After the Act of Killings director Joshua Oppenheimer began talking with several survivors of a killing spree in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965 at the hands of thugs drafted by the military to weed out accused communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, he had no idea he would become friends with one of those killers. The documentary focuses on Anwar Congo, the last of the 41 perpetrators he met during a total of eight years trying to make this film. Speaking over the phone from a hotel in New York City, Oppenheimer said they still speak. “He and I have remained in touch every three to four weeks,” he said, “and I think somehow we always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate, ultimately transformative journey together.”

The transformation comes about in the film on a rather surreal but brilliantly therapeutic level when Oppenheimer asks Congo and other executioners to act out the killings in brilliantly shot if hokey dramatic reenactments that cover genres from gangster films, musicals to ghost stories. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThe director noted that the reenactments were designed to work on a higher meta-level as being symptomatic of the perpetrator’s boasting and impunity. However, something surprising happened with Congo. “Each time we would shoot a scene he would watch the scene, and he would be very disturbed by what he saw, but he would not dare to say what was wrong with the scene,” said Oppenheimer. “Basically, he would displace the guilt on something trivial like, the costumes are bad, the acting or the genre, and he would propose a new scene. So in a sense he was trying to run away from his pain the entire time, and that’s the fuel for the whole process.”

He points out that with the Act of Killing he was not seeking to make a sentimental film or a psycho-drama. “That would be obscene and wrong,” he emphasizes, adding that this all happened rather serendipitously. He says he unconsciously focused on Congo but, in hindsight, remorse underlined all his seeming boasting. No matter the argument, deflecting or escape, below it all lies a conflicted awareness of guilt. “I don’t think I met a single perpetrator over all these years that did not know that what they did was wrong,” Oppenheimer stated.


During their first meeting, Congo admits to Oppenheimer that he was often drunk or high during the killings. At first, the admission seems to highlight the “thrill” of killing, but in actually it was one of the many ways Congo found an escape from confronting the horror of his actions. “That’s right,” Oppenheimer agreed. “Anwar’s conscience is present from the very beginning.”

Congo also notes that gangster movies inspired his methods of killings, including garroting by wire. He also throws around an appreciation for Pacino and Brando.

However, don’t blame violence in movies for his behavior because Congo also notes a sense of euphoria after watching Elvis Presley musicals and stabbing people in the street. What’s up with that? Oppenheimer points out that something more sinister underlies these forms of cheap Hollywood films: numbing escapism. actofkilling_2“Some people have made the link that violent movies cause violent behavior, but Elvis Presley musicals are the most vivid example [Congo] gives: of walking out of a midnight show dancing his way across the street, intoxicated by his love of Elvis and killing happily, and Elvis musicals are not violent. They’re just stupid, and I think the real risk is escapist storytelling. How we tell stories, all of us, you, me, everybody to escape our most painful and bitter truths.”

And this is what makes the Act of Killing, which climaxes in one of the most visceral scenes of remorse one will ever see committed to film, the most disturbing horror film you might ever experience.

You can read much more of my interview with Oppenheimer and watch the film’s trailer on the website of the Miami New Times and its art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the logo below:

cultist banner

Hans Morgenstern

The Act of Killing is in Indonesian and English with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is not rated (the violence is all staged and/or recalled as stories, but it’s more disturbing than you might be able to imagine). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami, for which I originally wrote this interview. It’s playing across the globe now, even having distribution in Indonesia. For worldwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).

Update: the Act of Killing opens Sept. 6 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Sept. 15 at the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Act of Killing video release

This morning, the nominees for the Oscar® awards were announced. Among those nominated for best documentary* was the already plenty-award-winning film the Act of Killing, which also won best documentary from us at the Florida Film Critics Circle. The film’s co-director, Joshua Oppenheimer sent us a statement regarding the nomination this morning: “We are deeply grateful. This nomination is an honor for us as filmmakers, but for the survivors and victims it is a crucial first step in their country’s acknowledgement of a moral catastrophe— the horror of the genocide and the on-going regime of fear and corruption built by the killers. May it also be a first step toward healing.”

