"The Look of Silence"
Drafthouse Films "The Look of Silence"

It was a bright, sunny day in Venice until Ulrich Seidl brought it down. That’s no surprise given the Austrian director’s penchant for the odd, the quirky and the underside of things (“Paradise Hope/Faith/Love”). His latest, “Im Kellar (In the Basement),” literally goes underground with a sort of documentary survey of Austrian basement life. The title works on, er, two levels, as what goes on down there tends to be kitschy, kinky or Nazi (of course).

Among the denizens of Seidl’s deep are an opera-singing gun-slinger; a Hitler-loving history and music buff, a dominatrix-slave couple who raise the level of eww; a woman who was abused by men and now enjoys sex only with men who take absolute charge and inflict pain (though of the "good" sort); a young zaftig woman and her small male friend who wows the ladies, he explains modestly, with his larger than normal, projectically impressive load. In one scene, his girlfriend is seen at night, naked but for a pair of heels inside a small wire cage, trying to find a comfort that was purposefully not there. Most of the audience probably knew the feeling. 

The German-speaking peoples tend to laugh at things other peoples might not find amusing, and that’s the case with this film, the concept of which comes from Seidl’s wife (and fellow director) Veronika Franz, whose “Goodnight Mommy” is also in the festival. While there’s a certain arthouse appeal to these creepy oddballs, as well as to Seidl’s austere compositions and patient pace, ultimately you feel like you’ve visited a simply strange land – or one of the darker rooms at Berghain -- and are happy to go home again, in this case to the nearest cafe with a decent glass of wine. Thankfully, that’s not a problem in Venice.

But the night was only beginning and so was the darkness. Two years ago, after the Berlinale premiere of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” the audience sat silently, shocked and benumbed by what they’d seen. Thursday night’s public screening of his new film, “The Look of Silence,” brought a completely different kind of reaction to a nearly full Sale Grande: emotion.

Both a kind of prequel and sequel to “The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence” is the second Oppenheimer film to explore the killing of a million Indonesian "communists" by Army-supported civilian killing squads in the 60s. But while all of the players in the first film are the killers themselves, who revel in retelling (and re-filming) their brutal exploits, the second centers on one man’s courageous search for, and moral investigation into, his brother’s murderers. And while those murderers reenact the killings in much the same way as they’re cohorts did in “Killing” – with Oppenheimer providing plenty of video rope for these old men to finally hang themselves -- it is more about Adi and his still-grieving family. 

Using his almost too-perfect profession of optometrist/eyeglasses salesman as a means of meeting the killers, Adi checks their vision and in the process asks questions not just about how they can see but about what happened in the past. Still proud of their actions, and unofficially protected – one is the head of the legislature and many are rich and powerful as a direct result of their roles in ’65 -- they are usually happy to discuss them, as long as the questions aren’t too probing. When they are, the old killers resort to not-so-subtle threats: it could happen again, they say, best to leave it alone. Even Adi’s mother, who cares for her quite ancient and mercifully blind and senile husband, feels much the same way. Their silence has kept the peace all of these years, after all – there is no point in re-opening this deep, festering wound. Only ill will can result.

But Adi, whether prodded by Oppenheimer or not and at quite a risk to himself and his family, presses on, his mournful eyes searching his brother’s killers’ faces for signs of regret, or simply humanity. He wants to know, and for it to be known, the lies to be understood as such. “I have not come to harm you,” he tells them, “but this is what happened.” The silence perpetrated by everyone, which as the title asserts is far more than the lack of noise, will be revealed and overturned. At least that is Adi and Oppenheimer’s hope. 

At the very least, the killers’ families now know the truth about them. This, too, carries extreme pain – a loving adult daughter learns from his own mouth that her aged father had drunk the blood of his victims as a means of warding off “going crazy” from killing “too many people.” She seems to suggest that he’s senile and doesn’t know of what he speaks, yet the tears in her pained eyes say otherwise. In the end, she and Adi embrace, and then in a surprise gesture of forgiveness, Adi embraces the old man, too.

Adi was in attendance Thursday alongside Oppenheimer and when the film ended they received a prolonged standing ovation. Adi was quickly overwhelmed, covering his face with his hands, the director embracing him. They stood like this for several minutes, the applause continuing, until Oppenheimer finally encouraged Adi to leave. The audience filed out in silence, not in shock but perhaps in awe -- of a portrait in courage and moral integrity, and pretty brilliant filmmaking.