Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

After the Curfew: A Nation of Dead Ends

<em>After the Curfew: </em>A Nation of Dead Ends

Revered as the father of modern Indonesian cinema, Usmar Ismail has long been mythologized as a kind of filmmaking patriot in the country’s popular imagination. His films about the Physical Revolution—a period of armed conflicts from 1945 to 1950 that sought to maintain Indonesia’s newly declared independence from the Netherlands—were held up as examples of what the national cinema should be. They generally center on a conflict between “us,” the Indonesians, and “them,” the imperialists and separatists. Each side has its own moral or existential dilemma, but the distinction is clear: “we” are inherently good and idealistic, while “they” are evil and opportunistic. In this series of films, which began with 1950’s The Long March, the plots resolve on an unambiguous point of closure: the victory of the national army over an external threat.

Set in the years after the revolution, After the Curfew (Lewat djam malam, 1954) doesn’t belong to this series, but it has also generally been seen through a lens of clichéd patriotism. When a restored print was released in 2012, Indonesian audiences considered it another of Ismail’s glorifications of the army and its heroism. Indeed, on the surface, the tale of a war hero struggling in his fight against corruption—a hero who loves his country so much that he takes a bullet for its sins—does sound like the ultimate nationalist fantasy. Public conversations about the movie mourned the hero’s sacrifice but rarely examined the political dead ends that would make such a tragic fate possible and predictable. Upon closer inspection, the film actually interrogates the violent military culture that would come to reshape the nation’s civil life.

After the Curfew opens with a pair of feet walking in the middle of the night. They belong to Iskandar (A. N. Alcaff), a former engineering student who has just returned from his duty as part of a guerrilla unit in the army. His stroll breaks into a panicked run as he scrambles into hiding, and from the shadows emerges a group of soldiers patrolling the curfew. A few years back, these soldiers might have been Iskandar’s comrades, but now they are the extension of an indifferent state apparatus bent on controlling civil unrest. Despite his wartime heroics, Iskandar is seen as nothing more than a potential danger. He manages to evade the patrol and takes refuge in the family home of his fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawaty).

Strikingly, after this intense opening sequence, it takes quite some time for Iskandar to speak his mind. The following scenes depict him being overwhelmed by his immediate circle as he’s mostly absent from view or listening in silence. His future father-in-law berates him for not obeying the curfew and demands that he find work. Meanwhile, Norma glorifies him as a noble hero to her peers. She even uses Iskandar as a moral benchmark to judge her brother, an engineering student, for doing nothing but chasing skirts.

“Iskandar is a hero not unlike the type found in Ismail’s revolution films. He is a military man who speaks in the vocabulary of war and has an unshakable moral code.”

None of this chatter actually reflects Iskandar’s internal conflict. He explains to Norma that his struggle readapting to civilian life is the result of knowing only one way to live: “to struggle, to fight, to kill.” He reflects on how he’s not used to clean white beds, having spent many nights sleeping on the ground or on wooden chairs. To the former comrades he later visits, Iskandar mourns the lack of respect for people like him. He romanticizes his guerrilla days as a time of true revolutionary actions and addresses his former commander as “father.”

Iskandar is a hero not unlike the type found in Ismail’s revolution films. He is a military man who speaks in the vocabulary of war and has an unshakable moral code. Throughout the movie, he approaches his problems with solutions that belong on the battlefield, mostly with guns and fists. Yet the war is over. What the society faces now is economic reconstruction, a task that calls for a different finesse than what the revolutionaries possess. Visually, Ismail highlights this dissonance by constantly placing Iskandar against a backdrop of urban structures, such as building complexes and railway stations. Wandering aimlessly, he looks small and insignificant amid the growing developments.

Having served in the army during the war, Ismail clearly understood how the revolution reconfigured the social order in Indonesia. During colonial times, most of the business in Indonesia was Dutch-owned, while the non-Dutch elites tended to be engaged in trading. Consequently, at the time of independence, the nation did not have the economic infrastructure to finance post­revolutionary development projects. This situation required the state to nationalize Dutch companies, a gradual effort that culminated in 1958. The decision was supported by the military and the majority of political parties at the time.

