
Thomas Vinterberg reteams with "The Hunt" star for a darkly comic referendum on booze. Four friends, all high school teachers, test a theory that they will improve their lives by maintaining a constant level of alcohol in..
'There Is No Evil' :: Premiered at the 2020 Berlin Film Fest
Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof's 'There Is No Evil' has triumphed at the 70th Berlinale, picking up the Golden Bear. The director himself was not present..
'Tesla' :: Sundance Review
A fascinating, if unconventional, look at the singular life of Nikola Tesla as played by Ethan Hawke. Appropriately bold and ambitious, Tesla takes a number of risks that don't always pay off -- but Ethan Hawke's performance..
Documenting the Struggle for Women's Rights in Iran
One of the women featured in this short documentary, Nasrin Sotoudeh is now serving a decades-long sentence in Evin Prison in Iran. Released alongside Jeff Kaufman's..
'Bacurau' :: A John Carpenter-Inspired Revenge Fantasy
A settlement in rural Brazil, a doctor (played by a gaunt and fierce Sônia Braga), a school, a (disused) church, even a brothel, but no sheriff. Something strange is happening..
TALE OF THE SEA :: Film Review
One of Iran's major filmmakers is at the top of his game with this Ingmar Bergman-esque meditation on old age. One man's madness as a metaphor for the surreal lives of a whole nation..
'Ordinary Love' :: There is nothing Ordinary about Love
"Ordinary Love" is not a movie solely about cancer. It is a raw, on-screen adaptation of what hundreds of couples experience when their limits are tested - physically, mentally..
13th Annual Iranian Film Festival :: San Francisco
Call For Entries Open for the 13th Annual Iranian Film Festival – San Francisco, the first independent Iranian film festival outside of Iran..
'1982' :: Premiered at TIFF :: 2019
During the 1982 invasion of Lebanon at a private school on the outskirts of Beirut, 11-year-old Wissam tries to tell a classmate about his crush on her..
'The Perfect Candidate' :: Haifaa al-Mansour :: 2019
For Haifaa al-Mansour, it's an opportunity to reflect on the progress made by courageous women like her. A message movie admirable for its subtlety as well as its execution..
'The Truth :: La Vérité' :: 2019
At 76, Catherine Deneuve can still blow all-comers off a cinema screen, and she does exactly that in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Truth, which playfully explores the vexed relationship between..
'Paddleton' :: An Awkward Embrace With Fragile Masculinity
A drily ambling exploration of masculinity and overcoming self-imposed barriers. An unlikely bromance between two misfit neighbors..
'The Lunchbox (DABBA)' :: Cannes Review
Cinema loses giant Irrfan Khan to cancer and we take a look at the tenderness of his performance in The Lunchbox. It's carried off with charm and wit, and a pair of very..
'This Beautiful Fantastic' :: An Oddball Modern-Day Fairy Tale
A charming, beautifully photographed modern fairy tale about love and gardening, This Beautiful Fantastic is worth seeing in spite of its dumb deterrent of a title..
'Bombshell' :: #MeToo docudrama
Bombshell benefits from a terrific cast and a worthy subject, but its impact is muffled by a frustrating inability to go deeper than the sensationalistic surface..
'Just Mercy' :: Law Drama Inspired by True Events
Just Mercy dramatizes a real-life injustice with solid performances, a steady directorial hand, and enough urgency to overcome a certain degree of earnest advocacy..
'Imitation of Life' :: A Melodramatic Torrent of Rage
Douglas Sirk unleashed a melodramatic torrent of rage at the corrupt core of American life - the unholy trinity of racism, commercialism, and puritanism..
'Adopt a Highway' :: Movie review
Logan Marshall-Green's directorial debut stars Ethan Hawke as a sweet ex-con who finds new purpose when he discovers a baby in a dumpster..
'Away':: A beautifully crafted minimalist adventure
Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis has written, animated, designed, edited, directed, and composed the music for his feature debut himself, with impressive results..
'Live Twice, Love Once' :: Movie review
An award-winner in Spain, 'Live Twice, Love Once' is a mature film that deals effectively with both family separation and reconciliation in sorrowful times..
A Writer Named Tove :: CPH:DOX 2020
A mosaic portrait of the Danish writer and poet Tove Ditlevsen. The self-confident and outspoken author, and the fragile woman behind the books..
'Arab Blues' :: An Entertaining Tunisian Culture-Clash Comedy
Mildly amusing froth, kept all the more buoyant by Farahani's deadpan reactions and immensely watchable face and fine comic..
'Donbass' :: Brutally powerful and brilliantly filmed
In its own absurdist way, it does shed some light on just what the war did to the lives - and sensibilities - of civilians caught up in the nightmare. It illustrates man's inhumanity..
The Flu That Killed 50 Million :: More Deadly Than War
In 1918, as the Armistice bells rang out across the world to celebrate the end of World War I, a silent killer made its way home with the soldiers - Spanish flu...
'Uzak' (Distant) :: The Art of Slow Cinema
Hauntingly beautiful, 'Distant' communicates volumes with its almost pervasive silence. Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated and uneducated. But the quest for love remains..
BERLINALE 2020 Awards :: Rasoulof's There Is No Evil triumphs at the Berlinale
Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof's 'There Is No Evil' has triumphed at the 70th Berlinale, picking up the Golden Bear..
'The Sea Inside' :: Bardem is simply astounding
If ever there was a film that deserved to get the proverbial bump from Oscar, this is it. Rarely has any film so focused on death felt so vibrantly alive..
'PARI' :: Review :: BERLINALE 2020 Panorama
The debut feature by Siamak Etemadi, world-premiered in the Panorama section of the 70th Berlinale, depicts an Iranian mother's compelling journey in a foreign place..
'Wildland' :: Interview :: World premiere at the Berlinale
In 'Wildland', we follow a small family clan where love and violence become dangerously merged. In the interview, they talk about how they created the narrative, how they use..
Berlinale 2020 :: 11 films to look out for
Screen Daily picks out just a few of the stand-out titles playing at the event, from across the Competition, Berlinale Special, and Panorama sections..