Last week, Cinedigm Entertainment released the extended cut of the Act of Killing on home video. I first spoke to Oppenheimer last year. We spoke fast and deep about this film, and much of our conversation can be found in this post featuring two articles:

An interview with the director of ‘the Act of Killing’; more in ‘Miami New Times’ (August 16, 2013)

However, as is usually the case, even with two articles, there was still left over material from our interview. I don’t even think I had room to note that Oppenheimer is actually credited as co-director with Christine Cynn and “Anonymous,” the latter representing the survivors of a virtual genocide in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThey too spoke out about the Academy Award nomination: “The Act of Killing— and the issues of impunity it raises— will make front-page news today in Indonesia. Our schools still teach children an official history that glorifies genocide, and our government continues to celebrate mass murderers as national heroes. They do so to keep us afraid, so we won’t dare hold them accountable for their crimes. I hope this nomination encourages us to demand truth, justice, and reconciliation.”

That fear was the source of inspiration for making the Act of Killing. Oppenheimer revealed the project began with the Globalisation Tapes, a film he made with Cynn about a Belgian-owned oil pump plantation in Indonesia that manufactured palm oil (take note, Nutella lovers), which documents the struggles of workers with abuse and inhumane working conditions (the film was never released on home video, but you can view it free here). Oppenheimer noted that the workers were threatened into not forming a union and had to endure forced labor and pesticides that killed mostly women over the age of 40. “Turned out that the reason they were terrorized into silence was that their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965 and had been accused for being communist sympathizers simply because they were in a union, had been rounded up, put in concentration camps and dispatched out to be killed by local death squads, and they were afraid that this could happen to them again.”

This piece of history that still haunts much of the Indonesian population became the inspiration for the Act of Killing. However, the filmmaking was met with many roadblocks by Indonesian officials. “As soon as we came back and word got out that that’s what we were doing, the army would come and stop us from shooting with them,” Oppenheimer said.


The victims that compose “Anonymous” then gave Oppenheimer and Cynn the idea to focus on the perpetrators because, they said, they would gladly not only share details about the killings they committed but also show off about them. The filmmakers struck a goldmine of material to work with. “I found they were all boastful. They were all open,” said Oppenheimer. “I found myself in Germany 40 years after the holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power.”

The filmmakers were able to brew up a surreal concoction of staged movie scenes featuring the killers themselves among traditional documentary footage. The mix of gangster film, musical, horror movie and documentary makes for a surreal experience that feels more truthful than most documentaries. The Act of Killing takes an exploration into the depths of the soul of men corrupted by heinous acts to a whole other level.

Oppenheimer said he prefers the extended cut of the film, a near-three-hour odyssey into the heart of remorse and revelation unlike most anyone will ever see, which can be found on the home video release. He notes one of the film’s executive producers also prefers this longer cut to the U.S. theatrical cut: the famed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (the other noteworthy executive producer is Errol Morris).


The director also noted that some of the subjects of his film have seen this extended cut. “Anwar [Congo] was very, very moved by it. He was silent from a long time after watching it, a little bit tearful, and he said, ‘This film shows what it is like to be me. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally express feelings that I have been discouraged from acknowledging for so many years.’”

Oppenheimer noted he and Congo, who he filmed over the course of five years, have remained in touch, “and always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate and ultimately transformative journey.”

Then there was Herman Koto, who never hesitated to dress in drag during many of the staged scenes. “Herman has seen the film and loves the film,” said Oppenheimer. “Herman, over the course of the film, fell in love with acting, developed an actor’s loyalty to the truth. A good actor has to have a loyalty to the moral and emotional truth of any situation that she or he is acting in. He does.”

Oppenheimer said Koto also came to his own revelation about the group he belonged to, the sort-of neo-fascist Pancasila Youth, which still hold rallies celebrating the killings to this day. “He became more disillusioned with Pancasila Youth because he came to understand more and more deeply the horror upon which it’s all built. So he’s been very supportive of the film.”


Someone Oppenheimer did not bother showing the film to was Adi Zulkadry. He explained, “He recognizes in the film exactly what the film will do and decides to leave the film for that reason, and he has high connections with the paramilitary leadership in Indonesia, and I was worried that if he saw the film he could start lobbying against the film and that could jeopardize our plan for distributing the film in Indonesia and could make it unsafe for people to screen the film … All high-ranking political leaders who appear in the film inevitably hate the film, as well as they should, or else it would mean I didn’t do my job.”

