The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence
The Look of Silence

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 June 2015

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland, UK 2014

98 mins

‘Once I brought a woman’s head to a Chinese coffee shop.’

‘If we didn’t drink human blood we’d go crazy. Many went crazy, they killed too many people. To stop it you have to drink your victims’ blood.’

‘So we fished him out and killed him by cutting off his penis.’

Time and time again in The Look of Silence we are in the company of old men, normally sat in the most mundane settings, wood-panelled living rooms and cluttered gardens, as they blithely spout the most horrible and twisted things you will ever hear. They are reminiscing about their part in the mass slaughter of loosely defined ‘communists’ in 1965 in Indonesia. And they are generally unconcerned about talking about the catalogue of horrors that they took part in, because the powers that sanctioned the slaughter are still in control.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up/companion piece to his extraordinary documentary The Act of Killing does not disappoint on any level, least of all in its evocation of gobsmacking weirdness and horror existing just below the everyday. It’s a leaner, shorter piece of work than The Act of Killing, and while it lacks the central innovation of that film – the phantasmagorical genre-movie reconstructions that were set up to extract confessions from the killers – it benefits hugely from a tighter focus, this time on Adi, born after the killings to mother Rohani and father Rukun, and considered by Rohani to be a replacement for her son Ramli, who was brutally murdered in 65. Adi is the son she needed to have as a reason to keep on living, and the film follows his journey as he pieces together what happened, confronting those responsible for his brother’s death, occasionally using his position as an optician to get close to them, and asking the questions that his country clearly doesn’t want asked.

The responses to Adi’s questions range from a kind of shrugging ‘well, that’s just how it was’ to excuses that the communists deserved it because they didn’t pray enough, to not-so-veiled threats that stirring all this stuff up will lead to it happening again. There’s an ever present double-think at work here, a sense of something undigested and unhealthy. The killers of 65 flick peace signs and thumbs up as they pose for photographs by the river that was once filled with dismembered corpses (‘after it was over nobody would eat fish or clams’). They’ve made picture books about what they did (‘I illustrated it myself’). They follow the official line that hacking people to death was for the good of the country, but there’s a squirming evasiveness to their responses (‘I don’t like deep questions’) and an anger that Adi is talking about all this old news. Families in 2012 aren’t too receptive to the knowledge that, 40-odd years back, Grandpa used to cut women’s breasts off. There’s a lot of denial and obfuscation, and the kind of sick politics that can lead to someone saying ‘let’s all just get along, like the military dictatorship taught us’.

All the while Oppenheimer quietly observes, juxtaposing the most appalling revelations with tranquil shots of lush, photogenic scenery, emphasising a dreamy disconnection between then and now. Music is kept to a minimum, and barring the opening text on screen, there is no overt editorialising. This approach is mirrored in Adi, who has plenty of reasons to be angry, but never fulminates or rages, and is a model of quiet dignity throughout; he is persistent but never confrontational or accusatory, in a climate where it is doubtless unwise to be so.

As with The Act of Killing, many of the crew are credited as ‘anonymous’, and it becomes obvious that members of Adi’s family were unwilling to appear on screen. The film asks what happens to a country that’s unable to look itself in the mirror, what the scars are from this trauma. We see Adi’s parents, both over 100, Rohani stoic, but still feeling the pain of the loss of Ramli, Rukun lost in dementia, believing he’s 17, and see a parallel. We see people clearly afraid to repeat what they know to be true, and others clinging to lies they want to believe. In this context, the daughter of a killer who makes an attempt, no matter how gauche and inadequate, to reach out to Adi, and pray for his forgiveness, is a glorious exception.

Thoughtful, beautiful, upsetting, magnificent, it’s a film you’ll chew over for days, and weeks, afterwards. A film you’ll leave in silence.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:


Freaks 1

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 June 2015

Distributor: Hollywood Classics / Metrodome

Director: Tod Browning

Writer: Tod Robbins

Based on the story: Spurs by Tod Robbins

Cast: Wallace Ford, Lila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles

USA 1932

64 mins

Few films fit into the category of ‘cult film’ quite as well as Tod Browning’s controversial masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Due to its use of real freak show performers and its ‘unwholesome’ themes, the film was almost universally reviled by critics and audiences alike. Already a major director thanks to a string of silent horror hits and the classic talkie version of Dracula (1931), Browning never recovered. His handful of post-Freaks films were hampered by the limitations of the Motion Picture Production Code or suffered extensive studio interference, like 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, and the director finally retired in 1939.

For modern viewers the idea of using real-life genetic anomalies and the disabled in a horror film would seem at the very least tasteless and exploitative; even in Browning’s day it was considered excessive. But from the outset it is clear that the ‘freaks’ are not the horror content here; this is not like the later Rondo Hatton films, where Hatton’s deformities were intended to shock and horrify, made synonymous with villainy and violence. Instead Browning – who spent part of his youth working in a circus and befriended many of the performers – shows us these people in their everyday lives, focussing on their relationships. Although the sight of a man with no arms and legs lighting a cigarette by himself (apparently, the original cut featured him rolling the cigarette too) is certainly bizarre, it’s not presented as ridiculous or amusing.

The only characters given a negative presentation in Freaks are the film’s villains, seductive trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and her lover, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Together they hatch a plan for Cleopatra to marry little person Hans (Harry Earles) – and then murder him for his sizeable inheritance. When the other performers realise that Cleopatra has a murderous agenda, they punish her and Hercules in a terrible fashion. There are other subplots, most obviously the developing romance between Venus (Leila Hyams, Island of Lost Souls) and clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), but Cleopatra’s scheme is the main focus of the film. Even given the film’s short, 60-minute running time (the full 90-minute cut is now considered lost), there isn’t quite enough story here, and the pacing is quite slow.

However, the two key scenes are more than memorable enough to outweigh any minor flaws. The first is the notorious wedding feast (never entirely comfortable with sound pictures, Browning prefaces the scene with a silent-style title card). The assembled troupe try and accept Cleopatra into their community, only to see her flirting outrageously with Hercules and drunkenly giving vent to her true feelings about the ‘dirty, slimy freaks!’ Even more effective is the climactic storm scene, as the troupe of knife-wielding performers slowly descend upon Cleopatra and Hercules. Their actual punishment is not shown; Browning intended to have the strongman castrated, but (unsurprisingly) that did not make it into the final cut. Freaks is not easy viewing, or a pleasant film, but it is far more sensitive than the title would suggest. With the equally controversial Island of Lost Souls, it’s one of the strongest, most memorable horror films of the pre-Code era.

Jim Harper