Mahnaz Afshar :: 'Die Hochzeit'
The Iranian superstar Mahnaz Afshar was at the world premiere of the new Til Schweiger film "Die Hochzeit". She flew to Berlin for Schweiger and experienced a free wedding ceremony on the red carpet..
'RAAZI' :: Movie Review
Despite its shortcomings, Raazi has a lot going for it, especially its leading lady. If you are willing to suspend your imagination a bit, it can make for a fulfilling watch. The story of a Kashmiri spy married to a Pakistani man..
'The Two Popes' :: Movie Review
Superbly acted and a lot of fun to watch. Can two Catholic men share the Papacy without driving each other crazy? The Two Popes is a wonderful showcase of great acting..
As Lean experienced Khomeini's Arrival
Lean Waage Beck tells about her experiences as a sister-in-law to the revolutionary Foreign Minister of Iran. About the Iranian Revolution, also described in her book "Tehran Round-Trip"..
'Pain and Glory' :: Movie Review
The Spanish filmmaker's tale of a memory, regret and an aging director making peace with his past isn't just his most personal film — it's also one of his greatest..
SUNDANCE 2020 :: Massoud Bakhshi :: Interview
Iranian filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi discusses Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness, a majority European production recognised in Sundance and on its way to the Berlinale..
Oscars 2020 :: 'Parasite' wins in four categories
For the first time in history of the Oscars Parasite, an international film, Wins in four categories. Parasite, a South Korean black comedy thriller film directed by Bong Joon-ho..
SUNDANCE 2020 :: 'Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness'
The future of a young woman facing retributive justice plays out live on the country's most popular reality show..
'Reaching for the Moon' :: 'The art of losing isn't hard to master'
An exotic love story becomes an empowering portrait of two highly gifted women who defy social convention. The life of American Poet..
'Things to Come' :: A Rare, Mature film of Ideas
Visually arresting, but never precious, it's filled with ideas that have relevance to actual life, ideas that are based on a moral conviction that a question well-posed is far more..
'Madame' :: A cute inversion of the Cinderella tale
Madame's retrograde trappings are further weighted down by unlikable characters and an overall inability to do justice to its themes. Rossy de Palma, a past muse of Spanish..
'FURIE' :: Don't Make a Vietnamese Mother Mad
When a little girl is kidnapped by a trafficking ring, her mother, a notorious former gang leader, is close on their trail and will go to any lengths to bring her child home..
'What They Had' :: A stunning feature debut
What They Had finds laughter and tears in its portrait of a family at a crossroads, with writer-director Elizabeth Chomko getting outstanding performances out of a talented..
'Marriage Story' :: Reaching for life after the death of divorce
Johansson and Driver are remarkably, heartbreakingly good in every scene; showing their characters' journeys to an unflinching camera, , letting the gap between them..
The Tale :: HBO's Most Controversial Movie Ever?
The Tale handles its extraordinarily challenging subject matter with sensitivity, grace, and the power of some standout performances led by a remarkable Laura Dern..
Bille August :: To direct psychological drama The Pact
The new feature by the Danish filmmaker centres on the secret relationship between Karen Blixen and young poet Thorkild Bjørnvig..
'Hotel by the River' :: Movie Review
Feeling, for no apparent reason, like he is going to die, an old poet, staying for free in a riverside hotel, summons his two estranged sons..
'The Irishman' :: Movie Review
Scorsese's expert direction allows the three and a half hour runtime to fly by. In fact, as soon as it's over you'll want to experience this achievement all over again..
Payman Maadi :: To receive the Stockholm Achievement Award
Iranian actor Payman Maadi will be awarded the 2019 Stockholm Achievement Award for his unique quality of reaching through the screen, past prejudices and over borders..
Long Day's Journey Into Night (2018)
Time moves differently in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," a sensuous, dream-like Chinese drama set in and around the Southeast mainland city of Kaili..
Written on the Wind :: A Masterpiece Of Self-Parody
Douglas Sirk is the one who established the kind of tone in melodramas, in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles beneath...
VENICE 2019 :: Out of Competition :: 'ZeroZeroZero'
Gabriel Byrne plays Edward Lynwood, an important shipbroker from New Orleans who hides tonne-loads of cocaine in the hundreds of containers he moves between the New..
Venice Film Festival 2019 :: Polanski wins Silver Lion
Roman Polanski has won the Grand Jury Prize for 'An Officer and a Spy'. He did not attend the festival and the prize was instead collected by his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, who stars in..
Venice Film Festival 2019 :: 'Joker' Wins Golden Lion
'Joker' Wins Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, Roman Polanski Gets Grand Jury Prize. The top prize of the Lido went to Todd Phillips' revisionist take on the DC comic villain..
The Souvenir :: Movie Review
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne appear in The Souvenir by Joanna Hogg, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival..
Filmmakers Escorted Rasoulof to the Revolutionary Court
Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof went to the Revolutionary Court to appeal his sentence on Monday, with a group of filmmakers reportedly accompanying him..
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower :: 2017
Documentary about Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activist Joshua Wong. When the Chinese Communist Party backtracks on its promise of autonomy to Hong Kong, teenager Joshua..
'Astronaut' :: Film Review :: Edinburgh 2019
Richard Dreyfuss plays a grouchy grandfather with interstellar ambitions in writer-director Shelagh McLeod's debut feature. Even though he knows the mission could kill him..
Cannes, New York Film Festivals :: Calls for Release of Mohammad Rasoulof
Organizers of the Cannes Film Festival are calling on Iran to release dissident filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who was sentenced..
Bahman Mohasses ::
Fifi Howls From Happiness

