Lewat Djam Malam

 (Usmar Ismail, Indonesia, 1954) 101 minutes


Director: Usmar Ismail
Co-production: Perfini and Persari
Screenplay: Asrul Sani
Cinematography: Max Tera
Editor: Soemard Jono
Sound: Gilles Barberis
A.N. Alcaff (Iskandar)
Netty Herawaty (Norma)
Dhalia (Laila)
Bambang Hermanto
R.D. Ismail

Reviews and notes

1955 Indonesian Film Festival, Asian Film Festival
2012 Cannes, London

Scripted by the poet Asrul Sani and directed by Usmar Ismail this little known classic is widely regarded in the archipelago as one of the most important in the history of Indonesian cinema. Fueled by political anger and disillusionment, this passionate, visually potent work looks directly at a crucial moment of conflict in Indonesian history: the aftermath of the four-year revolution which brought an end to Dutch rule. Usmar Ismail enjoyed his greatest success with this heartbreaking tale of a revolutionary hero's return to civilian life, and his confrontation of a new society cheapened by government repression and bourgeois complacency.

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 fiancee, 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 fiancee, 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.

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.
- Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Cinema Poetica, 29 November 2015.

The master copies of Lewat Djam Malam were stored at Sinematek Indonesia when the film archive was established in the 1970s. When federal funding ceased in 2001, the institution was unable to properly care for the celluloid, which led to the decay of many films. Beginning in 2010 on recommendation of JB Kristanto, the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and the World Cinema Foundation, in collaboration with Sinematek Indonesia, the Konfiden Foundation Kineforum of the Jakarta Arts Council and family of Usmar Ismail Estate, work began on restoring the film; this restoration, was meant as an impetus to better preserve classic Indonesian movies.

The restoration, which cost 200,000 Singapore dollars and was done by Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Italy, took over a year and a half. Restoration funding provided by Doha Film Institute. The director of L'Immagine, Davide Pozzi, stated that the film was in fairly good condition excepting a bit of mould. The existence of negatives also simplified the restoration. The result was first screened at the NMS in March. The film was then shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival as part of the World Classic Cinema entry on 17 May. The restoration received a theatrical release in Indonesia beginning on 21 June 2012 and was screened at the London Film Festival in October 2012.

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