Recreating Tragedy in 'The Act of Killing' and 'Caesar Must Die'

Some things would probably never occur to you if you've never killed a lot of people. For example, wear jeans if you're going to be strangling detainees with a length of wire—if you wear white pants, you're likely to get blood all over them.

Anwar Congo knows these things because he was one of the street thugs the Indonesian military junta recruited to crack down on "communists"—aka anyone it wanted gone—in 1965. In the space of about a year, more than a million Indonesians were killed, about 1,000 of them by Congo personally. He chats about these experiences with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer in an avuncular, downright jovial fashion, and why not? Congo is still celebrated as an Indonesian national hero. But Oppenheimer (working with a number of co-directors, many of whom receive anonymous credits onscreen) goes further than shooting mere talking-head interviews: He invites Congo and some of his fellow ad hoc executioners to re-enact their deeds for his camera. The resulting 2013 documentary, The Act of Killing (New Video Group DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming), is one of the more disturbing and fascinating things you'll see this year.

Oppenheimer acquired incredible access to Congo and Herman Koto, another former "gangster" (a term of pride). In one scene, Congo hugs his grandchildren, in the next he blithely jokes and dances (yes, dances) at a favored execution spot, in the next he regales a television talk-show audience with his exploits, egged on by a fawning host.

The day-in-the-life footage serves as context for the scenes in which Congo, Koto, and other gangsters restage their crimes. Sometimes they use soundstages, having discussed with Oppenheimer how they would like to do so—say, in the style of their much-loved old-time crime movies (they learned a lot of their homicidal swagger from Hollywood) or via elaborate costumed movie musical-style sequences. The rotund, resolutely butch Koto often performs in some variant of female drag. At other times they go on location, so to speak, drafting ordinary locals for faux interrogations and raids. Turns out that being ordered to act scared by mass murderers with still-strong ties to the ruling powers is a fantastic motivation. One man pleads for his life with such craven, spit-dribbling conviction that all bets are off about whether he's acting, channeling a past terror, sincerely worried about leaving the room breathing, or some combination of all three.

The Act of Killing's discursive path through these men's lives and Indonesia's past eventually forms a rough narrative arc. Despite the gangsters' sanguine accounts of torture and bloodletting, re-enacting such horrors begins to dredge up more troubling feelings about the old days for some—surely we have here a new record for Most Dry Heaving in a Feature Film. The meta-metaness of Oppenheimer's documentary perhaps leaves open some questions regarding how sincere these revelations are, but the film's garish portrait of unchecked human evil will haunt you.

Real-life murderers and gangsters take center stage to more redemptive, if less arresting, effect in Caesar Must Die (Kino Lorber DVD; streaming or download via Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix). Directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani took their cameras inside Rome's Rebibbia Prison to capture the inmates acting out yet another crime: the assassination of Julius Caesar, part of a production of Shakespeare's tragedy that is, in turn, part of an ongoing rehabilitation program.

The Taviani brothers, veteran filmmakers in their native Italy, aren't out to piece together another good-for-you documentary from drab video. From the opening full-color footage of the production's final bows before a standing-"o" crowd, they flip to high-contrast black-and-white cinematography and rewind six months to the earliest casting and rehearsals of the production. At that point, you meet the charismatic cast, which includes at least two lifers and many serving double-digit sentences. As rehearsals commence, so does Shakespeare's plot: Bearish Giovanni Arcuri wrestles with sounding imperial in the title role as the play's director, Fabio Cavalli, works the company through the opening scene, in which a soothsayer warns Caesar of the Ides of March. The production and the performances develop in step alongside Cassius' (Cosimo Rega) attempt to turn Brutus (Salvatore Striano) against their leader; by the time the surviving antagonists meet at the climactic Battle of Philippi, it's opening night and full color again.

The parallels between the thick-as-thieves plotters and the real thieves playing them make for an interesting frisson that the Tavianis exploit, with help from some genuinely engaging performances from key castmembers, especially Striano and the hulking Antonio Frasca as Marc Antony. But the Tavianis' attempt at meta here involves the prisoners performing their roles while also performing as performance-within-a-performance versions of themselves; at one point the friction between the characters is supposed to mirror/feed the friction between the penned-up men playing them, sparking a most unconvincing prison riot. The inmates may have acting chops, but they're not that good, and the Tavianis' ham-handed didacticism builds to a final scene that provokes eyerolls. From The Act of Killing's banality of evil, we sink to the simply banal.