Bahman Mohassess was a celebrated artist at the time of the Shah. Trained in Italy, he created sculptures and paintings in his homeland. Mitra Farahani's direction is..
ROBERT BRESSON :: Retrospective
Despite a relatively small body of work consisting of thirteen feature films made over forty years, Robert Bresson is one of the most revered and pivotal of French filmmakers..
Disconnect :: Movie Review
A complicated view of life in the Digital Age with its conflicts and relationships initiated through laptops, iPads and cell phones. People fall in love, exploit one another, reveal their deepest secrets and even commit..
Dictatorland :: Series 1 ::
1. Kazakhstan

From golden handprints of the president to the scene of a massacre, in Kazakhstan Ben Zand experiences the sinister and bizarre sides to living in a dictatorship..
“Travel to the Morning”
To commemorate Abbas Kiarostami at Tehran gallery
Tehran's E1 Gallery will organize an exhibition entitled “Travel to the Morning” in memory of legendary artist Abbas Kiarostami..
'Diego Maradona' (2019) :: Movie Review :: Cannes
A Gripping Saga of Soccer Legend's Fall From Grace. It's a dramatic shift, but only a starting point. "Amy" director Asif Kapadia's crafts an absorbing look at Maradona's epic journey..
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China forever
“There is a lesson the world could learn here, engagement as a policy is not wrong, but engagement… that obscures human rights is morally and politically wrong.”
A Love Letter to Caramel :: What happened to you Nadine Labaki?
I just finished watching Caramel on MUBI and, ladies and gentlemen, I am totally shocked. How on earth could I have misjudged this film?
Cannes 2019 :: Atlantics
Mati Diop's Dazzling Ghost Story
Mati Diop's feature-length directorial debut is a romantic and melancholy film, part social commentary, part ghost tale, that works best in its evocation of loss and female solidarity..
First Reformed :: Review
A Stunning, Enrapturing Film

Paul Schrader's “First Reformed,” in which Ethan Hawke brilliantly plays an alcoholic Protestant minister undergoing a profound spiritual and psychological crisis, is..
CANNES 2019 :: Competition
Antonio Banderas :: Pain & Glory
Antonio Banderas wins Cannes 'best actor' as Almodovar alter ego. Cineuropa met Spanish thesp Antonio Banderas to discuss Pedro Almodóvar's Pain & Glory..
CANNES 2019 :: Competition
Elia Suleiman :: It Must Be Heaven

Cineuropa sat down with Palestinian director Elia Suleiman to delve deeper into his Palme d'Or contender It Must Be Heaven. Elia Suleiman travels to different cities and finds..
Cannes 2019 :: Winners List
Bong Joon-ho Wins Palme d'Or
Alejandro González Iñárritu and his jury has announced the festival's best performances and films.The 2019 Cannes Film Festival officially comes to an end..
CANNES 2019 :: Sylvester Stallone :: Cannes Darling
Stallone was at the festival to promote "Rambo V: Last Blood" opening this fall. But the conversation, moderated by the journalist Didier Allouch, was mainly a look back at his..
CANNES 2019 :: Critics' Week :: Cesar Diaz :: Our Mothers
"Once we've all finished killing each other, what do we do with our dead? How do we heal our wounds? We need to take a look at the scars of our past. It has to start with..
Sorrentino's Youth (2015)
A Meditation on Art and Aging

Watching Youth, you'd swear Fellini had risen from his grave and returned to make another movie. Give it up for Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in this autumn-years drama that's an..
Cannes 2019 :: Nadine Labaki
President of the Un Certain Regard Jury at the 72nd Annual Cannes Film Festival, the director, actress and screenwriter Nadine Labaki's career was first launched on the Croisette, and it is here that all her films..
Cannes 2019
Refn's "Too Old To Die Young"

After world premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the television series will hit Amazon Prime Video this summer. A detective thriller from film provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn..
Nancy (2018) :: Review
This is a movie whose behind-the-camera creative team is almost entirely female. In several respects, “Nancy” exhibits a seriousness of purpose that's rare in American movies today..
'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
Melissa McCarthy is a lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of Lee Israel, a lonely, embittered author of celebrity biographies who took up forgery to pay the bills..
BIF&ST 2019 :: Ali Vatansever :: Director of Saf
How do you stay human in a difficult place, when you're surrounded by monsters? How do you manage to stay pure when the world obliges you to take one side or the other?
'Never Look Away' :: Review
Germany's submission for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar turns a Gerald Richter-like painter into a symbol of social change. 'Never Look Away' concerns itself with love and war and the limitless reach of art..
Fernando Colomo :: La Banda Picasso (2013)
Filmed in French and set principally in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, La banda Picasso is a caper comedy about a burglary that is based on real characters and events..
Sundance Review :: 'Queen Of Hearts' (2019)
An intriguing, smartly sustained drama in which we learn to be wary of those who claim the moral high ground. Things are never going to end well in Queen Of Hearts, which follows a..
Rotterdam Review :: 'Sons Of Denmark' (2019)
This political thriller has shades of traditional tragedy and revolves around the question: How do you stay calm when society succumbs to fear and hate?..
CANNES 2019 Opening
Cannes to be opened by 'The Dead Don't Die'

The film by US director Jim Jarmusch will raise the curtain on the 72nd Cannes Film Festival (14-25 May) and will be screened in..
Review: The Wind. A Documentary Thriller