Though, throughout the Act of Killing, the filmmakers keep the implications of U.S. culpability to these killings on a subtle level in the film, juxtaposing destitute neighborhoods and the fancy malls tourists and the upper class frequent in Jakarta, it’s not lost on Oppenheimer that there was something culturally criminal at play here. Therefore, there could be some poetic justice if the film indeed wins the Oscar, come March 2. “There could be a whole film made, certainly a book written, about the U.S.’s role in supporting the genocide,” he said. “but that would be a historical film. The Act of Killing is not a film about the past. It’s a film about today. It’s about how the past is abused in the present … The moral and cultural vacuum of sort of rampant capitalism and consumerism. The alienation, the hollowness of consumerism is a character that haunts the whole movie.”

Hans Morgenstern

In South Florida, The Act of Killing returns to the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus for two nights only this weekend (buy tickets).

*Also nominated for best documentary feature was another Indie Ethos favorite, Cutie and the Boxer (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship)

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

CARLA FORTE PHOTO by ALEXEY TARANThis month, The Miami Beach Cinematheque will hold its seventh installment of its Knight Foundation sponsored discussion series called Speaking In Cinema. Usually, the bi-monthly event features a local film critic, an out-of-town film critic and a guest filmmaker (this writer was one of the first guest critics). This time they are bringing together three Miami-based filmmakers for a very special installment of the series, and this is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the three filmmakers, who are all showing films in a retrospective series leading up to their talk. Meet Carla Forte.

Not too long ago, this writer reviewed the Hungarian film White God (White God takes the easy route to schlock over allegory– a film review). The most impressive thing about the movie was how the filmmakers wrangled 200 dogs and sent them marauding through the streets of Budapest. There was another film shown a few months earlier at the Miami International Film Festival that had a similar scene, Forte’s documentary The Holders. In it she explores the fate of many animals left at animal shelters (it’s often not pretty). Forte makes no apologies for the film’s bias toward animal rights. Writing via email, she says, “We need people in shelters who believe in not killing and who can confront the problem with compassion and respect.”

At the end of her film she presents the viewers with a solution that volunteers in Costa Rica have devised: a free range, no-kill shelter. It’s like a Shangri-La for dogs, where hundreds of abandoned dogs run free, receive health care and die natural deaths. The images of something like 700 dogs running down hills and jumping through creeks are stunning. “My friend Carla Lopez, a vegan activist, told me about this amazing place called Territorio de Zaguates,” explains Forte, “which shelters more than 700 hundreds stray dogs in Costa Rica. [Producer] Alexey Taran and I decided to travel to that place and expose this amazing reality happening in the mountains in a Latin American country.”

The place is so impressive, Forte has found a way to incorporate in her upcoming feature film, Ann. “It’s a feature film that narrates the story of Ruben, a man who has decided to abandon his tormented life by taking refuge within his own imagination,” she explains about the still in-progress movie. “His transgender wife Ann, in the face of a deteriorating relationship, attempts to understand Ruben’s idealized world.”

Forte says the film is still in its early stages. “We are launching an indigogo campaign to raise money,” she says. “We’ll be shooting the Feature Film in early 2016 in Miami and Costa Rica.”

Meanwhile, besides The Holders, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will also show an early short by Forte called “Interrupta,” which has been shown at several Latin American festivals as well as in Milan and Berlin. In it you will see her dancing in the shower. Besides being a director, she is also a quite talented modern dancer and choreographer. Dance often figures into her film work. As a choreographer, Forte puts a lot of thought in what dance means in a narrative, cinematic context. “‘Interrupta’ is about impermanence, emotional attachments, family. The characters in the art video are: my dad, my mom and my brother. We live in a world where every day people and things are influencing us and interrupting us. I am writing these lines while I am hearing my dogs barking and my neighbor cutting the grass. We have an everyday routine but suddenly something happens that we did not expect, good or bad, important or not, but it happened.”

There’s another abstract idea in the film, she adds. “I think people know some day we will die, but I think people do not realize that it can happen at any moment.”

