After the Curfew


Indonesia / 1954 / Indonesian

Directed by Usmar Ismail

With A.N. Alcaff, Netty Herawaty, Dahlia

Still from 'After the Curfew'Iskandar traverses the empty city at night. Perhaps his mind is still far away as he walks towards the lighted window, as he doesn’t hear the soldiers yelling at him until they’ve already begun to give chase. He runs into the mess of knotted alleys and loses them. Ironically, he was a soldier just yesterday, but today he is a civilian. Two of these intense, mysterious encounters with the authorities bookend After the Curfew, which tracks one day of Iskandar’s life as he returns to his home city of Bandung and tries to reincorporate himself in society. Out in the bush he was the aggressor, but back in the city he is forced to run like a hunted swamp rat, the spotlight swiveling to follow his fevered movements.

He arrives at the house of Norma, his fiancee, who has waited five years for his return. She lives with her brother and father, and Iskandar’s sudden appearance causes fresh worries for the family, different than his long absence in the military. He seems abstracted; wandering around the garden, the tall grass reminds him of the places he camped out during combat. But his imagining of the recent past seems incomplete, perhaps by a combination of self-editing and heavily doctored cultural memory. He recalls how people in the countryside seemed to like him and his fellow soldiers, living graciously alongside them, one time even giving them one of their prized roosters – for hungry peasants, no small gift. This is the classic recollection of the so-called liberator. But his memories start to become haunted by the screams of the possibly innocent, and certainly unarmed victims he was dispatched to massacre. We are shown an incident, indirectly, in a grim flashback.

The soon-to-be father-in-law wants Iskandar to get a job quickly, so as to hasten the process of marrying Norma and settling down. He says that the young man should come with him to the governor’s office to take on a desk job. Only Norma thinks he should slow down and wait a while, rather than rush head-on back into regular life. She reminds he had a dream once to start a farm and live self-sufficiently in the country. He calls the dream daft, saying he owes it to her, for having waited so long, to make some money right away.

Still from 'After the Curfew'As a veteran, Iskandar is a shoo-in for the job. In the interview, the boss mentions his own son who was killed in the war but adds, almost jocularly, “independence isn’t easy” – as though thinking about the great nation that’s been created dampens his pain. Being reflective or honest about what’s been going on doesn’t seem an option in this society; to move forward, to not break down, requires an ambient degree of denial. Iskandar is put into an office of less-educated people who get shifted over so that he can have a desk. They complain that soldiers get better treatment. This leads to a brawl, and he leaves the new job as abruptly as he was dropped into it.

He finds his way to an army buddy, Gafar, a construction contractor, and asks for a job. Gafar encourages him to relax for a while. It is, after all, Iskandar’s first day back in civilization in five years. The friend says you need to turn it off, say “stop”. But for Iskandar, there is no “stop”. He continues on to his former leader in the field, a man by the name of Gunawan, a stone-cold profiteer during and after the war. Gunawan, still up to his old rackets, asks Iskandar, “what use is independence when our rice pot is filled by foreign companies?” Parasites such as he will often focus on an enemy from without (the foreign capitalists, in this case) so people won’t notice that he’s a villain. But ultimately it’s people like Gunawan who profit off of nationalism, and of the enthusiasm of young men who think whatever they’re doing is right.

He argues for venture capitalism, for “breaking boundaries,” as he says. But since they have long been defined by people like himself, by mobsters and oligarchs, he knows as well as anyone how to manipulate those boundaries. Whereas Gafar is hard-working and patient, this former general is savagely opportunistic. A new nation, fresh from being colonized, is an open space for both opposing bosses to try to prosper. It’s unfocused types like Iskandar, who has lost part of his youth and all of his innocence, who tend to get ground up in the gears. Recalling all of the murder and theft that happened under Gunawan’s command, Iskandar refuses the job the man offers him of strong-arming a foreign boss, throwing the cash back at his desk.

A soldier friend of his, Puja, invites him into a snooker hall, and then back to his current home, a seedy brothel where he lives with a prostitute named Laila. Puja talks about his distaste for returning to society, and about how their leaders from the army are all doing well now in the dark economy of a newly-christened Indonesia. Iskandar seems to have several paths snaking away from him, all them steep and pitted: go straight and patient, like Gafar; go crooked, like Gunawar; or slip into drunken nullity, like poor Puja.

While Puja gambles, Laila shows Iskandar her scrapbook: collages of Western products – jewelry, clothing, even happy, blonde children – and asks if he’ll buy her something. It’s also her physiological response to meeting a new man, and at first the innocence of it is touching. But she’s as jaded as her loafer boyfriend, and the two of them as much as the gangster Gunawan, albeit from a vastly different stratum of the system.

afterthecurfew5When she leaves the room to attend to a customer, Puja tells Iskandar about how Laila was derailed, leaving a promising life to wind up where she is. Then Puja says he and Iskandar should go back to marauding, and to work for Gunawan as hired thugs. At the same time, he expresses cynicism for the sources of Gunawan’s wealth. Much of it came from people they killed. Later on, Gafar confirms this: their commander impelled them to kill people who were, in fact, innocent, only to harvest their wealth to start his business. In such a lawless atmosphere as Indonesia’s war of independence, the connection between extrajudicial killing and entrepreneurship is at its most brazenly raw.

afterthecurfew2Meanwhile Norma is decorating her house for the homecoming party she’s planning for him. Scenes of Iskandar’s wanderings are intercut with her blowing up balloons and hanging festive streamers. She either doesn’t imagine that he might be in trouble, or is focused on moving forward. Back home, Iskandar can’t untangle his thoughts enough to enjoy the party. Norma tries to distract him, but he’s stiff and aloof. It must seem like an overwhelming nightmare to him. Everyone he meets seems connected to the conflict, either having recently returned themselves, or being related to someone who has). To an ex-soldier, frivolity itself is too much to bear.