Michał Bielawski's fourth feature-length documentary about a mysterious and destructive wind is a real tour de force..
'Born in Evin' :: Processing the trauma of the Islamic Revolution
Born in Evin tells the story of the family of director and actor Maryam Zaree, who sets out to investigate the circumstances of her birth in one of the world's most notorious jails for..
'All the Money in the World'
Replacing Kevin Spacey in true-life kidnap thriller 'All the Money in the World,' Christopher Plummer plays tycoon John Paul Getty "with acid humor, stunted emotion and magisterial skill," writes Peter Travers..
'The Wild Pear Tree' :: A study of the conversational art
Whereas 'Winter Sleep' played like a journey into the darker corners of a troubled brain, 'The Wild Pear Tree' spends as much time being playful as it does cogitating on the great..
'The Bookshop' :: Review
The script may stutter but the cast - especially Mortimer and Nighy - hold this uneven project together. And Clarkson is but one of a legion of baddies to enjoy loathing. A free-spirited widow arrives in a whispering community..
'3 FACES' by JAFAR PANAHI :: at the Irish Film Institute
Iranian film '3 Faces' by Jafar Panahi is among three new films open at the Irish Film Institute on the 29th of March 2019: Irish documentary 'The Man Who Wanted to Fly,' drama..
CPH:DOX 2019 :: Marie Skovgaard's The Reformist
Marie Skovgaard's fascination with the woman behind Europe's first mosque run by female imams is contagious. The opening title of this year's edition of CPH:DOX (20-31 March)..
'Beautiful Boy' :: Review
Beautiful Boy, made through Brad Pitt's production company Plan B, is a moving, insightful and very delicately observed drama about a dad whose son is a crystal meth addict. Carell gives his finest performance..
"I DO Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians"
[The film] makes clear that you can have all the right answers, but they hardly matter when you're missing the questions and in fact aren't even having the same conversation..
'The Eyes of Orson Welles'
Mark Cousins' extraordinary, singular, complex take on a man who gave us Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, some of the most baroque screen adaptations of the Bard ever made..
Under the Tree (2018)
:: Movie Review

What makes 'Under the Tree' a better-than-average satire on the unthinking hostilities that human beings are prone to is its steady intelligence, combined with a humor ..
'Before We Vanish' (2018) :: Movie Review
What happens to people when they're no longer sure of their character-defining obligations? We get it, we are prisoners of our beliefs. What now?..
They Shall Not Grow Old :: Movie Review
In this profound documentary event, Peter Jackson creates digital miracles-in 3D yet-to revitalize archival footage of World War I until faded history comes to vivid, vital life..
'Capernaum' :: Movie Review
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Nadine Labaki's Capernaum ("Chaos") tells the story of Zain (Zain al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the "crime" of giving him life..
The Kindergarten Teacher
:: Movie Review

Elevated by a bravura performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher is one American remake that retains its impact the second time around..
'Synonyms' :: Movie Review'
Nadav Lapid's astonishing, maddening, brilliant, hilarious, obstinate, and altogether unmissable new film “Synonyms” opens with a sequence that might be described as a sideways attempt at psychic suicide..
BERLIN 2019 :: Competition
Roberto Saviano :: Author
Cineuropa met up with Italian author Roberto Saviano to discuss Piranhas, the newest adaptation of one of his novels. 'The more they want me to keep silent, the more I talk'..
'At Eternity's Gate' :: Review
There have been plenty of films about the tortured Dutch artist, but none as evocative and affecting as Julian Schnabel's latest, led by mesmerizing work from Willem Dafoe in the central role..
Shoplifters (2018) :: Review
“Shoplifters” is full of gray areas. What exactly does family mean? Does giving birth to someone automatically make you a mother? One of Kore-eda's most nuanced, layered examinations of the concept..
Hollywood's DiCaprio
has voiced his support for jailed Iranian environmentalists

In a tweet on February 6, DiCaprio calls for support for the eight Iranian detainees who went on trial last month, some facing serious..
BERLIN 2019 :: Lone Scherfig's film to open the Berlinale
The 69th Berlin International Film Festival has announced its opening film. The world premiere of Lone Scherfig's latest English-language film The Kindness of Strangers will..
The Panama Papers (2018)
The Panama Papers is a lively and level-headed exposé, but it's also a moral inquiry into how the top echelon is now united, structurally and spiritually, in robbing the rest of us blind..
Becoming Astrid :: Review
This film about an exemplary woman, made by women, is as much a pleasure as it is a lesson. A story that shows how overcoming turns to becoming if you're able to stick to your principles..
Gifted :: Movie Review
A man tries to raise the brilliant young daughter of his dead sister, but battles his mother over custody. Gifted isn't quite as bright as its pint-sized protagonist, but a charming cast wrings respectably engaging..
The Wife :: Movie Review
In Swedish director Bjorn Runge's film version of the 2003 Meg Wolitzer novel, the brilliant Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman..
The Hours :: Movie Review
Three women, three times, three places. Three suicide attempts, two successful. All linked in a way by a novel. In Sussex in 1941, the novelist Virginia Woolf fills the pockets of her coat with rocks and walks into a river to..
Juliette Binoche Will Head The 2019 Berlinale Int. Jury
With French actress and Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche serving as Jury President, the International Jury will decide who will receive the Golden Bear and Silver..
Collette (2018)
Formally familiar but a brilliant match for its lead, Colette is a thoroughly entertaining biopic and an overdue testament to Keira Knightley's underrated gifts..
Julia (1977) :: Movie Review
Fascinating, well structured drama with Fonda and Redgrave at their best. "Julia" is the story of a fascinating woman, told from the point of view of someone who hardly knew her..
'Bad Times at the El Royale' Movie review
A piece of major studio entertainment so patient, artful, and thrilling that it might as well be a time machine to the mid-'90s...
'Bird Box' Review :: Susanne Bier's inventive drama
A welcome addition to the post-apocalyptic canon. If ever you find yourself trying to survive the end of the world, don't look to Malorie for an inspiring pep talk..
Claude Lelouch pays a final tribute to Francis Lai
Claude Lelouch brings honor to his "angel", French composer Francis Lai, who won an Oscar for the iconic "Love Story" soundtrack. He died on Wednesday November 7..
Roma (2018) :: Alfonso Cuarón's Masterpiece of Memory
In “Roma,” the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón uses a large canvas to tell the story of lives that some might think small..
Searching (2018) :: Movie Review
“Searching” follows a panicked father's online moves as he tries to track down his missing teenage daughter. It aims for and earns genuine emotion rather than cheap thrills..
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Walter Benjamin and The Act of Killing

True surrealism: ´
Walter Benjamin and The Act of Killing

How Joshua Oppenheimer’s lurid incursion into Indonesia’s past horrors incarnates Walter Benjamin’s philosophies of historical awakening.

A new essay on our film of the year.