When asked what inspires her as a filmmaker, Forte provided a rather poetic answer:

The desire to tell what I think inspires me. Is a path for expression.
Animals, people, the world inspire me. Is a path of exchange.
Silence, water, dance inspire me. Is a path of life.
Love and sadness inspire me. Is a path of feeling.
My family, my friends my dogs inspire me. Is a path of teaching.
Life inspires me. The big path.

Hans Morgenstern

The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Jillian Mayer, Monica Peña, and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Jillian Mayer (Jillian Mayer on inspiration from the medium of film and upcoming projects, from a talk show about pets to Kaiju) and then Monica Peña (read her profile here).

You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:

NT Arts

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

TANGERINESFinalUSPosterA subtle film about brotherhood and tearing down the idea of “the enemy,” Tangerines (Mandariinid) is a beautifully shot meditation on what war means to soldiers on opposite sides when they are forced to take shelter together after being injured in battle. Even though it arrives in theaters rather late after its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film, the cooled buzz about this film from Estonia should not deter those looking for quality cinema. As the hype wanes, what you are left with is a fantastic movie that should stand on its own as a quality work of deft storytelling resonant with humanistic concerns.

The film opens with a title card providing context to this war that one character calls “The Citrus War.” Events in the film take place in Georgia in 1992, not long after the fall of Soviet Russia. Many newly freed states saw conflict during this time. In this case, Estonian immigrants were forced out of Georgia during the ensuing conflicts between Georgians and Abkhazian separatists. Lembit Ulfsak plays Ivo, a carpenter from Estonia who has refused to leave his property in the lush Georgian countryside. He builds crates for his neighbor, tangerine farmer and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen). They are caught up in the timely harvest of the fruit with no one to help, as most Estonians have fled at this point in the conflict.


When a skirmish suddenly breaks out on their front yards, Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers from opposite sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a mercenary for the separatists, vows to kill the Georgian soldier Niko (Misha Meskhi), as soon as both are well enough to step outside Ivo’s house — Ahmed does not want to dishonor their host by killing his enemy under Ivo’s roof. This allows the men to get to know one another, and despite conversations often turning to the rhetorical righteousness for either side, a humanizing effect occurs. Though Niko and Ahmed seem at odds over everything, they are also like two brothers that have gotten on one another’s nerves.

Writer/director Zaza Urushadze takes his time to allow the tension to turn while the men are inhibited from fighting, patiently deflating their tiresome conversation to levels of absurd, ill-informed rhetoric. Early on, we know the primary concern of the plot lies with the harvest of the crop and not the war. In a sly redefinition of military, Ivo and Margus have been promised help by other soldiers to pick the crop. This speaks to the importance of the land as more than territory but a space for life-sustaining nourishment. There are also many affectionate wide shots of the country’s lush landscape beautifully lensed by Rein Kotov. Against many of these images is the melancholic instrumental music by Niaz Diasamidze, a Georgian musician who specializes in the panduri and pulls incredibly somber melodies out of the bowed instrument.

Like the land and fruit, music also matters above the fight in Tangerines. After he’s well enough to sit at the table, Niko spends much of his time repairing a cassette tape that was damaged in the skirmish. The mystery of the music on it will not be revealed until the film’s finale. In one scene where Niko is working on the tape, Ivo has tuned his radio in on a station featuring a frantically plucked zither. Niko asks Ivo to change the music because it’s “driving him crazy.” As Ivo gets up, Ahmed says “but I’m listening to it.” And Ivo sits down.


The relevance of music above the war is also wittily manifested by what isn’t translated from the radio. In this “war movie,” news of the war doesn’t matter as much as music. When Ivo and Ahmed turn on the radio, in two separate scenes, and tune it in to a news report, the subtitle only reads “War news on the radio.” Whether it was a creative decision by the director or not, it still serves to diminish the relevance of the war on this story. The specifics of what the radio announcer says about the war doesn’t matter as much as the music, be it the diegetic music that highlights the differences of the enemies or the extra-diegetic score by Diasamidze for setting the film’s somber mood.

But this is a violent setting, and indeed these men will be tested when war inevitably returns to their doorstep for a shocking finale that delivers the film’s message via a visceral confrontation. Urushadze never hints at his capability in staging the violent confrontation that closes this story of temporary peace during wartime. That he can add an impact to it via a humanizing character study speaks to the film’s use of violence in important narrative ways above exploitative entertainment value, but most of all, it offers a heart-breaking portrait of the dehumanizing randomness of war.

