Early in “Irradiated,” a powerful but troublesome documentary howl of despair from Cambodian director Rithy Panh, the narration describes an act that must be familiar to anyone similarly transfixed by history. Referring to the black and white archival war footage that marches in triplicate across a screen that’s divided into three panels, the narrator speaks of “searching the eyes of the soldiers… but finding nothing there.” Anyone who has ever stared long and hard at a photograph of a deceased loved one (many such photographs appear here, as they have done throughout Panh’s filmography), or at a picture of conflict reportage must relate to the frustration: It’s as though somehow we believe that an image must have within it some clue to the understanding of the incomprehensible loss or tragedy it depicts, and we can be acutely disappointed to find no such enlightenment.
This urge informs and complicates “Irradiated,” a film that is broader, wider and more ambitious in scope even than Panh’s most celebrated doc, the Oscar-nominated “The Missing Picture.” There, as elsewhere, Panh’s excavation of past horrors was focused most intently on the Cambodian genocide which claimed the lives of the director’s family. Here, while the so-called “Killing Fields” are frequently, shockingly depicted, it is alongside Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nazi death camps, the Vietnam War, and countless other global atrocities.
Additionally, there are Panh’s artistic flourishes: a dancer in the Japanese Buto tradition, painted head to toe in white, turns literally ghostly when superimposed on the archival footage. And, less evocatively, edging sometimes into the slightly precious pathos that has arguably marred Panh’s filmmaking before, there are newly shot inserts of sentimental items: a child’s doll, a set of old family photographs, a handful of buttons. The philosophically-inclined dual voiceover track on which André Wilms and Rebecca Marder alternate (Panh is heavily Resnais-inspired, and a scene from “Hiroshima Mon Amour” plays late on) imbues the film with a kind of muted poetry. And there is an unfortunately overused, insistently plangent score from Marc Marder that, also questionably, establishes a melancholic mood over imagery that is far too brutal, and brutalizing, for anything as gentle as melancholy.
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At an early point, two men kneeling in a dirt pit are casually shot in the head. Witnessing the actual moment of a real person’s death is among the last taboos we have in cinema, and it is almost casually broken here. Later, there is an entire, borderline unbearable sequence of dead bodies being tossed into mass graves — the temptation is to say “like rag dolls” but rags are dry and don’t move like that, they don’t fall with the sickening heft of cold flesh. It is only during this sequence that Panh cuts out the music altogether, and has no voiceover softly interpreting the image. It plays completely silently which seems like the correct choice for this particular sequence.
But it does prompt one to question why other such sequences and worse are deemed fit for a different, more aestheticized montage approach, and at the ethics of choosing which exact horror will be isolated, foregrounded and delivered to us in this raw, unadorned way. “Irradiated” is devastatingly successful at creating a choral experience of man’s inhumanity to man, but the use of so much specifically appalling imagery in service of such a broad agenda does force one to inquire: to what end? We stare at these pictures (from which we’d often like to flinch away) and we quail, but what do we actually learn from the eyes of the dead?
The most striking formal choice Panh makes is the division of the widescreen form into three equal, squarer frames. Often the three will display the same image, giving a symmetrical, kaleidoscopic effect to, for example, Hitler at a rally striding down a geometrically straight avenue of saluting onlookers. At other times, it acts almost stereoscopically, wrapping even our peripheral vision in a representation of terrible destruction or ghastly mass murder, so that it cannot be escaped. The repetition is the point: At a later juncture, the narrator states, “You need to repeat yourself, because evil runs deep.” And when the image is not repeated, when different panels show different parts of the same whole, or when one panel is more abstract, showing a ballooning mushroom cloud or a cluster of bombs falling with awful, irrevocable finality onto the terrain below, it can also look like an altarpiece triptych, perhaps one designed by Hieronymus Bosch.
Because it is hellish, the vision of abject inhumanity that Panh presents us with, and with only a barely discernible morsel of optimism appearing at the end, it is quite wretchedly depressing too. Images from the devastation of Hiroshima abut footage from the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, alongside a gruesome panel showing a basket full of decapitated heads so battered and degraded it’s difficult even to work out the ethnicity of the victims and therefore to which exact act of barbarism this frame refers. And so, despite the urgency of the film’s ostensible task — to stem a swelling, politicized tide of ahistorical forgetfulness, atrocity denial and misinformation — the approach has for the most part the effect of flattening all its individual genocides and acts of mass murder into one grindingly bleak expression of despair.
At one point, the narration muses on war cemeteries, and the fields of white crosses that can look so beautiful in the sunshine you can forget what they signify. And though there is nothing serene or sunny here, “Irradiated” deals in a similar detachment of image from meaning: The individual, often highly shocking sequences of death and destruction become unmoored from what they depict, the better to become small tiles in a bruisingly gargantuan mosaic that only screams that war is hell and human beings unspeakably cruel. It is, perhaps, an individual viewer’s choice as to whether that is enough.