Carrie McAlinden, bfi
29 November 2013

Note: this essay refers to the longer, ‘Director’s cut’ version of The Act of Killing, and to scenes edited out of the shorter theatrical cut.

“If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it.”

    Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life


    “Just as Proust begins the story of his life with an awakening, so must every presentation of history begin with an awakening; in fact, it should treat of nothing else.”

    Benjamin, Convolute [N4,3], Arcades Project


Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing documents the efforts of a group of small-time gangsters in Indonesia to re-enact, through cinematic genres, their roles as executioners in the 1965-66 government-sponsored killings of so-called Communists.

These gangsters boast about their involvement in the murders and seize the opportunity to re-create their violent pasts in all their graphic and (in their words) “sadistic” detail.

For this reason, we could conceive of The Act of Killing as two films: Arsan and Amina, the gangsters’ film, and Oppenheimer’s documentary that interviews participants and captures events behind the scenes. The filmmakers of each – the gangsters on the one hand, Oppenheimer and his colleagues on the other – have different ambitions for their films and different stories that they want to tell. It is the tensions between these differing representations of history that drive The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer creating a dialectic between them that, as the title of the film suggests, culminates in the understanding of history as precisely an ‘act’.

These dialectical tensions between competing versions of history call to mind Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. For Benjamin, the past of the “oppressed” must be wrenched from the historicist concept of history as a “continuum” of “homogeneous, empty time” that is defined by “the victors”. The past must be recognised instead as a “dialectical image” wherein the past is called forth into the present.

Both approaches to history can be found in The Act of Killing. The tensions permeate the very form of the film, but are also played out in the figure of Anwar Congo. Anwar, one of the death squad leaders, becomes the focus of the film as he appears increasingly unsure about the kind of (hi)story he wants to tell. His journey is one of what Benjamin would call “awakening” as he reaches a new understanding of the significance and implications of his violent deeds. Oppenheimer represents the process formally in order to provoke an “awakening” on the part of the viewer. In relation to this process, Benjamin’s ideas on surrealism, storytelling and epic theatre are also relevant. The gangsters’ notion of history is eventually shattered until all we are left with is fragments. It is in this fragment that Anwar and the audience discover killing as an ‘act’ or, more specifically, a gesture. In this discovery, the killers’ humanity is restored to the act but the implications of this are unsettling.


    “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes.”

    — Benjamin, Thesis VI, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Anwar and his companions set out to tell what they call the “true story” of what happened in their city, Medan, during the violence of 1965-66. Until now, their violent pasts have only been acknowledged (and feared) locally. They were acting on behalf of a government which maintains control – albeit in a more democratic guise – to this day. Although they were rewarded financially for their roles in the mass killings, these individuals remain small-time gangsters and local celebrities with no political influence, relying instead on intimidation, boasting and chauvinism for power and status.

At the time the film was made, the killings they perpetrated had not been officially recognised, let alone apologised for. Notably, the propaganda film which was compulsory viewing for generations of Indonesian children made no mention of the killings, instead focusing on portraying the Communists as the aggressors. In such circumstances we can begin to understand why Anwar is so desperate to be recognised for the actions which are the source of both his local notoriety and his nightmares.

His and his companions’ own past has been smothered by what Benjamin labels the “continuum of history”, the version of history written by the victors. Anwar has become, quite literally, a “tool of the ruling classes”, an ambitious petty criminal hired to do the army’s dirty work. Anwar’s past is just as “oppressed” and in need of salvage as that of his victims. The killings have been covered up by the government and no process of collective remembrance or mourning has yet been instigated. This is problematic because, as Catherine Malabou argues (in her essay History and the Process of Mourning in Hegel and Freud, in Radical Philosophy issue 106, March/April 2001), “there is no history… without mourning.”

Anwar’s exclusion from history could provide exactly the “moment of danger” which for Benjamin enables a “memory” to “flash up”. However, Anwar’s stated approach – to “show the true history” – cannot achieve this. For Benjamin, to try to re-experience the past and establish an alternative historical narrative to counter that of official history is simply to replace one form of universal history for another and to fall into the trap of historicism.

In Arcades Project, he describes Ranke’s dictum as “the strongest narcotic of the century”. Those who succumb to this kind of history occupy a state of consciousness in which they cannot recognise history as Benjamin intends it to be recognised. In a literal sense, Anwar has taken refuge in intoxication in order to avoid the “flashing up” of that memory. He admits to taking drugs, dancing and drinking in order to forget the horrors he inflicted on others. In this state he accepts his status as a “tool of the ruling classes” and complies with the version of history written by “the victors”.

In this environment, Anwar is described as a “happy man” who performs the cha-cha whilst around his neck hangs the wire he’s just used to demonstrate how he strangled hundreds of Communists.

He and his companions live as “free men” in a haven of wealth and impunity where they revel in their powers of exploitation and indulge in the so-called “relax and Rolex” lifestyle. (Throughout the film, the men claim that the Indonesian word for gangster, premen, comes from the English “free men”.)

Oppenheimer reveals that this attitude exists at all levels, from Herman – Anwar’s henchman and rank-and-file member of the Pancasila Youth (a paramilitary organisation that played a key role in the 1965-66 killings) who launches a brief and unconvincing political campaign motivated by potential opportunities of bribery – to the Vice President of Indonesia, whose speech to the Pancasila Youth celebrates gangster culture and proclaims that “we need gangsters to get things done”.

Later in the film Oppenheimer includes an excerpt from a chat show, broadcast by the Indonesian National Television Network, which congratulates Anwar and the rest of the Pancasila Youth for their commitment to the extermination of Communists and their use of more “efficient” methods of killing.

Not only are they keen to boast about their violent pasts; these individuals also invite us to admire their rewards. The example that stands out here is Haji Anif, introduced as “paramilitary leader and businessman”, who shows off his monkey and bird enclosures as well as his range of “very limited” crystal animals to the sound of Big Mouth Billy Bass singing Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

These ornaments are the trophies of murder and represent power over death. In this world, nature has been conquered and displayed. In all their shininess and newness, these precious objects hide the bloodshed that lies behind them and allow it to be forgotten or pushed aside, so these men can surrender themselves to the dream of the gangster highlife.