Hans Morgenstern

Tangerines runs 87 minutes, is in Estonian, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles and is not rated (expect wartime violence and cussing). It opened last Friday in our Miami area at the Tower Theater where it plays through Sunday and in nearby Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood where it plays through Thursday. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. All images are courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, who also shared an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Sometimes a film buff may wonder if they have seen all the gangster movies there are to see, then something like Killing Them Softly comes around. In his third feature, director Andrew Dominik seeks to capture the existential malaise of men in search of quick loot as well as those who kill them. At the same time, viewers looking for another bloody good time among gangsters will not be disappointed by the violence these men respectively deal out and have dealt unto them. Killing Them Softly may have a lot of talking, but in between the chatter— which always maintains a direct or indirect focus on the “business”— are quite a few indulgent scenes of the inevitable. The scenes are vile and gruesome but also full of pathos. The man at the center of the violence, a humorless and near weary hit man named Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), warns us as much. “They plead, they beg, they piss themselves, they cry for their mothers. It gets embarrassing.”

This is not the cutesy pop culture chatter of Tarantino, meant to distract from the criminality of the criminals. This dialogue comes from the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade. The film adaptation is all about immersing into the trials and tribulations that haunt these people, wear them out and, in several cases, get them killed.

The drama opens with three men planning to holdup a poker game run by the mob. When mastermind and dry-cleaning business owner Johnny “the Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) discusses the details of the scheme with Frankie (Scoot McNairy), the plan reeks of danger. At the same time, these fools think it’s the greatest idea ever. But, Johnny says, they must move quick: “We’re not the only smart guys in the world.” Though the conversation seems repetitive at times, and Johnny more than once expresses his wariness of having Frankie bring in his junky friend Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) as backup, it effectively establishes the risk they are taking for the quick money. Killing Them Softly is about the thin social threads that barely hold together the crooks who deal in danger, who are all simply only thinking about themselves in the long run.

The tone of the film is brilliantly established during the opening credits. Pitch blackness surrounds a small square of a window looking over a wasteland of papers blowing in the wind. The sound of President Barack Obama offering a message of economic optimism to a cheering crowd plays on the soundtrack. The ruined landscape and Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech can be interpreted in many ways, and those of different political persuasions and biases will do as much. However, the speech cuts off to succumb to a droning, one note, industrial-like tone that hums along for a few seconds during a black screen and the stark presentation of white opening credits. It toggles from one unreality to another, the tone varying in pitch upon each return as the window grows larger, and a man walks out of the darkness and toward the dilapidated land. The interplay of the various roaring hums and Obama’s speech brightens the speech in compliment, making the drone all the more difficult to hear. Adding more disorienting uncertainty to the opening scene is the shifting focus, which blurs the images. It turns out the man stepping out of the darkness and into the ruin is Frankie. This is a brilliant dramatic ploy that, in retrospect of today’s age, sets up the uncertainty and greed of the men at the heart of the movie.

Set against the background of hope and change promised by the election of Obama, the men— and the film only features men— inhabit a decrepit town (Dominik shot the film in New Orleans). Most exteriors feature rotting neighborhoods with weather-beaten homes and gray weeds overgrown into the sidewalks. Frankie rendezvous with Russell in a lot where a house may have once stood. Only furniture remains, strewn in the open air. With the ruin, and drab color palette, Killing Them Softly has a hyper-atmospheric visual style that recalls the gritty, early seventies-era gangster flicks, like that other movie based on a Higgins novel, the Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). The mise-en-scène around Frankie and Russell remains consistent around them throughout the film:  They are headed nowhere from nowhere. During the stick up at the poker game, the camera often sits close and over their shoulders, adding a deeper claustrophobic quality to their rut, not to mention ratcheting up the tension in the scene.

But these poor slobs are the incompetent low-lives who always seem to have to look over their shoulders, waiting for the inevitable. The inevitable arrives in the form of Jackie Cogan who does not take long to figure out the responsible parties of the heist with a roll of his eyes. Pitt plays Jackie with so much cool and swagger, he seems the anti-hero of the movie, but before his cool-handed death-dealing comes to light, we meet Mickey (James Gandolfini). Jackie suggests him as a second man on the hit job to his liaison with the mob, a nameless man known only as “Driver” in the film credits (Richard Jenkins). He tells the driver, who simply holds meetings in his car and barely even seems to drive, that Mickey is one of the best in the business. However, when Jackie picks up Mickey at the airport, Mickey cannot seem to stop moaning about his divorce, drinking non-stop and thinking about hookers.

