Lewat Djam Malam: For a Nation of Dreams and Dead Ends

Originally published on 26 June 2012 at Cinema Poetica / Translated by Adrian Jonathan


Rumor has it that every third-world leader whispered the same phrases the morning after independence: “Now the real problems start.” Indonesia is no exception. Revolution brings about the much-sought independence, and independence makes way to the much-needed development. But development has its costs. It relies on the same principles that the revolutionaries once fought against: exploitation and domination. Where do the revolutionaries go from here?

Usmar Ismail gave his answer through Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew, 1954). According to Sitor Situmorang, Ismail created Indonesia’s first “modern psychological drama film” in Lewat Djam Malam. On second inspection, though, the film bears resemblances to American film noir. Along with the neorealist influences he displayed in other films, most notably in Darah dan Doa (The Long March, 1950), Ismail acknowledged his fondness of the Hollywood production method. “Almost unconsciously, I had taken over the working system of Hollywood,” wrote Ismail in the daily Harian Pedoman in 1953, upon his return from the US. As historical records suggest, 1953 is the heyday of film noir in the Hollywood, a period that lasted from 1944 to 1958.

Like a film noir, Lewat Djam Malam is structured around the moral anxiety of a male protagonist. The narrative depicts the tragic fall of an individual in a social order solely defined by the rich and the bourgeois. The first image we see is a pair of feet walking slowly in the middle of the night. That pair of feet belongs to Iskandar, a former medical student and freedom fighter. Coming home from the war zones, he seeks a peaceful return to civilian life. His wishes are simple: building a farm in the country, settling down with his fiancée, and spending the rest of his life quietly. The economic reality of post-war Indonesia, however, is not as simple as our hero’s wishes.

It was late 1950s, around the transfer of power from the Dutch to the Indonesian government. On one hand, the military was having trouble controlling the chaos. Curfew was enacted in the cities to enforce order. On the other hand, progress was apparent everywhere. Public facilities were being built. National corporations were gaining profits. And the workforce was alive with youthful energy. The stages were all set for the likes of Iskandar. He has youth, practical experience, and academic background. More significantly, his fiancée, Norma, is a member of the blooming bourgeois, whose pastime includes partying and dancing. This guarantees him privileges not readily available to the public: wealth and social connections. Nothing could stop Iskandar to take on the role of breadwinner, as society and his future family expect him to be.

Our hero, however, does not fit with the nouveau riche. Instead, he is caught in a constant war of head versus heart. His head belongs to the revolutionary values he fought for. His heart feels wronged by the people he killed during the war. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that the revolution doesn’t produce a just society. Instead, it gives birth to a society rife with corruptions and conspiracies. Among the culprits are Iskandar’s partners during wartime: Gafar and Gunawan. His other partner, Puja, has turned into a bandit, whose daily diet includes alcohol, gambling, and other forms of mindless entertainment. Our hero is upset. The revolution is clearly a losing game, and everybody has different ideas of winning. Iskandar’s idea involves a gun and an assault on his former colleague.

The lovely and the lonely

In Lewat Djam Malam, social status separates the lovely and the lonely. The lovely is represented by Norma and her cohorts of middle-class partygoers. The lonely is Leila, a woman-for-hire kept by Puja in his house. She is the only plebeian face we see, while the masses remain faceless throughout the film. Leila keeps this little catalogue of newspaper cuttings. All of them are pictures of prosperity: gowns, furniture, and brick houses. The catalogue serves Leila as a reminder of her dreams, a plaything to pass the time until a man comes along and ask for her hands to start a family together. For Leila, Iskandar is that ideal man, and Norma (whom she later meets during a brief encounter) represents the woman she wants to be.

Seen in bigger picture, such separation suggests an idea of a nation torn in between unfulfilled dreams and political dead-ends. In a social order solely defined by the rich and the bourgeois, social mobility exists only as a myth for the working class. The only way up, the one that is imagined by Leila, is either to be in the system or replace the system with a more democratic one. The latter scenario does not happen in the film, although not for the lack of trying on Iskandar’s part. The tragedy remains stuck in our hero’s head, and it is him alone who weeps for the nation’s future. In the end, Iskandar’s reward for trying to shake up the social order is a bullet through his heart.

One mystery remains: is Lewat Djam Malam really the portrait of Indonesia at the time, or is it just Usmar Ismail acting up on his left-wing worldview? One should not forget the fact that the legendary director is also a socialist intellectual, who at several opportunities wrote fervently for the communist party bulletin. It was only later in his career, years after Lewat Djam Malam, that Ismail was associated with right-wing cultural organizations.

One should not also forget the fact that Lewat Djam Malam is produced two years after the incident on the presidential palace on 17 October 1952. The incident was related to a demand from seven generals for the government to initiate an election, because the current regime intervened too much with the internal affairs of the national army. The respond was a statement of distrust from the president Soekarno. He did not trust his national army anymore. A.H. Nasution, the leader of the army and a significant figure during the fights for independence, was swiftly displaced from his post. The public took it as a sign of egoism on the president’s part—a way for Soekarno to stay in power as long as possible. Riots soon started happening in front of the parliamentary building, and spread over to the presidential palace.

The incident culminated in several tanks and generals pointing cannons at the presidential palace. It was at this critical moment the public learned that a total change of system is needed, or else the cycles of dreams and dead-ends would keep happening over and over again. It is also this historical circumstance that Lewat Djam Malam speaks the loudest to. The film serves as a sketch of a revolution gone wrong, where the collective values once hold dear now subverted into means for personal gains.

In 2012, fourteen years after yet another revolution in 1998, Indonesia was no better. Through Lewat Djam Malam, Usmar Ismail is really calling for more Iskandars to come forth, and in their midst there would be ones who will be more successful in initiating changes.

Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew) | 1954 | Runtime: 105 minutes | Director: Usmar Ismail | Production: Perfini, Persari | Screenwriter: Asrul Sani Country: Indonesia | Casts: AN Alcaff, Netty Herawati, Dhalia, Bambang Hermanto, RD Ismail, Awaludin, Titien Sumarni, Aedy Moward