This process corresponds to Benjamin’s understanding of the realm of nineteenth-century Parisian arcades as a “fairyland”, a dream-world of displayed commodities that seduced the shopper into the consumption culture of commodity capitalism. The gangsters’ relationship to their material rewards is reminiscent of Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism: the labour that has gone into a product is masked and human relationships have been transferred from individuals to the things themselves. The very hands that delicately handle these ornaments have also killed hundreds of men. As in the “fairyland” of Benjamin’s arcades, the displayed fetish object becomes a means of sustaining the prevailing ideology and version of history maintained by “the victors”.

Formally, Oppenheimer allows the audience to enter the world of that dream. Scenes devised by Anwar and his companions for Arsan and Aminah are also used by Oppenheimer and edited in such a way as to become dream-like. This is particularly true of the re-enactment in which Pancasila Youth members enter a “Communist” village, attack its inhabitants and burn it to the ground.

Oppenheimer uses slow motion and mutes the sound; the scene lasts for several minutes and the audience is invited to enter the reverie of the flames. However, an abrupt cry of “Cut! Cut! Cut!” shakes us from this dream and from the diegesis of Anwar’s film, back into ‘reality’. But we cannot remove ourselves from this dream so easily – we know that similar events did in fact take place and were perpetrated by or against the very individuals now acting them out. Oppenheimer creates a dialectic between the dream and waking worlds in order to bring about an “awakening”.


    “Just as Proust begins the story of his life with an awakening, so must every presentation of history begin with an awakening; in fact, it should treat of nothing else.”

    — Benjamin, Convolute [N4,3], Arcades Project

    “Is awakening perhaps the synthesis of dream consciousness (as thesis) and wakening consciousness (as antithesis)? Then the moment of awakening would be identical with the ‘now of recognisability’, in which things put on their true – surrealist – face.”

    — Benjamin, Convolute [N3a,3], Arcades Project

The representation of the “dream consciousness” occupies an important part of The Act of Killing, since it is a necessary element in the route to what Benjamin calls “awakening”. In the words of Marx, quoted by Benjamin in Arcades Project, “the reform of consciousness consists solely in… the awakening of the world from its dream about itself”. In relation to history, Benjamin believed awakening could lead to recognition of a past that exists outside of the “continuum of history”.

Oppenheimer’s film traces and reflects the process of Anwar’s awakening and the struggles he experiences as he is jolted from his “dream consciousness” and the understanding of history that accompanies it. Oppenheimer presents this dream world only to shatter it, but by representing its destruction he reveals the process by which what Benjamin calls a “true picture of the past” might be revealed.

The film’s “true surrealist face” is not to be found in its dream-like, “unreal” aesthetic. In fact, in Arcades Project Benjamin criticises the Surrealist movement (and Louis Aragon in particular) for dwelling too much “within the world of the dream”. Rather, the awakening process in The Act of Killing is brought about through its fragmented structure. Benjamin structures his own One Way Street and Arcades Project as aphoristic fragments. In Prisms, Theodor Adorno argues that this fragmented structure enables meaning to emerge “through a shock-like montage of the material”. For Benjamin, a fragmented structure could create space for the “true picture of the past” to break through the expanse of homogeneous history.

The Act of Killing consists of scenes that exist in and of themselves that are often starkly juxtaposed with those that precede and follow them, creating the “shock” effect that Benjamin argued could bring about an awakening. Such juxtapositions occur between representations of the past and the present, or between what we may call the ‘dream’ images of Anwar’s re-enactments of his imagined past and the ‘documentary’ material shot by Oppenheimer. (Although, whilst Oppenheimer makes contrasts, he also blurs the distinction between fiction and documentary elements, as I’ll come to.)

The film is punctuated by shots of present-day Indonesia – streets, horizons, shopping malls – that are muted in both colour and sound. These calm, dull scenes are interrupted by loud, dazzling, vibrant re-enactments. Such interruptions create a dialectical relationship between two states of consciousness and evoke the existence of a “homogeneous, empty time” that is shaken by another version of history. Visually, Oppenheimer is performing the task of Benjamin’s historical materialist: he “blasts the epoch out of the reified continuity of history” and “explodes the homogeneity of the epoch, interspersing it with ruins – that is, with the present.”

The bodies that were mutilated on rooftops and dumped in rivers and that now haunt Anwar at night are lurking below the surface of history, waiting for the “now of recognisability”: the moment at which they will be acknowledged in the present. The abruptness with which the violent past disrupts the present reflects the violence of that history itself: contemporary Indonesian society was founded on fear and bloodshed. These interruptions act as a reminder of Ariel Heryanto’s statement that “underlying the power of any long-running domination in history is physical violence on a large scale and a sustained threat of its potential occurrence.” (See the essay Screening the 1965 Violence, in Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer’s compendium Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence.)

For Benjamin, official history is inevitably a history of barbarism, since “all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.” This is especially true of Indonesia, where there has been little political change since the murders were committed. But Oppenheimer bursts this apparent historical homogeneity, offering the past a significance in the present by rupturing, rather than smoothing out, the connection between them.


    “Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical post-humously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary.”

    — Benjamin, ‘A’, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Oppenheimer is unconcerned with historical chronology or continuity. Throughout the film we witness Anwar, now (playing) ‘dead’, now alive, perform re-enactments with a constantly changing hair colour (which was promptly dyed from white to black after watching himself perform one of the first re-enactments). Oppenheimer shows Anwar oscillating between brutality and regret: at one point he expresses his feelings of remorse toward the mothers and children of his victims; shortly afterwards he is shown ripping a doll, which represents the child of a Communist, to shreds.

The Act of Killing is not a film about justifications or explanations; Oppenheimer is neither defending nor attacking Anwar’s deeds. He is generating a process of memory. In eschewing explanation, he is telling a kind of story which, as Benjamin argued in The Storyteller, lent itself much more to memory than that which seeks to contextualise.