Though the scenes between Jackie and Mickey might seem rather long, they reveal the wonder of two fine actors who know how to take turns and listen to one another. It only enhances the connection and dichotomy of the two, as Mickey is gradually and subtly revealed as Jackie’s double. With all his confidence, Jackie may seem to be on the way up, but he is also fated to become the next Mickey. All of the men in Killing Them Softly know their social circles are other men like them, but they are all ultimately on their own. “The world’s shit, and we’re all alone,” says Frankie toward the end of the movie. Jackie, however, gets the last line: “We’re in America, and in America you’re on your own,” before he adds a sadder truth: “and it’s a fuckin’ business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”

The film might seem rather contrived to some. The Obama and even George W. Bush speechifying on the economy overheard on radios or television sets throughout the movie grows redundant. The conversations are often long and droney. Jackie even says at one point, “I have to explain this twice?” Even the use of ironic music like an old-time love song during the extreme slow-motion death of one of the gangsters seems heavy-handed. In extreme contrast, sometimes, the songs are used a little too literally (Velvet Underground’s “Heroine” while Russell shoots up?). Song choices are a tough line to walk sometimes and only a handful of directors have a true knack to get it right, anyway (Scorsese, Tarantino, Crowe and Anderson are among the few). However, Dominik deserves credit for maintaining  a compact and focused perspective on the film’s theme while maintaining a brisk if varied pace. He never strays into over-characterizing his subjects, maintaining an intriguing balance around the ambiguity of these men. He also embraces the language Higgins’ source material provides to illuminate his subject at hand, which carries into the conundrum of these lives that play so close to the edge of death.

Hans Morgenstern

Killing Them Softly is Rated R (it earns it) and runs 97 minutes. It opens in wide release this Friday, Nov. 30, across the U.S. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The great documentarian and filmmaker Werner Herzog has no shame in revealing an agenda. But he does not push it or sentimentalize it. His successes date back to the early seventies, and the best of them reveal a profound understanding of humanity. These include features from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Rescue Dawn (2006) and documentaries from “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner” (1974) to Encounters at the End of the World (2007). That is only counting the films of which I am familiar with, including many in between, so if there are “genius” ones prior or since, I have only omitted them because I have not seen them. The point being, more often than not, Herzog probes deeper into the mysteries of humanity than most other artists, or men for that matter, ever dare.

Add Into the Abyss to Herzog’s rich filmography. Now he heads to Texas to interview a pair of inmates convicted of murder, one destined to die (Michael Perry), the other incarcerated for life (Jason Burkett). Both were found guilty in the same 2001 triple homicide that took the lives of Sandra Stotler, 50, her 16-year-old son, Adam, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson. Through the fates of these two men, Herzog offers something further reaching than a statement on the death penalty. He presents a community where circumstances offer very little hope to those struggling to get by, the shattered lives of surviving family members and the effects of execution on all participants involved.

Herzog opens Into the Abyss with a reverend who has spent a life-changing amount of time with men put to death by lethal injection in the State of Texas. During his interview, Reverend Richard Lopez says, “I believe God is good and caring.” He says this near the cemetery where the unclaimed condemned are buried, plain crosses with only dates and numbers denoting the grave sites. Though Lopez offers the classic Christian’s reassurance for death: “it’s God’s will,” he seems shaken up recalling a moment he almost ran over a squirrel with his golf cart. “Life is precious whether it’s a squirrel or a human being,” he says before tearing up. “For someone on the gurney, I cannot stop the process for them. I wish I could.”

It’s a a set up resonating with complexity and seems to reinforce Herzog’s own philosophy as a man who has freely admitted to his atheism yet is deeply attuned to the encounter of death by the living. In his haunting 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, which dealt with the mauling death of an animal lover who enjoyed camping near grizzly bears, Herzog says, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” The phrase can apply to the situations presented in Into the Abyss, be it the contrasting fates of the convicts to the reverend’s tearful reaction in regards to execution.