When After the Curfew began production in 1953, there were signs that the military would dominate this nationalization project. In fact, one year before, the military had been embroiled in a public incident in which several factions attempted a coup that culminated in cannons being pointed at the presidential palace. It would take years and a change of regime for the military to strategically occupy businesses and engineer the national economy for their benefit. Ismail was perceptive enough to see that the military’s privilege would enable them to rise as the new elite. With their access to power, weaponry, and legal representation, they could use violence against anything they perceived to be a threat.

The film presents the revolutionaries as an oligarchy. Despite disparities of fortune and privilege among them, they are all linked by a chain of economic pragmatism. The top tier is occupied by successful business owners like Iskandar’s wartime superiors, Gafar (Awaludin) and Gunawan (R. D. Ismail). The former suggests that Iskandar let the revolution rest in the past and focus on earning money; the latter preaches about the struggle to transform the colonial economy into a national one, a cause for which he orders Iskandar to intimidate a rival foreign company. The bottom tier is represented by Iskandar’s former subordinate, Puja (Bambang Hermanto), who lives as a bandit and has a penchant for gambling and prostitution.

Iskandar is situated between them. The men above and below him represent what he could be. Unlike the pragmatic Gafar and the corrupt Gunawan, Iskandar is caught in a constant war of head versus heart. His head belongs to the revolutionary values he fought for, while his heart is haunted by the people he killed during the war. Moral anxiety keeps him from going down the same road taken by his former superiors. Unlike Puja, Iskandar has social connections. His fiancée is a prominent member of the blooming bourgeoisie who shop in supermarkets and host dance parties. It is thanks only to her aristocratic family that Iskandar manages to land a job in the governor’s office.

The character of Norma gives Ismail a chance to expand the narrative. Mainly built around Iskandar’s difficulty in adapting to civilian life, After the Curfew somehow also finds space to include two cheerful musical numbers set inside Norma’s brightly lit home, which stand in stark contrast to the protagonist’s bleak journey. One might suspect that Ismail’s growing fascination with Hollywood was the inspiration for such seemingly incongruous scenes, and to some extent that’s true. Three years before After the Curfew, Ismail was personally invited by Charles Fahs, director of the Rockefeller Foundation, to study filmmaking in the United States. In 1953, he claimed in the media that he “had taken over the working principles of Hollywood,” which he tried to recreate in the cowboy-inspired Kafedo, his first film after returning from a cinematography course at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ismail believed classical Hollywood narratives to be “the most convincing communicator” due to their capacity to “touch hearts.” Misbach Yusa Biran, a film historian and one of Ismail’s former crew members, claimed that the director was particularly inspired by William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). As a former revolutionary, Ismail empathized with the protagonists’ struggle to readapt to civilian life and wanted to retell the story from that point of view. He also noted that the romantic elements of Wyler’s film humanized the protagonists for audiences unfamiliar with the travails of war veterans. Norma serves a similar function in After the Curfew. Her character anchors Iskandar’s melancholy in the realm of popular fiction. Amid the postwar exhaustion, Iskandar wishes only to come home to his love.

Yet Norma’s visual presence in After the Curfew reinforces Iskandar’s alienation. She rarely occupies the same scene with him. Much of her screen time is spent confined within her bourgeois social circle, who belittle Iskandar for working and not taking time off after his wartime duties. Norma’s relation to Iskandar is mostly mythical, as she spends longer talking about him to her friends, projecting her pride in his status as a former revolutionary, than she does in his company. The musical numbers take place during her homecoming party for Iskandar, which he struggles to enjoy and eventually leaves. Nevertheless, in Iskandar’s absence, the film lingers at the party, on the happy songs and dances, as if indifferent toward his plight.

“In After the Curfew, there are no mass politics. In fact, there are no masses to speak of, as Iskandar consistently eludes them.”