Oppenheimer contrasts his approach to history with that of Anwar, who through his film wants to historicise his actions and justify them. For example, he is unsure of where in his film to insert the scene in which Herman, dressed as a Communist drag queen in the middle of the jungle, threatens to devour Anwar’s ‘liver’ whilst Anwar’s ‘decapitated’ head looks on in disgust. (By this point Anwar and Herman seem to have abandoned their aim of representing “the true history”). In the end he decides that the scene should come at the beginning, since these taunts could be used to excuse the violent deeds that come later. However, he cautions, it would need to be clear that this occurred in a “time tunnel” in order to account for how he can be decapitated in this scene, but alive in later ones.

This kind of cause-and-effect narrative not only characterises the storytelling of classical Hollywood cinema, but is akin to the kind of history that for Benjamin belonged to the “homogeneous, empty time” of historicism. Continuing to work within this framework, Anwar’s film cannot sufficiently break free of dominant historical discourse to recognise the past the way Benjamin envisioned. For Benjamin, in order to think historically, continuity and narrative must be ruptured. As he describes in Thesis IX, the angel of history recognises the past not as a “chain of events”, but as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”. Through fragmentation and juxtaposition, Oppenheimer favours the “flash” over the “continuum” and presents the past as a “monad”, rather than as a “transition” that is lost in the expanse of historicism. He rejects established practices in historical documentary of assembling facts, testimonies, footage and/or real locations that aim to provide an understanding of the past “as it really was”.

However, Oppenheimer includes scenes from Arsan and Aminah, as well as discussions amongst the gangsters about how their history should be represented, in order to draw attention to the contrived nature of historical narrative and its tendency to cover over histories that Benjamin would call “oppressed”. At one point, Anwar and his companions are preparing for a scene in which they will interrogate Anwar’s real-life neighbour who will play the Communist. On the set, Anwar’s neighbour asks if he can tell them a story which they may or may not wish to include in the film. The men are prepared to listen to the story because it is “true” and “everything that is in this film must be true”.

Through nervous laughter, the neighbour explains how, as a boy, he had to bury his own stepfather who had been murdered by the death squads and dumped at the side of the road. At the end of the story it is unanimously agreed that this story cannot make it into the film because it would be “too complicated to shoot” – and besides, “everything’s already been planned”. In such scenes, The Act of Killing exposes the ambiguities inherent in any claim to represent Anwar’s vision of a “true” history.


    “Epic theatre is by definition a gestic theatre. For the more frequently we interrupt someone in the act of acting, the more gestures result.”

    — Benjamin, What is Epic Theatre?

By including such behind the scenes discussions, Oppenheimer distances the viewer from Anwar’s representation of history by exposing the process of its construction. Re-enactments and demonstrations are interrupted, adjusted and explained. In one of the first demonstrations, Anwar takes Oppenheimer to the roof of a toy shop. He explains that he killed hundreds of people in that very spot, and immediately begins to demonstrate how he dragged the bodies around the terrace.

He moves on to describe the method they came up with – strangling with a wire – but soon asks Oppenheimer if he can just show him instead. A companion agrees to sit on the floor whilst Anwar, addressing Oppenheimer and the camera, acts out and explains how he tied and pulled the wire. As Anwar recognises when he watches the scene later, he is not embodying the character of the executioner, but merely demonstrating it. He criticises himself: “Look, I’m laughing. I did it wrong, didn’t I?”

This kind of performance is reminiscent of Brecht’s notes on The Street Scene demonstration that he uses as a model for his concept of epic theatre. Here, the witness of a traffic accident “acts the behaviour of driver or victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident.” The demonstrator establishes a distance between himself and his ‘role’ so that the audience can reflect on the performance and are not absorbed into the ‘illusion’. The explanations he includes in his demonstrations, which address the audience directly, offer what Brecht calls the “alienation effect”.

Benjamin argues that “the interruption of happenings” in epic theatre could produce “astonishment” on the part of the audience. We can equate this with the ‘shock’ that he believed could bring about an awakening of consciousness. Oppenheimer does not allow the audience to historicise Anwar’s actions; they are no longer contextualised or part of a homogeneous history. The interruption of a demonstration is akin to the “cessation of happening” that can call forth a memory that has been covered over by historicism. Of the violence that he perpetrated we can no longer ask “how this can still happen?”, as Benjamin’s historicist would; it has been extricated from its context and dropped into the present, detached from motivation and justification.

What were in themselves horrific acts of violence are deconstructed before our eyes and their brutality is diluted. What seem more unsettling and incomprehensible are scenes of ordinary activities inserted with no obvious explanation or purpose: Anwar visiting the dentist; Herman brushing his teeth. In this way, Oppenheimer offers us Benjamin’s very definition of surrealism: “a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday”. By deconstructing the violence, Oppenheimer transforms it into gesture. The demonstrations and re-enactments encourage the viewer to reflect on the isolated gesture of killing, on the tiny details that make up a history of violence. It is in this sense that we should understand the film’s title. Oppenheimer wants to show that, as he told Der Spiegel, “the act of killing is always some kind of act, because otherwise you couldn’t do it.”

The focus on the act is relevant when we consider Anwar’s perception of himself. In order to commit such violence, he locates his behaviour within the culture of cinema. He compares himself to Sidney Poitier and his heroes are Al Pacino and James Dean. Whilst he was working for the death squads he was also selling cinema tickets. He tells us that after “happy movies” – “Elvis movies”, for example – he and Herman would go directly to the “office” to kill people, drinking, dancing and laughing. Still in high spirits from the film, he says, “it was like we were killing happily.” Their first-hand experience of the killings was therefore just as mediated as the re-enactments of those killings.

The extent to which killing is an ‘act’ is highlighted in certain scenes which blur the boundary between documentary and fiction. For example, when Anwar’s neighbour is interrogated as a Communist, he becomes extremely distressed and Herman jeers, “Let’s kill him for real!” At this point it is no longer clear who, if anyone, is acting. We realise that there is no clear distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ here: all of these individuals were involved in these events ‘for real’; killing was as much of an act in 1965 as it is on this film set.

