“Why did I have to kill them? I had to kill…my conscience told me they had to be killed.” – that is just one of the many quotes from Anwar Congo, a main character in Joshua Oppenheimer´s unique movie “The Act of Killing”. During that shocking, unsettling and surreal movie, we are listening to a funny, singing and dancing old man, who nearly hides the fact that he killed around 1000 people in a brutal way.
At first glance, Anwar Congo seems to be one of the so-called “evil monsters” – “relentless killers”, who enjoy killing and torturing people as sort of “incarnation of the devil”. But as the movie goes on, that view begins to totter: one can see signs of regret, self-reflection and human characteristics.
That is what makes Oppenheimer`s way of approaching the displeasing subject of genocide interesting and different from other movies: I started to compare it with the portrayal of Amon Göth, a German SS Officer, played by Ralph Fiennes in a both impressive and deeply horrifying way, in Steven Spielberg`s Holocaust movie “Schindler´s List”. The officer is shown as a rootedly evil person without any sign of humanity or empathy, so that one can definitely believe in the existence of bad humans, personifying cruelty and sadism – figures of speech often used in public discussions about perpetrators.
Oppenheimer however raises further questions: What is going on in a killers mind? Might we all have the potential to kill people?
In addition to those already profound questions, the movie made me think of another issue: How do we define who is evil and who defines that? And are there really people, who don’t feel any empathy for anyone? And moreover: When was the historical starting point for showing deeper interest in the mind of offenders, rather than just imprison or, in the last resort, executing them?
According to Michel Foucault, as he points out in his paper “Discipline and Punishment”, the latter turned out to get more rational during the 18th century. The function of punishment shifted from corporal punishment to the attempt of changing and controlling the offender´s mind. His implementations increased my interest in examining the reasons for that shift, and how the new type of knowledge, provided by experts, changed the law and our conception of punishment. Might an interdisciplinary approach help finding the answer to the question, whether one is right in calling serious offenders “evil monsters”?