Everyone seems to be yearning for a faded past. Even those living comfortably in the city, protected by naivety, have lost something without noticing it. But they’re somehow wary of optimism, and go instead for empty celebration instead. They’re not aware how easily their happiness could give way, how they could fall onto the razor’s edge they walk. Director Ismail and screenwriter Asrul Sani seem to be saying that those emerging from the war, both its victims and its antagonists, know that they’ve all lost their goodness. And that either wrecks or emboldens them.

Those who didn’t have to do the killing, the upper-class, do all right. What is frequently explained away as “collective madness” is in fact a succession of very focused actions by those in power, or those who want it. Even before the initial period of independence (but certainly not ending with it), the spread of nationalism, suppression of dissent, and blatant acquisition, all fused together, have been executed by convenient episodes of communal violence and abuse of power.

The pace of the film runs on languid scenes, thoughtful in spite of frequent cuts. And its rhetoric is simplistic, chiseled-down. After the Curfew initiates conversations about Indonesia that few films are equipped to pick apart (and perhaps fewer audiences steeled to digest). And its brief, blasted portraits of complacency and cynicism – like scoops of cyanide and strychnine – hold a kernel of the future, and are even scarily prescient of the course the nation would take in the coming years. In 1954, the worst was yet to come: the anti-communist purges of the mid-1960s, which murdered at least half a million people (no one knows for sure, since it’s barely been investigated), couldn’t have taken place without large amounts of active denial, which lingers putridly, to this day, like standing water after a flood.

The musical interludes (which vacillate from Laila’s pathetic ballads to the celebratory sing-alongs of the party-goers), obviously slow down the intensity of the film. But there’s a rhythm and a sense of trajectory to even the drawn-out, conversational scenes that keeps the feeling of momentum warm. Little happens, but just enough does to make the viewer feel pulled along by the terrible, centrifugal energy that pushes the protagonist, flailing, toward a pitiless vortex. But the point is that he’s been in it all along. Like a searchlight, things become trenchant. And his aimlessness starts to congeal, even as he appears increasingly desperate to recapture order, and to find or create an outlet for his guilt.

The curfew keeps anyone from knowing what happens at night, and their revelry keeps them distracted. To be wide awake is to succumb to a nightmare that the happy majority doesn’t see. At the party, meant to be in Iskandar’s honor, the guests merrily perform a Malay folk song, “Rasa Sayang”. Even the jubilant quatrains of the song seem like barbs against his bedeviled conscience: “while the body decomposes in the earth / good deeds remain to be remembered”, it goes. However the buried bodies will remain too, as well as one’s deeds. Iskandar is experiencing a delayed horror at what he’s done, like waking up from a five-year slumber.

Things around him start to make a grim sense, and his state of mind becomes increasingly incoherent as he tries to regain the control, the clarity and certitude he had while a soldier. But the definitions of things have been swallowed up in combat, the language reordered. In a way that indicates the guiding powers continue to dictate what is true and what is noise. He can make sense of them but no longer of himself; he’s a ghost.

Really, the 10pm curfew is a backdrop to the story, an atmosphere. The city people, who live comfortably naive lives, obediently tolerate it; they consider it a small price to pay for independence. With a few exceptions, each person whom Iskandar encounters throughout his day is either ignorant of the violence that has given them their comfortable society, or is out to cynically exploit it. The one person who is trying to make an honest go of it (and who is, predictably, one of the higher-ups from the army), Gafar, who both knows the horrible truth and seems intent on overcoming it.

afterthecurfew1So often in films, we are treated to the tortured guilt of the soldiers. Much scarcer are depictions of the experience that the real victims suffer; what we call drama isn’t up to the task. (The massacre occurs but is shown obliquely, with the camera examining the soldier’s expression). After the Curfew, for what it is, goes a bit beyond illustrating the dissonances of a war vet; it holds its hard light up to the society for which the soldiers thought they were fighting, and with a bracing  immediacy. While Iskandar pieces things together over the course of the day, a clearer picture falls into place, how he wasn’t inflicting pain and death for the good of the nation, but for furthering the wealth of a few.

And though the film can’t rationally fathom the scale of the suffering in which the character was complicit, it at least begins to bring it up, with a realism seldom seen in Indonesia. It contrasts the killing of civilians with the happiness and comfort back home, which, it suggests, is not just enjoyed in spite of, but because of that killing. Upon returning home, the hero immediately sees that the fruit he helped grow is rotten at its core, even before anyone can take a bite out of it.


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