“To write poetry after Auschwitz,” the German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously stated, “is barbaric.”
That might seem no less true today, and no less applicable to genocides in places like Bosnia and Herzogovina, Rwanda, Darfur, and almost too many others to remember. Nonetheless, filmmaker Rithy Panh (“S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine”) does more than just recount history in “The Missing Picture.” He offers a uniquely inspired view of the mass killings, torture, deportations, and slave labor inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia.
From 1975 to 1979, the insane Marxist ideology of Pol Pot required the deaths of 2.2 million people. Among them were the then-13-year-old Panh’s siblings, cousins, and parents. Everyone he knew and loved. He would like to forget, perhaps, but the horror is linked also to the happiest time of his life, a childhood of joy, plenty, love, and hope. Unfortunately, personal pictures of that time have nearly all been destroyed and what remains are the propaganda films taken by the regime.
In his unconventional, occasionally uneven (it becomes at times, inevitably, repetitious), but overwhelming documentary of his experience (it was a nominee for the 2013 best foreign language film Oscar), Panh re-creates his memories. He does this with clay models (crafted by Sarith Mang) and places them in dioramas depicting both the joyous pre-Khmer Rouge days and, with the figures now shrunken into agonized, black-clad troglodytes evoking Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the labor camps where his family suffered and died. Horrific anecdotes come and go with weary resignation. A nine-year-old denounces his mother for gathering mangoes (she is executed). Panh risks his life to catch a fish to feed his dying mother (he is too late). These he supplements with regime films of those camps; black and white and deteriorated, the old celluloid shows endless lines of ragged souls marching in aimless directions in a wasteland, each bearing baskets of dirt and stones to create the new “Democratic Kampuchea.” With these images of destitution and degradation the Khmer Rouge demonstrated the triumph of their utopian experiment.
Panh’s film recalls the documentary “Marwencol,” in which a brain-damaged man attempts to overcome his trauma by building meticulous re-creations of a fictitious World War II village using GI Joes and other models. But it also achieves the stark, eloquent denunciation of evil of Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog,” with its archival images and its restrained voice-over narrative. By subtly intercutting his recreations with the old footage (a group of prisoners are “re-educated” by watching one of the Khmer Rouge films projected on the tiny model screen), he intensifies the pathos, irony, and nightmarish insanity.
“There are many things a man should not see or know,” the narrative concludes over an image of the burying and reburying of a clay model corpse. “Should he see them he’d be better off dying. But should any of us know or see these things then we must live to tell of them.”
His film aspires to a poetry about barbarism that will not let us forget.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.