Iskandar is a moral utopian who fails to grasp the bigger picture. By crafting this caricatural revolutionary, Ismail highlighted how the revolution birthed its elites and pariahs. The military’s brand of justice legitimized the national economy and perpetuated a legacy of violence. For a society tangled in intricate power relations, from Gunawan’s illegal business dealings to Puja’s exploitation of a female employee named Laila, Iskandar’s answer is a soldier’s logic of survival. Suspecting a possible crime by his former comrade, Iskandar’s proposed solution is lethal rather than legal, personal rather than social. In After the Curfew, there are no mass politics. In fact, there are no masses to speak of, as Iskandar consistently eludes them. Just as he runs away from Norma’s party, he promptly flees when he stumbles into a crowd of commoners in the city.

The glorification of the individual might be the only flaw in Ismail’s political vision. The film limits the dramatic conflict of social change to the hero’s mind. As much as it is political, his rage could also easily be seen as hysterical. Yet this flaw anticipates the pitfalls of social struggle in Indonesia, where the state has been discouraging mass politics and depoliticizing grassroots solidarity since the rise of Suharto’s military dictatorship in 1967. With the masses unorganized, the systemic violence of the state could be opposed only by daring, sporadic, yet ultimately meaningless individual acts.

During its original run, After the Curfew was met with lukewarm responses. Despite winning awards in five categories at the 1955 Indonesian Film Festival, the nation’s version of the Oscars, the film never amounted to more than a minor box-office hit. The film was released during one of the postwar financial crises in Indonesia. After the war, local films, along with Indian and Malayan films, were screened at third-rate theaters that catered to low-income populations, which were hit the hardest by the crisis. First- and second-rate theaters were usually the domain of the bourgeoisie, who wanted to catch up with the latest American or European imports and had little interest in Indonesian films. Ismail’s potential audience dwindled to a few thousand as After the Curfew was ultimately deemed too intellectual.

At the time, the dichotomy between good nationalists and evil foreign forces had taken on a life of its own, not only as a popular storytelling device but also as a model of patriotism. The trend would be strengthened further by Suharto’s rule, which took great care in enforcing a certain political imagination. His regime turned the revolution into a heroic tale of the military saving the nation from Dutch colonialists, Islamic separatists, and Communist uprisings after the end of World War II. Downplayed were the collective struggles of laborers, students, artists, and journalists in organizing the national struggle since the 1920s.

For Ismail, this rewriting of history has resulted in his legacy being overshadowed by his revolution films, especially The Long March. Suharto’s regime celebrated it as “the first film to be made entirely by an Indonesian crew and production company” over the wide range of movies he made throughout his career. Ironically, though his revolution films were used as a propaganda tool by Suharto, Ismail was later cast aside by the regime and died tragically at the age of forty-nine. However, in 1999, a year after the fall of Suharto, The Long March’s first day of shooting, March 30, was memorialized as the National Film Day. In his speech for the commemoration, President B. J. Habibie declared Ismail a “pioneer” who made films “that express the nation’s identity and are not dependent on commerciality.” Since then, Ismail’s revolution films have been television staples on state-sanctioned holidays that celebrate the nation. Due to the limited infrastructure of the national film archive, his other works, including After the Curfew, have not been as easily accessible.

From today’s perspective, it seems After the Curfew was simply too ahead of its time. Since then, Indonesian cinema has never seen anything approaching its level of psychological tension and political awareness. One might make a case for the leftist Bachtiar Siagian’s 1955 film Tjorak dunia (whose title translates roughly as “The Shape of the World”), which depicts a former revolutionary organizing a postrevolutionary movement, offering a collectivist and more sustainable approach to social change. Ismail himself professed to be an admirer, but the film was lost and has not been seen in more than five decades. The rise of Suharto’s dictatorship claimed the lives of countless people associated with the Communist Party, and in the process wiped out the left-wing heritage of Indonesian cinema. Much of what remains is the mythology of the nationalist filmmakers, and in that circle, Ismail is among the more critical voices.

After the Curfew ends on a pessimistic note. Iskandar is alone in his crusade. Given the massive challenge that awaits the country, it is easy to see him simply as a tragic, lonely figure. Yet, through the film’s pessimism we are reminded to confront the failure of past revolutions to imagine better futures. In a nation of dead ends, it is a challenging task, but one that is worth fighting for.