The prologue with the reverend offers a brilliant set up before the title card appears: “Into the Abyss. A tale of life, a tale of death,” hovering over handheld camera footage of the cell an inmate will wait in before execution. The words hover between a table with bibles and a holding cell a few feet across from the lethal injection room. On the soundtrack, some sparse, bluesy music by Mark Degli Antoni (formerly of Soul Coughing) drones, accentuating the tragedy of not only the presence of execution in society but also the murder scene.

Early in the documentary, Herzog intercuts actual footage from the bloody crime scene documented on video by police as evidence, while Police Lt. Damon Hall walks him through the night of the murders, driving him to the house where the elder Stotler was shot dead to the lake where her body was dumped and the wooded area where the two young men where also shot dead, all over a pair of vehicles. The slow-paced editing of that police footage, set to Antoni’s dreary music makes it all feel very Herzogian and tragic for those involved, with enough space for meditation by the viewer. Herzog is no manipulator, but an observer who wants to share what he sees, fostering room for insight by the audience.

However, Herzog does not hold back. In an interview eight days prior to his execution, the director tells Perry he does not like him but respects him as a human being:  “You are a human being, and I do not think human beings should be executed.” But then, that is also just before the film spends time at the bloody crime scene Perry has been convicted of having a hand in. Police were lead to the killers because witnesses came forward saying the young men had boasted about the murders.

Herzog pulls out mesmerizing stories from his subjects during the interviews, makes insightful observations about the aftermath of the deaths and never sensationalizes. It turns out Burkett’s father is also serving time in prison, and he is filled with regret. In a section of the film entitled “Time and Emptiness,” Delbert Burkett casually notes that is son will be eligible for parole in 1941 instead of 2041 several times before Herzog corrects him. The loss of time is part of the sentence that also affects the victim’s surviving family members. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, who lost her brother and mother to the killers, talks about trying to live again and how she “basically shut down” for months after the deaths. Time seems to stand still for those involved while life continues through some new window that has opened up to an alternate reality they are no longer part of.

Many revelations come to light during the course of Into the Abyss, as Herzog brings out reason for contemplation with deliberate pacing and choice statements from those he interviews. In a tidy bookend complementing the reverend’s interview, Herzog closes the documentary with retired Police Captain Fred Allen. Allen admits to participating in over 120 executions, though he does not have an exact number; sometimes as many as “two a week.” He retired after the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998. She was the first woman executed in Texas since 1863. Allen surprised himself by his breaking down in tears after strapping the woman down for her execution, and he describes having flashbacks to all the inmates he executed during this tearful breakdown. “This was not your self, but your real self,” Herzog tells him, and Allen affirms that was the exact feeling he got from it. “No one has a right to take another life,” the former police captain says.

Distributor IFC Films provided a screener for the purposes of this review. Into the Abyss is rated PG-13 and opened in select theaters nationwide yesterday and is currently screening at the Regal South Beach 18 in Miami Beach. It will also begin a screening run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Dec. 30.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Eastern Europe and its sensibilities for the grim and gloomy will make another one-night only appearance in South Florida, thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Prepare for Aurora, a film by Romanian director Cristi Puiu, the director of the Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). That film arrived on the scene in 2005, a full two years before 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) really kicked off the buzz about the Romanian New Wave. In the mid, 2000s, the scene was bursting with directors who won critical if not commercial acclaim in the US art house scene (do not forget Corneliu Porumboiu, director of both Police Adjective and 12:08 East of Bucharest and the fact that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was first released on DVD in the US as a Borders exclusive, many months ahead of a wider release as a marketing gimmick for the store).