Oppenheimer presents Anwar not as a killer, but as someone who is constructing the appearance of a killer. There are countless shots of Anwar looking at himself in the mirror, adjusting his hair and dentures, admiring his own outfits and having make-up applied on the set.

Although he really did commit these violent acts, Anwar never seems to become the killer. Even in the re-enactments he is more often playing the victim than the perpetrator, and when he plays himself he is hardly convincing. He lurks in the background, and the one scene where he plays the interrogator is interrupted because he gets his facts wrong. He asks the ‘Communist’, played by his companion Adi, why he was recruiting people to join an illegal party. Adi reminds him that the party wasn’t illegal at that time, and the whole cast start laughing. Although unintentionally, Anwar can be compared to the actor in epic theatre who, Brecht explains, avoids “getting the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself.”

The one instance when Anwar does appear to go into a “trance” and “become” his character, it is in the role of the victim. In this film noir-style scene he plays a Communist who is tortured and strangled by a death squad leader, played by Herman. Anwar is visibly moved during the scene and takes some time to recover.

Later, when he watches it at home, he is proud of his performance and asks his grandsons to come and watch. At this point we begin to wonder whether, for Anwar, killing will only ever a performance. However, once the scene is over and his bemused grandsons have left, he is clearly unsettled. In tears, he wonders: “did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? …Is it all coming back to me?”


    “If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it.”

    — Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

It is by encountering his own mortality (through cinema) that Anwar is offered the “revolutionary chance” of Benjamin’s historical materialist: a return to the humanity that has been denied to him by universal history.

Although, as Nietzsche points out, the ability to remember is one characteristic that defines us as humans, there is a point at which, if one is unable to break free of history, man also loses all humanity. As Anwar re-enacts his own death he is struck by exactly the “moment of danger” that, for Benjamin, can cause a memory to “flash up”. He experiences his past as a fragment which encounters its “now of recognisability” and, in this moment, rejects the homogeneous course of history which has smothered his past.

According to Benjamin, “the concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time”. By rejecting that history and submitting to ‘death’, Anwar is also rejecting the notion of progress and what Benjamin describes as its “exploitation of nature”. As a killer he claimed power over nature, calling the murders he perpetrated “unnatural deaths”. Now, he has surrendered to it. His dismembered corpse is scattered across a jungle landscape and his innards are devoured by monkeys. The protagonist of a film that thrives on fragments thus ends up in pieces himself. His severed head denotes his rupture from the burden of homogeneous history; he is transported to the afterlife where his body is reconstituted and he can dance beneath a waterfall.

The ‘afterlife’ scene seems to be one with which Anwar intended to end Arsan and Aminah. To the sound of an ethereal rendering of Born Free, two battered ‘Communists’ remove the wire from their necks, thanking Anwar and giving him a medal “for sending [them] to heaven”. Given Anwar’s position side by side with his victims, along with the lush landscape and euphoric music, it is safe to assume that Anwar has made it into heaven. We are left with an image of what James E. Young calls “common memory”: a memory of trauma that “tends to restore or establish coherence, closure and possibly a redemptive stance”.

This is a satisfying end to Anwar’s experience of ‘awakening’; now that he has realised the error of his ways, he can move on. Anwar is now able to truly live because he has condemned his past and freed himself from it. He has exercised what Nietzsche would call his “plastic power”, ie “the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken moulds”.


    “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again.”

    — Benjamin, Thesis V, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Although Anwar experiences an awakening, Oppenheimer chooses not to end The Act of Killing with the euphoric afterlife scene. In fact, it comes as the penultimate sequence.

In the final scene Anwar takes us to the roof of a handbag shop – yet another execution site. He begins what has now become a routine demonstration of how he strangled his victims and stuffed the bodies into sacks. However, his demonstration is interrupted by his own gagging. The fit of retching lasts for minutes (although, ironically, nothing actually comes out). He pulls himself together and continues his demonstration.

Whilst doing so, he explains his actions to Oppenheimer: “I had to kill them… my conscience told me I had to.” At this, he begins to retch again. The Act of Killing film ends with a perturbed and frail-looking Anwar descending the stairs of the handbag shop.

Oppenheimer leaves us with an image of an individual who has still not managed to fully break free of history’s continuum. His body continues to battle with the kind of history that forces explanations. The final shot of The Act of Killing addresses Saul Friedländer’s concept of ‘deep memory’: a memory that, in Young’s words, “continues to exist as unresolved trauma just beyond the reach of meaning”. By ending The Act of Killing in this way, Oppenheimer does not allow the “closure” offered by “common memory”; Anwar is not redeemed. He has only experienced his past as a “flash” because the “now of recognisability” is only an instant that “flits by”. His gagging is an outward sign that he has recognised “the true picture of the past” but is not willing to accept it.

By placing these two radically different endings in succession, Oppenheimer creates the most dramatic juxtaposition of the film. He contrasts the two concepts of history and memory that have formed a dialectical relationship throughout The Act of Killing. By representing murder as gesture he allows Anwar a fleeting moment of redemption. For Giorgio Agamben (see Infancy and History), “in the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to re-appropriate what it has lost whilst simultaneously recording that loss.” In other words, cinema offers the chance to rediscover the gesture as a fragment of the past that has become lost in history.

The Act of Killing offers an “awakening of consciousness” that extricates the act from homogeneous history and humanises its perpetrators. Scenes of everyday activities – of brushing teeth, for example – appear as strange because there is something humanising about watching a mass murderer perform his ablutions.

Along with this awakening comes a sense of redemption because Oppenheimer has shown killers as human beings and has made it difficult for us to separate ‘good’ from ‘evil’ or ‘us’ from ‘them’.

However, this awakening can only appear as a flash of euphoria because of the disturbing nature of this realisation. If these killers are human, then evil can exist in all of us.

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Night Train To Lisbon
Annette Focks


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