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Oscar Documentaries and Others: The Act of Killing and The Last of the Unjust

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147 docs were eligible for Oscars this year. 15 made a short list, and 5 are now contenders. One, The Act of Killing, a first feature length film for director Josh Oppenheimer, working with an anonymous partner, raises questions of morality, conscience, and accountability related to the 1965-6 genocide in Indonesia. As Oppenheimer explained at a special Academy of Art & Sciences screening series of the Oscar nominated documentaries, he had met some survivors of the killings, and in the process of deciding to make a film on this subject, he met with perpetrators, proud and still in powerful government positions.

Oppenheimer interviewed forty killers before landing on Anwar Congo who described in detail how he developed a method of killing using wire that he learned watching American gangster movies, the advantage being that this technique produced the least amount of blood to mop up. Also adept at beheading using a machete when needed, Congo's testimony suggested to Oppenheimer that the bravado behind describing this cruelty might in fact hint at a new reckoning; this taboo topic might be ready for discussion for a regime that prefers to stand silent behind its untoward past.

When asked to describe what they did to unarmed victims said to be Communist or enemies of the state, Congo and other death squad members seemed boastful and eager to show and tell, agreeing to film a re-enactment of these murders, with fellow Indonesians including women and children as actors. A particularly cruel Herman Koto performs his bit in drag, and in a penultimate production number, beautiful, colorfully dressed women sway to a rendition of "Born Free." The viewer marvels at this surreal non-fiction.

It was as if I went back to Germany and found the Nazis in power crowing about the murder of the Jews, said Oppenheimer, who in fact is a descendent of Holocaust survivors. His remark called to mind The Last of the Unjust, an outtake from Claude Lanzmann's epic length Shoah, focused on Benjamin Murmelstein, third and last president of the Jewish Council of the Thereseinstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, who fought with Adolf Eichmann on matters of liquidating the Jews, and how best to complete the final solution. For him, Hannah Arendt's summation of Eichmann's "banality of evil," is pure rubbish; Eichmann was no bureaucrat, but a particularly inventive murderer. Claiming to have saved lives, Murmelstein, an erudite former rabbi from Vienna, was a controversial figure after liberation, accused of being a collaborator, but freed of these charges.

After Lanzmann filmed survivors for Shoah in 1975, he teased out several interviews for stand-alone films. At 3 1/2 hours, The Last of the Unjust is riveting, because Lanzmann, seen chain smoking in trendy sunglasses, takes the time to linger on a particular exterior where murders took place, making a leafy empty corridor grow in haunting elegiac intensity. How easily the imagination fills in the horrific drama, even as the specificity of Murmelstein's words transfix. What Claude Lanzmann has said about his film Shoah works for his treatment of Benjamin Murmelstein: "I am not here to judge."

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.