Despite their acclaim, these films were never known for their perkiness and happy endings. Hence, none had the true crossover, mainstream appeal of say a Zhang Yimou film. Aurora will do nothing to perk things up, as it follows a psychopath as he commits what seem random murders until he surrenders to police and confesses. It is no giveaway to say the main character, Viorel (played by the director), is the killer. The kicker arrives as Viorel offers his reasoning for the murders, revealing their connections and offering the final piece of the puzzle. The trailer does a nice job of setting up the film:

Knowing that this man is preparing for a spree of murder in fact livens up the first hour of this three-hour movie, as for the first hour, what you mostly see is a morose guy going about his day, doing mundane things. A distant, stationery, almost voyeuristic camera presents shots of Viorel doing nothing that seems out-of-the-ordinary, much less acting psychotic. Do not expect to see Buffalo Bill, from Silence of the Lambs, smearing lipstick on his face, dancing naked to “Goodbye Horses,” as he waits for his victim’s skin to soften up with lotion so he can skin her. Instead, you will see Viorel showering in all his flabby paleness making sure he has scrubbed well down there. Peeking around corners, the camera finds him simply waiting. The distance of the camera does not allow for any sort of sentimentality, as there are no closeups to allow for subtlety, much less a glimpse at the soul or thoughts of the character. This is not a man deep in thought or emotional turmoil. This is a man waiting. He waits to get somewhere in a car, he waits for someone to pick up the line on the other end of a phone, he waits for the elevator to arrive. The industrial equipment that offers much of the backdrop or the ruin of his apartment, which he tells relatives and neighbors is under renovation, only enhances the gloom.

Adding to the humdrum proceedings is the director’s choice not to use any extra-diagetic music or sounds. If there is any noise or music, it comes from the props in the scene. Even without close-ups, the characters do nothing to draw you in. They all seem to have faces frozen in frowns. When you do see something that might offer some levity to the proceedings, it only appears incidentally, on odd props denoting the everyday, like the rows of bright red, little hearts that ring a white broom stick handle in the corner of a room or the Tom and Jerry cartoon character stickers on the dashboard of Viorel’s car, slightly blurry, in the corner of a frame.

But, indeed this is all leading to something. By the time Viorel is handling the giant double-barrel shotgun that will become his murder weapon, putting it together in his bedroom, surrounded by stacks of books and CDs and rows of LPs and DVDs, not to mention a shelf dedicated to a miniature car collection, it makes your skin crawl to see how he nonchalantly turns the weapon at his chest and then under his chin, unable to reach the trigger, only an inch or so away from the reach of his outstretched arm.

Puiu has done an ingenious trick. By offering repetitive shots of the everyday as a set-up, he has reminded the audience of the banality of life, enhancing the shock when the shotgun finally goes off without showing the gruesome side-effects of the result. When Viorel first fires the weapon, it is inside his own house at some furniture. But it does not come with any immediacy, as the film— though long— unfolds with the efficiency of very few edits. The camera lingers as Viorel stands up, points the gun at some cushions, positions himself in a stance, snuggling the rifle’s butt into his shoulder. He decides to turn off the light. There’s a delay in the shadowy image and time again for him to find the right stance. The waiting again. Boom! Bright yellow lights up the dark. With very deliberate patience, it all seems to lead to that gun blast that comes with a shock. When Viorel finally goes out to use it on someone, you never know who these people are until the very end. The distance of the camera enhances the mystery. The shots never come fast enough, as Viorel spends some decent time bracing and positioning himself before firing the weapon. When the first fatal scream penetrates Puiu’s coldly directed film, the ghost of it seems to echo throughout the rest of Viorel’s ho-hum day.

In the end, Puiu makes distance, be it physical, emotional or social, the most creepy aspect of Aurora. Viorel is not always alone in the movie. He interacts with co-workers, neighbors, relatives and even loved ones, which include one of his 7-year-old daughters, almost never giving off a hint of edginess, until the killings begin, then he seems to loosen up, growing bolder with his mouth, most of all. Then the film truly starts to roll, as the presence of Viorel seems threatening to everything around him, including his own child. Halfway through the movie, all of a sudden the tone and the drama has been heightened, and everything Viorel does is tinged with a bit of edgy tension that culminates with him finally turning himself over to the police, where he admits to the killings and shares the connection and reason behind the murders, which is the real mystery that loads the movie.

The film is an odd experience and a true test of audience expectations, offering something beyond what one would expect in a suspense thriller, where the killer is often cloaked in darkness. Indeed, by shining a light on a lonely man, barely ever putting him outside of the frame (except one scene, where the camera seems to hesitate in following Viorel, as he commits one of his atrocities), Puiu flips the psycho-killer movie on its head, but maintains a creeping sense of dread, nonetheless.

Aurora is Unrated and will make its Florida theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener for the purpose of this review, for one night only: Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)